With Pinot Noir Day around the corner, on 18th August, and the imminent launch of Assemblage issue #3 focused on Sustainability, we felt now was the perfect time to take a closer look at Larry Cherubino’s ‘Laissez Faire’ Pinot Noir 2018. While inspiration has been taken from organics, biodynamics and natural winemaking practices, the Laissez Faire range could be called ‘natural wines’; Larry Cherubino likes to think of them as “post natural” wines.
In a nutshell
An elegant Pinot Noir expression, showing black cherry and strawberry notes with savoury undertones and delicate hints of oak spice. Smooth, long and silky.
Named ‘Winery of the Year’ by James Halliday and Matt Skinner, Larry Cherubino wants his wines to be distinctive and to speak clearly of their variety and vineyard site. He believes in paying meticulous attention to the vineyard, canopy and water management, picking at the right time and minimal intervention in the winery. Larry also makes wine under the Laissez Faire label, an exquisite range of natural wines which are the ultimate expression of site, made in small batches from hand-harvested grapes. From delicate whites to opulent reds, all his wines have pure class and finesse.
Laissez Faire means “let it be” and this is reflected in the hands-off approach of winemaking. The grapes were hand-harvested, sorted and naturally fermented with indigenous yeasts. The wine spent eight months maturing in French oak foudres, offering optimal fruit expression and oak integration. As the name suggests, no additional acids, enzymes or yeasts were added during vinification and the wine was not fined. There was zero sulphur use throughout the winemaking and only minimal sulphur was added at bottling.
As we publish this we are emerging out of the coronavirus lockdown, hospitality businesses are reopening and we are looking to establish the ‘new norm’. With all the noise going on, it is become more important than ever to stand out from the crowd.
Have you ever found yourself eating out (in the days when you used to be able to) scanning the list and seeing the same wine listed in other restaurants, wine bars and pubs you’ve been to before? In a similar way, if you see the shelves or check the websites of wine retailers up and down the country, really good wines do crop up again and again. That’s normally a sign of quality, and quite understandably a good wine is something that most buyers gravitate towards. Customers meet at winemaker dinners and producer trips and share their views and preferences, and it is inevitable that those conversations create curiosity and influence to an extent.
Although a list of SKU’s dotted with wines that are repeated elsewhere is not necessarily the sign of an identikit list, there is only so much differentiation you can make with your product range if you are selecting from the best suppliers, unless they have a dynamic, exciting, esoteric and regionally diverse list. With that in mind, how does a retailer really stand out from the crowd? As one of my mentors used to say, the most important difference you can make over your competitors in any business is ‘service, service, service’. It is amazing how you are prompted to rate any kind of product and service that you have used, and the truth is, that measure helps to elevate service levels especially with those where it does not come naturally. The bank I use has always been based on the principle of high levels of customer service, and everyone I have ever spoken to there is genuinely nice and helpful. It is in the company’s DNA. The garage I have to use for my car service contract is the polar opposite, where the staff were often surly and disinterested, and you can sense it is not a happy ship. Now that they are held to account for the way they interact with their customers, their attitude has definitely changed for the better, even though it does not seem genuine.
The wine business is no different. In the same way that you prefer to do business with a distributor that is flexible with minimum orders, where invoices and orders are accurate, arrive intact and when they are meant to, your customer expects the same reliability and flexibility from you. But that is only where the comparison begins; our customers are looking for a business partner they can trust with their advice on products, to share market data and analysis that shapes the way they interact with the consumer, with point of purchase ideas, which can range from shelf talkers to info-link labels accessible via your phone, and tips on category management by geography, style, occasion, shopper demographic, etc. Just as you are looking for a distributor who is willing to support you with producer dinners and tastings, in-store sampling and annual/bi-annual tastings , your customers are looking for a retailer they can trust to advise you about the wine that suits their requirements, and offers them regular opportunities to engage via events.
If things continue as they are, and lockdowns become ever more restrictive, those retailers with a decent website, where you can place your order and get the wine delivered, will have a distinct advantage as it stands. Those willing to adapt to the market conditions may thrive. Perhaps a distributor who offers to help with your orders – from picking to packing and delivering – would be an added bonus, so you can focus on selling and taking orders. I recently saw a flyer which had been popped through the letter box from a local florist which offered to help with deliveries of food and provisions to those that are house bound. It appeared to be a sincere act of kindness, and even if it is a shameless opportunity for good PR, where is the harm in that?
One thing is for certain, those that that have always offered that point of difference and continue to do so during this most difficult economic situation will emerge stronger ‘on the other side’ (to borrow one of the most utilised phrases of the moment).
A new addition to the Hallgarten portfolio from our long-term partners in the Northern Rhône region. The grapes for the Château de Campuget, ‘1753’ Syrah Sans Sulfitescome from the Château’s own vineyard, which is situated 15 kilometres south of Nîmes, near the village of Manduel in the heart of the ‘Appellation d’Origine Protégée’ (AOP) of the Costières de Nîmes, however winemaker Frank-lin Dalle has chosen to designate this wine as Vin de France to distinguish the distinctive style of this wine, which has been made without sulphites
In a nutshell
This classy and intense wine shows a smoky, liquorice and plum character with a hint of dark chocolate and pepper.
Château de Campuget was established in 1942 and is a top quality estate near Nîmes, which is steeped in history. The Château itself was built in 1753 and at the same time the first vines were planted, prompting the 1753 range of wines which mark this historic date. The fusion of tradition and progression unite in the cellars here, producing wines with integrity, finesse and a wonderful expression of terroir, from a wide range of traditional Rhône varieties. In 2019, Château de Campuget was certified as Haute Valeur Environmentale, which officially recognises the environmental performance of winegrowers, including biodiversity conservation, plant protection strategies, managed fertiliser use and water resource management.
This wine was vinified without the addition of sulphites. The grapes were carefully selected to ensure only the healthiest and highest quality fruit was fermented. The berries were destemmed and vinified with minimal intervention in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks at 20°C. Post fermentation maceration lasted two weeks with twice daily pump overs extracting the rich fruit flavours and structure from the tannins. The wine was made without any oak influence in order to allow the purity of fruit shine through and was bottled early.
Hallgarten head of buying, Steve Daniel, recently put pen to paper to recount his first experience of Argentina as well as looking at what the future may hold.
My first visit to Argentina was in the mid-90s. I had been travelling to neighbouring Chile since 1988, had seen their wineries evolve and Santiago transform from a rundown city with no night life into a dynamic, modern international power house with incredible restaurants and bars.
When I finally took the short hop across the Andes to Mendoza and landed in a rural, sprawling agricultural area of around 1 million people it was like stepping back into the 70s! The cars were ancient rust buckets, the town was very run-down and – for a vegetarian (no big juicy steaks for me) – the food was truly awful.
The one hotel that was deemed suitable for foreigners was The Aconcagua which reminded me of a very cheap youth hostel I had stayed in in Greece during my time as a backpacker. It had the noisiest most inefficient air-con I had ever encountered, and was one of the most uncomfortable stays I have ever endured.
Thankfully I was there to taste the wine and not rate the hotels. The red wines were old fashioned and heavy. Nobody talked about the whites, which was not surprising as they were completely oxidised and totally undrinkable when you did encounter one.
Most of the wines were produced in vineyards on the hot, flatlands around the city. The most common way of training was still an ancient Italian pergola system, which was all about getting as large of a yield as possible, and the wineries were old and not very clean!
However, the one thing that struck me was the vibrant energy of the people. They had an amazing spirit, and despite what their government inflicted on them, they embraced life and were still amazingly positive and joyful.
It is this spirit and ‘can-do’ attitude that was the driving-force that revolutionised their wine industry in the following years. The winemakers still have to deal with hyperinflation and a struggling economy, but they have managed to deal with everything their government has thrown at them and emerged triumphant.
So where is the Argentinean wine industry now?
The vineyards have spread from the flatlands around Mendoza to the foothills of the Andes, where the combination of altitude and latitude plays a fundamental role in the resulting wine. The cool, high vineyards of Tupungato, where Andelunaare situated and Juampi Michelini utilises his egg fermenters at Zorzal, and La Consulta are producing amazing fragrant white wines fully of verve and zip, and red wines of balance and class. Cafayate and Salta in the far north, where we work with Piattelli Vineyards, are some of the highest vineyards on the planet are making beautiful vibrant wines.
In the far cold south of Patagonia ancient vineyards have been resurrected and new ones planted. It is from this lesser-known of Argentina’s winemaking regions that Matías Riccitelli produces his ‘Old Vines From Patagonia’ range which have received critical acclaim since their launch.
In the vineyards, some of the old Pergola vines still exist but yields have been reduced and large areas planted using Guyot. The wineries are now state-of-the-art and chock full of stainless steel, computer-controlled and temperature-controlled winemaking gadgets. Gone is the one size fits all approach, each winery also has rows of barrique and new larger formats barrels, as well as concrete fermenters – including the in-vogue concrete eggs.
They are as well-equipped as anywhere on earth, but again, the thing that makes the difference are still the people. Argentinean winemakers can now make squeaky clean wines on an industrial scale if they want, but what really excites them is expressing themselves. These guys and girls love to push the boundaries of what is possible. Argentine Malbec has turned from an unknown 15 years ago into the darling of the wine consumer, and is the go-to for steak and a ‘must have’ on all restaurant lists, but Argentina has so much more to offer! It is a huge mistake to think that Argentina is a one-trick pony.
The high altitude vineyards of Argentina are growing some of the best quality Bordeaux grapes in the world. In my opinion, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon from these high vineyards can more than rival anything from Bordeaux or the swanky Napa Valley, and at far more attractive prices.
The fragrant Torrontes is the perfect match with Japanese food. The Chardonnays have real depth and class and the best Sauvignon Blanc has a rapier-like intensity that are more than a match for Sancerre. The country’s high altitude vineyards are producing some of the most exciting wines on the world stage – something that was almost unimaginable during my first trip to the country 25 years ago. Oh, and as an aside, Mendoza has also transformed. There are amazing hotels to stay in and the food is amazing (even for a vegetarian). I would now thoroughly recommend a stay there!
Do customers really make decisions on wine spend that quickly?
As I write this article we are all in Lockdown and the industry in which I ply my trade has been shut down. These are uncertain times, but I’m hoping that by the time this article is released the worst of this pandemic will be behind us. Let’s all hope for a bounce back of monumental proportions!
I can’t remember the first time I heard the term ‘The Blink Effect’ but at the time I remember thinking, this all makes a lot of sense. From then on I’ve pretty much made this concept the basis for my sales patter over the last ten years, but is it real?
The premise behind my theory was that a consumer will make a very quick decision on what they are willing to spend on wine within seconds of entering an establishment. According to Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking’, “spontaneous decisions are often as good as, or even better than, carefully planned and considered ones”.
So if consumers are going to make a really quick decision, I wanted to make sure all my customers were armed and ready. Let’s just say I was an unequivocal believer and ready to spread the word!
So what are we talking about here? What can we change in an establishment to increase the average spend on wine? It’s becoming increasingly difficult to get more bums on seats, so increasing the average spend has never been more important.
Firstly I want to acknowledge that the concept of any establishment has the biggest influence on wine spend. For example a restaurant specialising in burgers will undoubtedly have a lower average spend than a restaurant serving up rare breed steaks cooked over coal. It’s the little details that I want to concentrate on. My theory is that when you add up the effects of all these little changes, the positive impact on spend far outweighs the level of investment needed. I realise I’m starting to sound like Dave Brailsford (former Director of British Cycling) and his Marginal Gains philosophy, but I’m sure you get my point.
In my opinion, one of the key influencers on wine spend is stemware. It’s a simple concept: if you see a decent glass on the table you’d be more inclined to want to fill it with something good. If I go somewhere and see glasses that would be more at home in the Queen Vic, I maybe unfairly presume that wine isn’t a focus for their business. You’re hardly going to drop a Barolo into it! Is it really this simple though? Put out sexy glasses and watch sales sky-rocket! My colleagues have often asked me if I have proof that this actually works and to be honest I haven’t – but it has to make a difference, doesn’t it??
The actual visibility of wine in the outlet is another area that I like to explore with customers. It’s something else that customers can see, or not as the case may be, within seconds of walking into a restaurant. Again for me it underlines how serious an establishment is about wine. Now this could just be a simple wall display using dummy bottles, or budget permitting, display fridges on show in the restaurant. For me, any visibility should be seen as positive. I remember one customer asking me why wine sales had dropped and I could see three newly installed beer vats over his shoulder! It’s pretty clear to me, if you don’t show people that you sell quality wine, why would you expect them to buy it?
Place settings – now there’s something that keeps me awake at night! On one occasion I had to remind myself that I was supposed to be selling wine, after I’d spent the best part of an hour obsessing over salt and pepper mills with a customer. As a customer if you sit down at a table and everything just looks right, I believe this can have a really positive impact on wine spend. If I see salt and pepper pots that don’t match, I’m grabbing my coat and sprinting for the nearest exit! When a customer walks in, one of the first things they’ll see are the tables, so making sure they send the right message is vital.
I suppose what I’m saying is everything the consumer sees influences the average spend on wine. The reality is most of what I’ve outlined can be seen within 5 seconds of walking through the door. So if the Blink Effect is real and we only have a few seconds, let’s make them count.
High, high altitude! From one of the highest vineyards in Europe, atop the Troodos Mountains in Cyprus comes Petritis, from Kyperounda Winery. Made from the indigenous Xynisteri grape, this wine has a touch of oak to give it an added complexity and a long, persistent finish.
In a nutshell
Delicious aromas of fresh pineapple combined with vanilla and ripe pear through to a long and creamy finish.
This producer has not only the highest winery in Europe situated at 1,140 metres, but also the highest vineyards at over 1,400 metres above sea level. Located at Kyperounda, in the Pitsilia area of the Troodos mountain range, the Kyperounda Winery sits in an idyllic setting, with correspondingly spectacular views. The winery was designed to the specifications of experienced winemakers and uses gravity to produce wine in the gentlest possible way. Kyperounda Winery has been producing wine since 2003 and has already made quite a splash on the international stage.
The Xynisteri variety, pronounced (Sin-ees-ter-ee), is a native grape to the island. These indigenous grapes are grown on the southern slopes of the Troodos Mountains, in some of the highest vineyards in Europe. The plots sit on rocky terraces, where the soils are made up of sandy clay. Due to the altitude of the vineyards, Kyperounda invariably harvests approximately one month later than vineyards at half their elevation and the long hang time results in concentrated flavours in the fruit, while preserving refreshing acidity.
Armenian wines are a recent addition to our portfolio, discovered by head of buying, Steve Daniel. Founded by Armen Aslanyan, ArmAsis revitalising Armenia’s historic winemaking legacy. Situated on the 45th parallel, the 180 hectare estate is surrounded by a 17 kilometre brick wall – the Great Wall of Armas – set against the backdrop of Mount Ararat. The Voskehat grape literally translates to “Golden Seed” in the old Armenian language and our April wine of the Month, ArmAs, Aragatsotn, Voskehat 2018, is certainly a golden wine, long and elegant, with a streak of minerality.
In a nutshell
Intense and floral aromas of fennel, green apple, fresh rosemary and lime are complemented by subtle spice and mineral undertones, fresh and tingly on the finish.
Armenia is considered to be the birthplace of wine, with biblical references to the region being planted with vines. Armenia also hosts the site of the oldest known winemaking ruins, which date back 6100 years. Founded by Armen Aslanyan, ArmAs is revitalising Armenia’s historic winemaking legacy. Situated on the 45th parallel, the estate covers 180 hectares of stunning vineyard and orchards, on an undulating terrain of complex soils set against the backdrop of Mount Ararat. Winemaker Emilio del Medico pays homage to this heritage by creating elegant and distinct wines from estate grown native varieties.
The grapes were carefully selected to maintain the highest quality. Fermentation took place at 16 to 17°C with selected yeasts in stainless steel to retain the purity of fruit. Maturation of eight months on the lees with weekly bâtonnage, imparted texture and complexity to the resulting wine.
Aromas of fresh red fruits are complemented by earthy and savoury notes with a light and balanced palate.
Herdade do Rocim is an estate located between Vidigueira and Cuba, in the Lower Alentejo. It comprises 120 hectares, 70 of which are made up of vineyards and 10 hectares of olive trees. Since its inception in 2000, Herdade do Rocim has invested heavily in the vineyards, replanting vines and introducing new varieties. They are pioneers in ‘amphora wines’, following the ancient traditions of vinification in pots known as ‘Tahla’. The vineyard is cultivated manually and minimal intervention is used in the cellar, to produce fresh, elegant and mineral wines. In 2018, Herdade do Rocim was awarded Best Wine Producer by Revista de Vinhos.
Naturally vinified without any additions or must corrections. The fruit was carefully selected in order to vinify only the highest quality berries. Fermentation took place with indigenous yeasts in traditional clay amphora pots known as ‘Tahla’. The process took place without any intervention, including temperature control. The wine was aged for three months with skin contact which imparted complex aromas and flavours, resulting in this distinctive wine. This wine may create a natural deposit.
Lovely expression of fresh melon and apple fruit with hints of fennel and wet stone through to a bone dry, salty and mouthwatering finish.
Grace Wine was established in 1923, in the Katsunuma province, the birthplace of the Japanese wine industry. Committed to the belief that great wine is made in the vineyard, they were the first to research and introduce European training and pruning methods introducing such as using long cordon training and Vertical Shoot Positioning in 1990. The wines are made in a modern way to retain the delicate characteristics of this individual and exciting grape variety.
The grapes were gently pressed in a pneumatic press before being fermented at controlled temperatures in stainless steel to preserve the naturally occurring acidity and pure fruit flavours of the Koshu variety. The wine was matured in stainless steel tanks, where it spent three months on its fine lees adding richness and complexity.
The wine women of Weegmüller are part of over 300 years of remarkable winemaking history.
Weingut Weegmülleris considered the oldest winery in Pfalz. This is quite a feat in an area with so much history but their reputation for great winemaking has long and solid foundations dating back centuries. The winery was started in 1685 and has been in the family for an impressive 12 generations. The family’s origins can be found in Zurich, Switzerland but they can date their time in Haardt back to 1657. Despite all this history they still have a consistently forward looking focus, always striving to maintain and improve the quality of their wines.
Today, the winery remains based in the same baroque buildings that have been on the site since the 1730s. Weegmülleris set apart by being one of very few German wineries run exclusively by women. Today, sisters Gabriele and Stefanie Weegmüller work together to drive the business forward and ensure the continuing production of high quality wines. Their focus on quality and terroir means they carefully consider which grape varieties and wine styles will best show the region as its finest. With Gabriele managing the commercial side, Stefanie is able to focus fully on creating the best possible wines which rightly earn their reputation for excellence.
Stefanie has been Cellar Master for more than 30 years and was notably one of the first female winemakers in Germany at a time when the industry was especially male dominated. Her career began in 1984 when she took over winemaking responsibility from her father and a reputation for technical prowess and a clear passion for precise winemaking was quickly evident. As a result, Stefanie has spent over 25 years making some of the highest quality wines in Pfalz. She demonstrates a thorough understanding of the complex winemaking process but also imbues a lot of heart and soul in to Weegmüller’s wines. This enables the production of classic wines which are delicate and pure, perfectly expressing the terroir and showing generous fruit and length.
Notes of lemon, grapefruit, toast and classic honeysuckle weave through the rich and textured palate culminating in a zesty, citrussy finish.
Established in 1860, Tahbilk is an historic family-owned winery, renowned for their rare aged Marsanne. Tahbilk is known as ‘tabilk tabilk’ in the language of the Daungwurrung clans, which translates as the ‘place of many waterholes’. It perfectly describes this premium viticultural landscape, which is located in the Nagambie Lakes region of Central Victoria. The estate comprises 1,214 hectares, including a seven mile frontage to the Goulburn River. Environmental sustainability is paramount at Tahbilk and in 2013 they became carbon neutral. In 2016, Tahbilk was awarded ‘Winery of the Year’ by James Halliday.
The hand-picked grapes were handled semi-oxidatively; controlled amounts of oxygen were allowed which helped impart secondary flavours and texture to the wine. Fermentation took place with selected neutral and aromatic yeasts at cool temperatures and lasted for 20 days in stainless steel fermenters to enhance the purity of fruit. Made with naturally high acidity to support serious long-term ageing, it was matured in bottle for seven years.
I first used the expression salt-and-caramel in a tasting note about four years ago. My memory is a little hazy, but I think I scribbled it during a sampling of Juan Pablo Michelini’s Zorzal wines at Prowein. I was searching for words to describe the amazing tang which cut right through the sweet fruit in the red wines; a kind of refreshing acidity at odds with the opulence around it. I thought the phrase a little childish but that it would mean easy recall when I referred to my notes later.
And then, of course, I found myself writing that phrase again and again. Salt-and-caramel. Slightly irritating habit, this, like wiggling your leg in the waiting room. What was happening? Were my taste buds changing? After thirty years in the trade? Odd.
I recalled that Prowein moment a few weeks ago while reading a Wine Folly blog, I Tasted 3 Rocks, So that you don’t have to! In this light-hearted piece, posted in May 2019, Madeline Puckette described licking pieces of chalk, river stone, and slate. She found the connection between slate and Riesling to be apposite; that “chalk feels like licking a hard sponge that sucks all the moisture out of your mouth,” the flavour reminding her of a Brut Zero Champagne; and that while “river stone is supposed to remind people of Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir,” its flavour is pretty gross.
Puckette was seeking to explain minerality, but concluded: “Minerality is neither a single compound nor the vines” ability to “suck the minerals out of the soil,” but is a combination of many different aspects including esters, trace minerals, acidity level and a wines’ alcohol level. So, when wine writers write “minerality” they are trying to put a name on a multi-faceted characteristic that science doesn’t have a definition for.”
It’s a bit old hat, this minerality thing. Been done to death. A bit late to the party. And as Alice Feiring said: “Minerality has become a dirty word par excellence.”
Walking between the raindrops, then.
I know, but it doesn’t go away.
Minerality famously did not appear in Ann Noble’s 1984 Wine Aroma Wheel, nor in the first four editions of The Oxford Companion to Wine (“imprecise tasting term and elusive wine characteristic that, along with the descriptor mineral, became common currency in the early years of this century.”) But here are two definitions relayed by Jamie Goode in his Wine Science:
Stephen Spurrier: “I suppose it is easier to define what it is not – that is, it is not fruit, nor acidity, nor tannins, nor oak, nor richness, nor fleshiness. It is not really a texture, either, for texture is in the middle of the palate and minerality is at the end. I think it is just there, a sort of lifted and lively stoniness that brings a sense of grip and a sense of depth, but it is neither grippy (which is tannin) nor deep (which is fruity.)”
Michael Bettane: “Minerality is a fashionable word never employed in the 1970s and 1980s. The only no-nonsense use is to describe a wine marked by salty and mineral undertones balancing the fruit, more often a white wine rich in calcium and magnesium as many mineral waters are. For a red wine I have no idea.”
Now Goode himself: “I know what I mean when I encounter some characteristic in a wine that makes me think “mineral”, but I can’t be sure that when other people use it they are referring to the same thing. I suspect that it’s sometimes used as a way of praising a deliciously complex wine, in the same way that “long” is often thrown into a tasting note when people really like the wine but have run out of more concrete descriptors.”
Similar sentiments from Sam Harrop: “Minerality is a term I have used for many years with a clear and personal understanding that not all wine professionals might share.”
But what is it that provokes these “allusions to minerality,” to use Doctor Peter Dry’s words? A prickling on the tongue, or a savoury aroma on the nose? And – from a commercial point of view – does describing a wine as mineral confer a kind of supremacy? A more romantic artisanal image?
Steve Daniel, Beverly Tabbron MW and I had a chat about this in Hallgarten’s tasting room. Steve, fresh from describing one wine as “saltier than a bag of KP nuts,” said: “There is definitely minerality in wine. It has to be there. It’s not acidity, it’s not body. It’s a skeleton which will change but which will let you know where the wine is going.” Steve strongly believes that there is a relationship between minerality and volcanic soils, such as those on his beloved Santorini.
For Bev, minerality is shorthand for a “form of freshness, a salinity. Sometimes I wonder if it is a mild spice.” Then she paused. “But are we just being lazy?”
It seems an elusive concept. Are we searching for a connection between this taste and – inevitably – the impression of rock from which the vine draws its nutrients?
Two well-recounted experiments:
At the end of the 20th century, a German scientist, Andreas Peuke, planted Riesling in three different pots with different soils (Loess, Muschelkalk and Keuper). After some time he collected the resin from the plants, analysed them and compared them. To his surprise, there was a huge deviation in the nutrient levels in the three plants. A definite connection?
Randall Grahm soaked rocks into tanks filled with wine; he too, concluded that the rocks altered the wine to a great extent, detecting changes in the aromas and mouthfeel, and he felt that the wines had gained a higher degree of complexity and density.
But as we know, the correlation between minerality in rocks and minerality in wine has been largely debunked over the last decade by some really clever people, most famously by Alex Maltman, professor of earth sciences at Aberystwyth University, who opined that the geological minerals in rocks (made from chemical elements) are different from the fourteen nutrient mineral elements required by vines. The rock’s chemical elements do not degrade easily and only slowly release their nutrients for vegetation. Then, some of these nutrients are then removed each year in crops, and the soil is further enriched by compost and fertiliser. The result is that almost all of the nutrients in wine come from this humus of decayed plant and animal matter, rather than the geology.
“There would seem to be no basis for the common assertion that a particular kind of bedrock produces certain wine flavours. The term minerality is a contemporary invention.”
Viticultural guru Dr Richard Smart told the Institute of Masters of Wine that viticulture “is not an issue” in wine minerality: of those fourteen nutrient mineral elements, “three of the most important (N, P, S) are not derived from minerals; they are absorbed directly from soil organic matter (humus). Even those which are commonly found in minerals (K, Ca, Mg, and Na) are not directly extracted, they are firstly cycled through organic matter.” He cited minerality as an “invented term as a wine descriptor.”
And in any case, rocks have no flavour at all. Apparently, the “flavour” of stones is caused by an invisible substance called petrichor, which, according to Wikipedia, is “constructed from Greek petra (πέτρα), meaning “stone”, and īchōr (ἰχώρ), the fluid that flows in the veins of the Gods in Greek mythology.”
Derived from organic matter like oils from plants, petrichor floats through the air and comes to rest as a thin film over everything on the ground, including rocks. This coating then releases its flavours (vapours) only when a rain hits the ground; hence the smell of rain.
So, sadly, it looks as though the romantic in me is going to have to take a back seat; it seems I am not sucking from the rock’s core when I savour my Zorzal Malbec.
But if the perception of minerality doesn’t come from rocks, where does it come from?
Fermentation, probably. To rehash well documented findings, it may come from sulphides produced by yeasts as they work their magic in converting sugar into alcohol. If the yeasts are having a hard time finding enough nitrogen in the must, they may produce volatile sulphur compounds such as hydrogen sulphide and mercaptans (thiols), often called reduction and which can usually be the cause of rotten egg smell. But sometimes these compounds, such as ethyl mercaptans, can also give off flinty or struck-match aromas that can be quite mineral in character and seem to add complexity to a wine. It’s a thin line. Modern reductive winemaking techniques, like the use of closed top stainless steel fermentation tanks which limit the wine’s exposure to oxygen, can also encourage the release of these subtle sulphur compounds.
And then, of course, there is the other common form of sulphur: sulphur dioxide can affect taste perceptions of minerality. Their presence may ‘tweak’ the flavour profiles of wine in a more salty or bitter direction, creating a mineral effect.
Sam Harrop: “Complexed sulphides are one of the main aromatic indicators of minerality. Reductive handling at wine phase is vital to protecting mineral perception – both aromatically and texturally. Wines with mineral perception have a low pH, complex acid profile, complex sulphide aromas and necessary aromatic and textural balance to provide the x factor”
I suppose that one crumb of comfort for those looking to equate minerality with terroir may lie in the fact that if one of the reasons for the dodgy performance of the yeasts is because some vineyard sites are deficient in nutrients – so causing the yeasts to stress and produce these volatile sulphur compounds – at least it is the effect of the vineyard.
Explanation over, then.
Whatever the reasons, it still seems odd to me that the use of minerality is so ubiquitous when it apparently didn’t even exist before about 1984.
Each week in our tasting room in beautiful downtown Luton, Bev, Steve and I attempt to delineate every new wine into just three words. We stock about 950 wines, and when we trawled through our database we found that we had used the word minerality in 49 of them – around 5%. These include seven red wines, one rose and 41 whites, all of which had been tasted in the last six months. Intrigued, we looked at this list, but couldn’t find a common theme. The surprise was the absence of Greek wines, which, given our focus on Greece and the character of its wines, gave us pause for thought – and gave Steve the hump. “I can’t believe we didn’t describe Gaia’s Thalassitis Assyrtiko as mineral.”
So earlier this week we gave ourselves a couple of hours and went through a selection of a randomly chosen dozen of these wines. The results were surprising.
A touch faecal when first opening, but within minutes this disappears.
Steve: “This is definitely a ‘natural’ wine. Alive and kicking!”
Jim: “This is my salt and caramel wine.”
Result: mineral, no question.
There were four others where we were unsure. So, of the twelve wines to which we originally assigned the descriptor mineral, only four would now definitely qualify for it. And four would not even come close. A conundrum: while accepting that wine – of course – changes character as it lies in bottle, here we have three so-called experts, with 60 years of experience between them, conceding to fundamental variances in their use of minerality over a relatively (six months) short period of time. Are we just not good at writing tasting notes? Are we incompetent? After all, WSET students are discouraged from using the word mineral. Blimey!
With most (though not all) of the wines, we found that the fruit elements were now much more advanced than in our original tasting; revelatory so in some instances. Are we writing our tasting notes without giving the wine a chance to recover in the warehouse after reaching us? Or are we – as Bev has suggested elsewhere – just lazy? Using the word minerality as shorthand for something else? And even as I write this, landing on my desk is a note from a producer: “After a long and passionate work in our cellar, we are proud to introduce our new-born: a rich white wine, with notes of tropical fruit and a full body which is supported by great acidity and minerality.”
Well, what do our winemakers make of this?
Juampi Michelini (whose wines kindled this essay!) says: “Of course it is necessary to have mineral soils, especially if they are loaded with chalk. But it also has to do with earlier harvest times, something that has been done more and more throughout the world in the last seven years, as well as more reductive fermentations.
“I describe almost all of my Zorzalwines as being mineral wines – but I always say that minerality is more a sensation of textures than of aromas.”
In the appropriate setting of La Cambuse du Saunier, a bucolic oyster shack which borders a sea salt farm near his Narbonne winery, Gérard Bertrand paused. “Ah, minerality! So controversial. I make a link between minerality and salinity, and the salinity comes from limestone, and if you suck a limestone rock – that is minerality.” He put his index finger into his mouth. “You can feel the minerality in the middle of your tongue.
“You cannot make this during the vinification process. This comes from the rock. We do an experiment. We put Château la Sauvageonne in front of a piece of schist rock; we put Château l’Hospitalet in front of limestone, and we put Château de Villemajouin front of silex, and we ask people to taste the stones and then the wine. They all get the link.
“People need to suck stones.”
At the recent South African tasting held at Phonica Records in Soho’s Poland Street, I asked our award-winning winemaker, Samantha O’Keefe, who said: “It’s a sensation of cold in your mouth.” “Cold?” “Yes.” She laughed. “But I work in feelings and colours and so my tasting notes are often odd. But certainly my wines on stony vineyards give me more minerality than those from red shale soils, which are fuller and richer. I definitely do not think it is a flavour. It’s more just a feeling in your mouth. I think it might just be a way of differentiating from those sweeter, fuller types of New World wines which you often get. But I don’t know!”
She paused again. “Minerality is a texture. It’s a stony quality: wet pebbles. I use minerality a lot. But maybe I am being lazy.”
Lazy. There’s that word again.
It does seem as though some winemakers are anxious to maintain the link between minerality and their wines (as you’d expect!) But are we talking about terroir as opposed to minerality? Playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order?
Some key words: refreshing, zingy, acidity, a certain sourness, licked stones. A kind of austere or nerviness or tension; or simply the opposite to ripeness. Whenever I come across what I think is minerality, I pause: “Hello darkness, my old friend…”
But I’m still nowhere near working out what it actually is. Mind you, far better minds than mine have tried and failed; the Oxford Companion to Wine again: “it is not possible to determine whether minerality is a terroir or winemaking effect.”
And why does this bother me so? Why this sophistry in trying to describe something which isn’t there? A flavour – an essence – which may not exist? Am I bending my language to fit a need? What is the need? What is it about minerality? At what point does minerality trans into Fashion? “Sparkling or mineral sir?” Well mineral, obviously, because mineral is Brioni, sharp suited and therefore Continental. But sparkling is, well, gas, isn’t it, and a bit Wyoming. Minerality is cool, it is quartz and diamonds and vaguely Breakfast at Tiffany’s. “Good evening, Commander Mineral, we’ve been expecting you,” white gloves ‘n all. Mineral is nuance. It is class, it is style, and hardly Biffo the Bear. “Indeed.” “Yes, indeed.” “Minerality, yes.” “Yes, indeed.” Opulence, move over, Vanilla step aside and all you other flavours tripping the not-so-light fantastic to the strains of the Fat Belly Boogie. Sodium and calcium and manganese are important and not flippant at all and their nexus endows us as professors in white lab coats, like those Cambridge chaps who discovered DNA in the pub. So when I say: “minerality!” am I a luvvy satisfying my inner core, my night primaeval, by licking from the core of the earth and sharing in a pagan rave with matter which is six hundred and fifty million years old? Is it my soul I search for? Aristotle’s tabula rasa? Core is a great word, it is a key word and if you prefix it with hard you get an awkward word, a dangerous word, a bit nihilistic, but who other than the hardcore would go the Paul Grieco’s Terroir tasting to drink wines from heavy-metal soils matched with heavy metal music? Do metal and core satisfy some kind of prehistoric desire to engage with the elements, to go deep, really deep, in to the earth because deep is good, deep is important and it is the opposite of shallow and who wants to be shallow? No, we’ll keep digging in a maelstrom of kinetic exuberance, knocking at the gates of perception, nosing the brimstone, surrendering to something so great no-one understands it (though it may be “the only true measure of greatness in wine”¹), digging like Heaney’s Old Man, right down into the “roiling, boiling, sulphurous, belching belly”² of the earth, seeking approbation and Dante’s felicity and Milton’s liberty to know, desiring good or desiring God, ingesting Plastic Soup, and not flopping into the chair to watch Corrie but rather romanticizing we are the Underworld Gods, Hecate and Hades, with petrichor running through our veins.
Minerality: is this the taste of what is not there?
¹ Sam Harrop. Winemaking Intervention in Minerality Perception
² Alice Feiring. The Dirty Guide to Wine
Madeline Puckette, Wine Folly
Jamie Goode. Wine Science
Alex Maltman. Minerality in wine: a geological perspective
Dr Peter Dry. Terroir – It’s the Rocks That Matter
Oxford Companion to Wine
Wendy Parr, Alex Maltman, Sally Easton, Jordi Ballester. Minerality in Wine: Towards the Reality behind the Myths
Keep up to date on all things Hallgarten & Novum Wines