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.
Jim: “This has an amazing nose.”
Steve: “Limey and a little phenolic.”
Result: definitely not mineral.
Steve: “This definitely smells of slate. This has to be a mineral wine.”
Bev: “It is not a vinous taste. It has a slightly ‘drying’ taste in the mouth.”
Result: still mineral.
Crete – Idaia, Vidiano, Dafnes, 2018
Jim: “Wow! What an astonishing nose! Mouth-watering, very complex, a touch of seaweed?”
Steve: “Chalky. This is what it would feel like if you put a lump of chalk into your mouth. This is limestone. The scientists say you cannot taste limestone, but you know what I mean.”
Bev: “It has a non-vinous finish, and so for me that is mineral.”
Result: still mineral, in fact even more so.
Jim: “Evolved, just a touch of controlled oxidation, gorgeous, but not mineral.”
Bev: “Apricots and tangerines. Opulent.”
Result: a long way from mineral.
None of us finds the slightest bit of minerality with this wine.
Steve: “Why doesn’t Sancerre taste like Sancerre any more – this is like an Hawaiian pizza.”
Bev: “This was closed when we first opened it. Now it is almost pineapple.”
Result: nowhere near mineral.
Jim: “This is easily the most mineral. Mineral on the nose, mineral on the finish, perhaps fuller in the mouth.”
Bev: “Wet stone again.”
Result: still mineral.
Steve: “I don’t know why we would describe Lugana as a mineral. This definitely isn’t.”
Jim: “This is like charcoaled pineapple. A fantastic, vibrant and crisp wine, but not mineral.”
Result: not even close to mineral.
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 Zorzal wines 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 Villemajou in 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