It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Minerality: What's that all about?

When I first attended wine tasting classes, it was not unusual to hear the phrase gout de terroir (goo de tare-wahr — taste of the soil) ascribed to the wines that we were evaluating. The concept seemed esoteric and elusive, and it was not uncommon to hear a chortle or two when the French phrase was invoked by the class moderator.

For whatever reason, possibly because tasting dirt isn’t very compelling, gout de terroir is seldom referred to by today’s wine critics. It seems to have morphed into, or otherwise been replaced by, something quite different and even more elusive: minerality. Wine journalists originally assigned the descriptor to unoaked, high-acid white wines which were perceived as having soil-based, stony flavors, vibrant earthy touches and steely streaks of distinctiveness. For a while, it seemed that the white wines of Alsace, Loire, Germany and Burgundy were the few beneficiaries of this ethereal quality. But of late, I note that New World reds and whites, as well as Old World reds, are also now being lauded for having palate-pleasing touches of minerality.

For years, traditional wine tasting metaphors relied upon flowers and fruits and how they were perceived in the aromas and flavors of wine. Ann C. Nobel of U.C. Davis pulled those and other elements together with her Wine Aroma Wheel that categorized them into twelve major categories. It greatly facilitated and standardized much of the subjective terminology that professionals utilized. And while she included terms like chemical, woody and earthy, minerality was missing from the wheel. When asked why by others, she answered, “Minerality is a concept which could never be consistently defined in words or physical standards. If someone could come up with a stone or metallic solution that had an aroma that could be used to define minerality, it could be on the wheel.”

While it is true that wine has many mineral components, geologists and scientists remain unconvinced that wine can effectively reflect any of them. However, notwithstanding science, many well-known winemakers and producers—those who live and die on the land—steadfastly defend the notion that wine echoes its life-giving, nutritional sources.

So what is that earthy element in our stemware, and how can one best comprehend it? Are geologic elements migrating from the soil into the vine’s root system and upwards into the grapes? Or is there a vague, vine-based sensory quality that flicks the palate with crisp, fleeting sensations? Or could it be that it is an indistinct but integral part of a wine’s acidity?

Irrespective of those speculations, doesn’t it seem rock-solid reasonable, that a wine’s make up has a vibrant core, a buoyant underpinning, a subtle but perceptible personality nuance that has nothing to do with aromas of flowers or flavors of fruit . . . which emits a sign of its geologic distinctiveness? Mystical to be sure, but one worth pondering tonight over a glass of Sancerre.

Finally, and on a very personal note, even if it’s difficult to define or describe, minerality may have clarified why I’m partial to white wines, and many reds, that have no oak or other winemaker intrusions into their structure. Such wines are unaltered by wood, vanilla, butter or other man-made recipes for style and flavor enhancement. They have a fresh, unfettered, natural vitality quite apart from the wine’s defining varietal character. I really find them quite revealing and engaging.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, minerality does sound much better than tasting dirt! Impossible to define, though, so I guess that makes it the very je ne sais quoi aspect of the wine. Also a much better sounding term! Either way, this article adds mystery and intrigue to a glass of wine, and makes me want to go buy a bottle of Sancerre. Keep 'em coming!