Minerality in wine – flight of fantasy, fact or terroir?

The Mosel - slate slopes and a cool climate

Wine tasters and wine trade people often talk about minerality in wine – possibly too much, but I have always assumed that it means something, even though spell checkers hate the word. However I often come across people who find it hard to understand the term in reference to wine and yesterday I met someone who positively hates it.

Minerality to me describes many of those characteristics in a wine that are not fruity – yes there are some – especially in youth before the aged leathery or honeyed characters take over. Some wines are blindingly mineral, like the terpene/petrol notes of Riesling and a few other grapes. Some are chalky, in others you would swear that you can taste granite, iron, flint or slate, while others are more vaguely mineral. It is slightly confused, because scientific research seems to say that the vine does not deliver actual mineral flavours from the soil in which it grows – so where does it come from? It is possible that it is sometimes the acidity and sometimes the sensation of the tannins, but is it also possible that it is an utter flight of fantasy? A case of grasping at straws?

Not everyone agrees that vines do not pass on some characteristics of the soil though, I know that Jacques Lardière of Louis Jadot, for one, believes that his wines physically carry mineral characters and is convinced this happens because microorganisms in the soil dissolve minerals in the bedrock, these leech into the water and so become absorbed by the vine. I know this has not been proved, but doesn’t it make sense? Surely it explains why some soils seem to impart their minerality to the wines that grow in them? Whether we taste specific minerals though or just pick up a general mineral-like character is a more open question to my mind and might well vary from wine to wine.

Chablis - Kimmeridgean soil composed of limestone, clay and fossilized oyster shells

All I know for a fact is that some wines taste and smell like stones – wet stones, hot stones, slate, hot granite, chalk and like sucking pebbles or licking slate. Earthy too, isn’t that mineral? If minerality in wine is a myth, then why does a Beaujolais-Villages have a granite-like bitterness, while a Beaujolais, from chalky soil is all about acidity and why a Cru Beaujolais from Morgon will often deliver a different character again that is supposed to come from the manganese in the soil.

If mineral characters cannot end up in wine it would be peculiar that we all seem to mention it in tasting notes and know what we all mean in the wine world. There was a gentleman at my tasting last night who was a scientist and he hated the term minerality. I pressed him as to why and he said that as rocks have no vapour pressure they have no smell or flavour. At least that is what I think I understood!

In my time for various reasons I have smelled various stones and I have to disagree, they do have vague and subtle aromas. Sniff a gravel drive, then sniff it again when it is wet – it has a smell. Slate has a smell and a taste, as do many other things, including earth – although my experience of tasting it is very limited. I always ask my students to suck a pebble as I think that gives a clear idea of what we wine folk mean by minerality. At school we sucked pebbles to quench a thirst on cross country runs – hopefully clean ones.

I feel slightly nervous about taking this further as I have a suspicion we are approaching the terroir question, the great deity of wine, or article of faith anyway. Terroir is a very French thing, we apply it more widely now, but really it is a French concept and tradition. Terroir is non-specific in many ways as it applies to many different things to do with wine, but at its heart is the soil in which a vine grows. I once memorably heard terroir described as ‘everything we don’t understand’ and another time as ‘French for no fruit’, but I have a hunch that it overlaps quite a bit with minerality.

Priorat - the decayed slate soil called 'llicorella'

The great terroir wines come from cooler rather than warmer places – so do the wines we traditionally describe as mineral. Take just two examples that are typically described as mineral; Pouilly-Fumé and Chablis. They both come from cool places where the climate delivers delicate wines where the flavours of the grape are not the most dominant character – the exact opposite of how those same grapes perform in hotter and sunnier climes. There the fruit flavours of the grape dominate the wines and mask the other nuances – those dissolved minerals? In Pouilly-Fumé and Chablis, as well as many other – mainly European and all cool climate – wines, it is surely a minerality that is the most blatant characteristic, the goût de terroir if you will?

All we need to know now is whether minerality in wine exists, where it comes from and how to describe it.

Feel free to comment, I would love to hear what other people think about all this.

32 thoughts on “Minerality in wine – flight of fantasy, fact or terroir?

  1. Good post.

    The most interesting to me was your info on cooler climates and terroir. Something I knew intuitively but hadn’t the words to articulate the why of it. Thanks.

    I read something last year about a scientific study ‘proving’ that minerality as a taste in wine doesn’t exist. I leave this debate along with those who are still fighting over whether Darwinism is correct.

    I taste minerality, especially in some great natural wines. It’s part of the story that my palate shares with me. I guess that I can be told that I ‘don’t’ or ‘can’t but I will just continue to enjoy what I taste. There is no higher judgement than my own palate.

    Thanks for taking the time to write this.

  2. There are various scientific papers that have investigated a causal link between geology and the so-called minerality of a wine and have been unable to do so. First of all it is difficult to define minerality and what is actually is – we taste something in particular wines that we define as minerality but we are not sure what it is, but we know that it is different from wines that we regard as simply fruit-driven and we think it reminds us of certain rocks or minerals (or we have been told it does) and the winemaker will tell us that the wine expresses the soil, the bed rock, the terroir. Unfortunately, this really has not been substantiated and no chemical correlation between inorganic ions and ‘minerality’ has been found. The minerals absorbed by the vines – potassium, calcium, magnesium and other essential nutrients first have to be dissolved in the soil moisture before being taken up by the vine. They are disseminated throughout the vine for growth and berry development – the juice will have trace elements of these compounds but the process of fermentation, racking, settling etc will remove most of these – the finished wine has only about 0.2% of the nutrients left.

    Furthermore, minerals such as calcite in limestone have no actual smell or taste. They have an almost zero vapour pressure so far below the threshold of human perception.

    What mineral ions do do is influence acidity, aroma volatility etc and some authors suggest that they may have an indirect influence in berry development and viticulture by acting as catalysts and enzyme co-factors in fermentation.

    Most of us would like to believe that terroir is the goddess of winemaking – I for one regarded Wilson’s book on Terroir as my bible until i started to read a few more research papers and realised that while there is a link between geology and good wine (bedrock influences the soil properties of a vineyard site) there is no proven link between geology and what the wine tastes like – what we taste in our wine is more likely the consequence of secondary metabolites of wine – I think there are now about 1000 flavour compounds to date that have been identified, and they have different perception thresholds and they can be synergystic and they can alter or disappear with age – its amazing we even know as much as we do !

    • Hi, thank you very much for posting this. An interesting and detailed reply. None of what you say is new to me, but just like terroir it requires faith more than anything else.
      Interesting that you say that as minerals in rock have no vapour pressure they have no taste, I think that is what you say anyway, well a scientist at my tasting the other day said exactly that. However another scientist, a geological engineer actually, said they do have a taste and I have to say my experience is that they do have a taste and an aroma – even if scientifically they shouldn’t. A bit like scientists tell us that potatoes and apples, or onions? taste exactly the same, they might scientifically, but not to the human brain they don’t.
      I personally do not believe, although there appears to be no proof, that specific mineral notes are conveyed by the vine into the grape and so the wine, but I do believe that less rich wines and less fruity wines – cool climate and higher acid wines – display flavours and aromas that are best described as mineral in taste in some way or another. Those flavours being part of the acidity does make sense to me.
      Thanks again for the great comment.

  3. The use of microbial action to leach metals and other elements out of rock (bioleaching) is long established – I remember learning about this in my mineral technology studies at Royal School of Mines more years ago than I care to admit! So there may be justifiable basis for Jacques Lardière’s beliefs.

    Robin Hall

    • Thanks for that, many more people than him believe it I am sure. who knows, perhaps it is a little bit of everything and we are all right! Just as logical as anything else.

  4. Yes you are right elements do get leached but again the problem is that we tend to associate the geological mineral compounds (flint, chalk, granite etc) and say they can be tasted in our wines whereas it is actually the mineral elements (inorganic ions) that are taken up my the vine as nutrients – they dont actually taste of anything, even if they did, by the time the wine is bottled, there have been so many metabolic processes from grape berry maturity through vinification that they exist in miniscule amounts, and the effect of the yeast microflora on volatile aromatic compounds or the effect of wine making processes tend to dominate in the finished wine.

    If geological influences do have a role to play (which i dont think is disputed), it is more than likely these influences are indirect. A geologist called Alex Maltman has written lucidly on the subject and is worth a read

  5. Well, perhaps it really is just a little bit of everything that accumulates and gives us the impression of mineral characters?

  6. sorry for delay in replying – I think the jury is still out on what constitutes what we call minerality in wines – it is certainly something very distinctive and appealing, and maybe you are right that it is a combination of different factors that gives us this impression, but whether or not it is linked to the geology of a vineyard is a different matter.

    I think it would be really interesting if someone were to make a study of how our descriptions of wines have developed historically – obviously styles have also changed along with advances in winemaking technology, but I wonder if that study might also identify a trend that is linked to our romantic aspirations about wine, whether our current romance with Terroir is something that now makes us describe wine in a way we may not have done before – it is after all a compelling and powerful marketing tool, and it is difficult not to be captivated by the notion that grapes can express a sense of place, although the same notion is rarely, if ever, ascribed to other fermented fruit, such as apples.

    Personally, I am more captivated by the alchemy of fermentation – how one neutral tasting fruit has the potential to be transformed into a liquid that tastes like lots of other fruit and other flavours, the complexity and concentration of which depends on scrupulous care and toil in the vineyard and diligent and careful winemaking. I wonder if minerality may not even be an absence of dominant varietal flavours ? One paper I read did a sensory evaluation of wines that were described as having minerality and found a positive correlation with malic acid levels – but not all wines with high malic have ‘minerality’! Fascinating stuff…!

    • Thanks for the comment, but here I do not agree with you at all. I do not think that referring to minerality or describing mineral notes and flavours in a wine is about terror or romantic at all. I think those flavours exist – whether they are in fact mineral or not, be they earthy or whatever – the savoury elements of a wine, wherever they come from.
      It is marked that we comment on these less in hotter places where the fruit is riper, richer and more dominant. If anything it is because we are less romantic I think and what to actually pin these flavours down rather than a streak of romanticism.
      I absolutely do think that minerality is an “absence of dominant varietal flavours” – I put it a little differently, but that is basically what I say in the last paragraph of the piece about terroir.
      Thanks again for commenting

  7. Sorry I was not being very articulate – i was saying that we have romantic notions of terroir not necessarily grounded (as it were) in scientific truth. I am not saying that the concept of minerality is a romantic notion at all, only that the association (real or imagined) between what we describe as minerality and a wine’s origins ought not to be accepted as truth on the basis of anecdotal evidence alone.

    • There I agree with you. New World wine maker’s jokingly say that terroir is French for no fruit, but that might actually be the case too!

      • Oh and I had forgotten to mention that some aromas/flavours that we associate with minerality have actually been identified ie smoky, gun-flint aromas of certain Sauvignons and Chardonnays are from a compound called benzenemethanethiol.

        Its precursors are cysteine conjugates and they have no odour in the grape but are released during fermentation.

        There are numerous thiols that give us different aromas, especially in Sauvignon blanc ie 4MMP gives us gooseberry, passion fruit and cat’s pee

        Too many thiols are generally regarded as coming from faulty winemaking and can result from over macerating etc. It is also dependent on the yeast used.

        Whether the gun-flint characteristics of Pouilly-Fume really do have any association with the soils – silex/flint – is therefore debatable….

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  22. If I got it right the French make a difference between “terroir” and ” gôut de terroir”, “taste of the terroir/dirt/surroundings”: some of all the tastes/aromas we find in wine may sometimes come from the soil (dust), trees nearby et cetera, and sometimes may these not always planned to be there things influnce the taste of the wine in a way we perceive as “terroir” or even “minerality”. As for the minerality coming from the rock I follow, with the greatest interest, all the wise things said by the rest of you – but as a wine romantic I lean towards Quentins point of view.

    • Good points Lars, thanks. Yes all the other stuff, like the Eucalyptus in Chilean Cabernet etc. We often forget all that nowadays, but am certainly under the impression that in times past berries from hedgerows went into the vats too! As you say, it’s all part of the romance of wine. Thanks

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