On Rocky Ground, Again

I first wrote about “minerality” under the title “The Rudest Word in Wine” back in August 2015, and I guess that title sums up the approach of many wine pros. I think, re-reading that article, in some ways it probably conveys my argument more succinctly than what I have written here, today. The term has been under intense discussion in the wino Twittersphere this week, and as I became involved in that conversation, I wanted to set out my own position again. I think perhaps I’ve developed my thoughts a little over the past year, and I do think it’s a topic that needs revisiting. You see, as usual, I believe I have some of the answers, and it’s deceptively simple. If you are interested in what I think, then you can follow the link (above) and read that article first. If you are just a little bit interested, then you can read this one. They cover much of the same ground, although as I said, my own thoughts have evolved a little in the intervening twelve months or so.

Minerality, as a term cropping up in tasting notes, has been around for quite a long time, but some of the older and wiser wine writers seem to think (according to Jamie Goode in the article to which I link, below) it was the 1980s when it first really saw the light of day. In the last few years it has become ubiquitous. This probably has something to do with a shift in emphasis in the wine world, from cellar to vineyard. Remember back in the 1980s and 90s, where it was all about working the juice. New oak, battonage, micro-oxygenation, even cryo-extraction. Now the focus has shifted onto getting really healthy grapes to express as best as possible the site from which the wine is made. The “Terror of Terroir” as some cynics like to put it.

Minerality is not something which has only formed in the mouths of wine writers. Producers and wine merchants have not been slow to jump on the bandwagon. The idea that your vine is sitting on a steep rocky slope, sipping up all that mineral goodness in the rocks, and converting it directly into something you can perceive in the glass, sounds very evocative, does it not? I think it may have been wine writer John Livingstone-Learmonth who coined the phrase soil to glass transfer, which appears to encapsulate this idea perfectly, although I’m sure that is NOT what John really means at all by that phrase.

 

The backlash began maybe a year ago. Scientists and some scientifically qualified wine writers have pointed to the physiology of the plant and its system for taking nutrients from the soil. It doesn’t take a great deal of concentration to follow their arguments, like those put forward at a recent Institute of Masters of Wine seminar, which was followed by a Drinks Business Headline “An [IMW] seminar on mineralogy has utterly debunked a persistent myth about minerality, saying it is not related directly to any sort of nutrient uptake by vines”.

The man who has done most to contribute to the scientific side of this debate is Alex Maltman, Professor of Earth Sciences at Aberystwyth University in Wales, and regular contributor on wine’s relationship to its physical environment in serious periodicals like World of Fine Wine. Professor Maltman outlines several reasons why “minerality” is a scientific myth. So, we learn that mineral nutrients are not the same as those required by the vine; mineral elements are not necessarily bio-available to the vine; and mineral elements do not dissolve, nor vaporise, and if found in wine at all, they are found at levels way below the taste threshold. I could go on but you get the idea, or rather, facts, don’t you. You have to say that if Professor Maltman were to appear as an expert in a court of law, it would be, as we lawyers almost never say, an open and shut case.

The best article I’ve read on the subject was a précis of a talk given in Barcelona in 2014 by Dr Jamie Goode, on his site wineanorak.com, titled “Rescuing Minerality“. I’m not going to reproduce all of his arguments here, and if you are interested in a more nuanced look at the science, I would strongly suggest you follow the link. One of his points of departure from Prof. Maltman is in suggesting that minerals transferred to wine are far more likely to come from nutrients broken down in the soil from decaying microbial matter rather than from decomposed bedrock, for example (which is a myth Prof. Maltman is keen to debunk).

I am not a scientist. In fact, I trained and worked in the law before wine became a complete obsession. So naturally, I can see the scientific clarity of Prof. Maltman’s arguments, and I can also see the clearly nuanced argument put forward by Dr Goode, who has a PhD in Plant Biology, as well.

My own interpretation doesn’t require me to pass any form of judgement on these arguments, because for me, “minerality” is not necessarily a scientific term. It’s a descriptive one.

Those who follow a fundamentalist approach in favour of vines taking up minerals in the soil, and then being transferred into the finished product in a way that we can perceive through taste (and there are such people), often cite taste sensations which their critics suggest are merely manifestations of acidity in the wine. I can see that, to an extent. But such assertions are predominantly made about white wines – a slatey quality in Mosel Riesling, flint in Chablis, chalk or tufa in some Loire whites, and so on. Yet what I perceive as a mineral taste sensation is also equally apparent in plenty of red wines, like those I mention in my previous article: Ahr Spätburgunder, Marcillac, Etna Rosso and Valpolicella for example. I am thinking in particular of wines grown on volcanic soils and rocks, although the same or similar kinds of flavours (and smells) come through in wines which have spent time in terracotta too (COS Pithos is a really good example of this).

 

What I am experiencing with these wines is, in terms of taste, clearly something to do with texture and mouthfeel. I am convinced it’s more than acidity because you can find the data for acidity in, for example, wines from the Mosel, Saar and Ruwer in Germany. Some wines clearly have the mouthfeel I am describing, but they are not necessarily the wines with greater pure acidity. Obviously the perception of acidity in these wines differs depending on the residual sugar which balances it, but I still believe that some sites in this wider region have a propensity to produce wines with more “minerality” than others. This would suggest at least the possibility that terroir could be an influence on the perception of minerality in these wines, along perhaps with acidity.

Let’s consider the reds. I will accept that in an appellation like Marcillac, in the Aveyron in Central France, the sensation which I call “minerality” could be as much to do with the dominant local grape, Fer Servadou, as it is connected to the local volcanic soils. The problem is that when there are so few good local producers, extensive research over different sites is made harder. But those wines do show a clear sensation on the tongue and in the mouth that I call “minerality”, though here it is hard to differentiate this from another controversial tasting term, “earthy“. The issue is somewhat easier to explore in Sicily, around the Etna Region. Here there are more wines and more very good producers. There is also a clear differentiation here between wines grown on volcanic soils and those which are not. Here, it is not always easy to perceive differences in mouthfeel, except perhaps for a direct and tangible freshness. But maybe that’s again just a manifestation of the dominant Nerello Mascalese grape variety and its other variants? Or perhaps it’s down to the predominance of biodynamic and/or “natural” viticultural practices and winemaking techniques?

So, we are not really sure whether we can perceive differences in minerality which might show which “soil” or “rock” we are supposed to be tasting, yet we can usually determine that a dryish Riesling is from the wider Mosel, that an understated Chardonnay is from Chablis, or that a particular red is probably a single Contrada wine from Mount Etna. Those who know Domaine Cros’s “Lo Sang del Païs” Marcillac can often spot it in a blind tasting. But it’s self evident that we decipher these wines based on a host of different perception factors, obviously not by deciding what kind of minerals we think we can taste.

I’m not sure it matters too much what minerality is, and where it comes from right now. That is something we can work on. The startling conclusion from the IMW seminar, which made the headlines on social media, was that whilst no one really knows what minerality is, it is nevertheless something most wine tasters think they sometimes perceive. So I think we just need to say loud and clear to the scientists that when we use the term minerality, NO!, we don’t mean to suggest that we have mineral nutrients there in the glass, derived directly from the bedrock itself.

In order to do this we will need to be careful not to use words like “slatey” in relation to Mosel Riesling, or “chalky” for Blanc de Blancs Champagne. Descriptors like those might at first seem rather apt, none more so than my own infamous “tastes like the wet pebbles from an alpine stream”, used to convey the pleasure sensation of drinking a bottle of Blanc de Morgex which had been cooling in exactly such a stream, with a picnic lunch high up in Aosta’s Val Grisenche (see that previous article). Apt as those descriptive words may seem, they do erroneously, and misleadingly, appear to convey the notion that the rock has been sucked up by the vine and squeezed from the berries into the glass.

What is it we are using a term like minerality for, if not as a description of some sort of “bedrock-to-glass” scientific process? For communication of course. Because it does evoke something textural that we can all perceive, and it goes beyond merely saying that a wine has texture. When I use the term I am sure that fellow tasters know to what I’m referring, exactly. And I can assure you that Vin Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle Cuvée Rayon, from the Morgex cooperative, truly does taste, among other things, of wet pebbles.

In conveying the majesty, or the beauty, indeed the magic, of wine to those who read our inconsequential scribbling, we have an urge to convey more than facts. We want to communicate the same sensations we experience in a way that will perhaps inspire the reader to go out and seek those same sensations from the same bottle. It’s the answer to the foremost question for a wine writer: How do we share the glass in front of us with the reader? We mustn’t mislead, and in the area of mineral-like sensations, there’s a real risk we might do so. But minerality is not the only evocative term we use, and even if it might be the most contentious, it does clearly evoke something we can all relate to.

Does it matter that “minerality” lacks precision, even if it doesn’t lack meaning as a descriptive term? The scientific, analytical approach of the Master of Wine qualification might well say that it certainly does matter. I think that the poet would say that it doesn’t. And the best wine writing surely combines both analytical precision (to educate us) and poetry to inspire us.

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About dccrossley

Writing here and elsewhere mainly about the outer reaches of the wine universe and the availability of wonderful, characterful, wines from all over the globe. Very wide interests but a soft spot for Jura, Austria and Champagne, with a general preference for low intervention in vineyard and winery. Other passions include music (equally wide tastes) and travel. Co-organiser of the Oddities wine lunches.
This entry was posted in Minerals and Wine, Subjectivity in Wine Tasting, Wine, Wine Science, Wine Writing and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to On Rocky Ground, Again

  1. amarch34 says:

    Even by your own high standards I think this is very well written and cuts to the point. I find myself nodding in agreement throughout, so maybe I am biased 🙂
    Minerality is definitely a descriptor, even a shortcut these days for something you taste and feel in the mouth. I think the notion of minerals making it into the final wine is just about discredited, apparently it is only the roots near the surface which add nutrients to the vine, not the deeper tap roots?
    And yet. In this region there is the case of Faugeres and its schist, the basalt around Pézenas as well as the traditional argilo-calcaire soils. Manu Pageot at Turner Pageot has vinified syrah, for example, in the same way but from different soils with different results in flavour. At Mas Coutelou the Carignan parcel has a clear layer of limestone about a metre below the clay/sand and it is the parcel which gives the most complex wine. Now that might be due to the vines themselves or sunlight exposure or a myriad other causes but…
    It is hard to surrender the notion that the soil type influences the wine. As you say a bit of poetry, an air of mystery adds something to the wine. The subject is in some ways becoming too technical, too much analysis for someone like me who enjoys the tradition and romance of wine.

    Like

  2. amarch34 says:

    I meant to add that ‘perception’ is key and Steve Slatcher’s writing around that topic has been an excellent source for me, making me think about how I approach wine.

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  3. dccrossley says:

    I agree that Steve Slatcher has a really good analytical approach, and is well worth reading.

    Quite a lot of people make wine using the same vinification techniques on the same grape variety from different sites, with different soil types. It’s amazing what differences you find, and we really don’t know why this is so…but the fact that rock mineral elements can’t get into our glass, at least not in any concentration we can taste, doesn’t mean that the soils have no influence at all. And soil is not just “soil type”, but also encompasses microbial activity, drainage and other factors.

    Thanks for engaging in the debate, Alan.

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  4. winenous says:

    Hello again David (and Alan if you are still “listening”). I see I have been mentioned a couple of times in the comments – in a positive sort of way, so thank you for that. But I really came here to add a comment on reading the original post.

    We go back a long way in discussions about minerality, David, and I think we both know where we stand on the subject. So here I would just take issue with relatively minor point – when minerality first came into use. You reference Jamie Goode, who in terms references communication with Steven Spurrier and Michel Bettane. I think we need a little more evidence than that to establish that the term was used as early as the 1980s. Where exactly were these usage? I’d be very interested if someone could point to them. The earliest one I found was from 1999, which was on CellarTracker. Alex Maltman seems to concur in his article “Minerality in wine: a geological perspective” which can easily be found online. All of which makes it even more impressive that the word seems to have now slipped into the vocabularly of pretty much anyone I have heard describing wine. Even I use it occasionally 😉

    I have just returned from Santorini – a mainly volcanic island with the poorest vineyards soil I have ever seen first hand, with practically no organic matter at all. It is basically pumice of various stages of degradation (from crumbly rock, through stone of various sizes, to dust), with the occasional lumps of basalt, and lumps of iron and sulphur bearing rock. It make Etna vineyards look like the Garden of Eden. Their Assyrtiko wines are the epitome of minerality. They also happed to be very acidic, supposedly due to the so-called soil, but also the grape variety and, I suspect the drying winds. The high winds also carry salt from the sea, which is then blasted across the island, grapes included, to the extent that you can taste it on your lips if you are outside for a while, so that is another possible source of a mineral impression. Oh, and finally the Assyrtiko can also have Riesling-style petrol notes, which I think is related.

    Just one final thought. Looking at the final picture on your post, I wonder if the crunching sound of walking of gravel can evoke a taste of minerality. That is very much my feeling if I look at the image for more than a few seconds.

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