COVID containment has lead to lots of wine studying. The stress of not having a job, bills to pay, has led to sticking my nose into a wine book as a means of shifting my thought from worrying. This tumultous refermentation of the US, which I truly hope will result in positive change for civil rights, black lives matter and democracy in the US, in the middle of, can be very worrisome for the safety of the protestors, for the outcomes of the upcoming election and for the end of COVID confinement. All of this has lead for me to wine study, memorizing for upcoming tests and lots of bike rides when the weather is good in Chicago.
I have been attempting to study wine for long enough, to remember that there was a time, when the term minerality was bantied about, particularly, when talking about certain wines like Alsace wines and its plethora of soils, Chablis and its chalk and steel, or the Mosel and its slate. Wines were slatey, Chablis was steely and you could taste the the rock in some of the Alsace rieslings. But it hit me when I was listening to one of 67 Pall Mall’s Zoom seminars (I highly recommend these for anyone, but especially any WSET students) and the speaker, a well-known writer of wine books, apologized for bringing up the term “minerality” during the seminar, “I realize we’re not suppose to use this term anymore but….”. It suddenly occurred to me when she made this comment, that at least in classes, Zoom sessions, conversations and articles, for the most part, the term “minerality” had disappeared and I wondered why?
For so long, it was a term that was used a lot to distinguish the more savory, non-fruity characteristics of wines, but most of the time, always qualified with “there is no direct association between rocks and the wine you drink”. However, it was used by wine salesmen to customers, and wine producers to distinguish the authenticity and distinguishing features of the terroir of their wines, it was a term used with pride and sometimes snobbery, it lead headlines of many wine articles. Minerality is not mentioned at all, for what I could find, in any of the WSET material, the only mention of stone is in the cluster heading in the Aromas section under “other” and there you will find the descriptors “simple, wet stones, candy”. So what happened, where did the term go?
Andrew Jefford wrote about the term minerality going away in 2013 in an article in Decanter in 2013, “The Party’s Over”. His premise was based on papers which have now made it into a book by Professor Alex Maltman, Vineyards, Rocks and Soils, The Wine Lover’s Guide to Geology. Jefford reviewed the book, which came out in 2018, here in Decanter. Burgundy, the Côte de Nuits and the Côte d’Or distinguishes themselves by their soils and substrata. The value of plots rise and fall depending on a few yards due to the change in the subsoils. I would argue that the term minerality was still alive and well in the US at least only until recently, perhaps within the last year. I found customers using it in the retail store where I worked (which fingers crossed I will go back to soon), when requesting a wine, they would say,’ I want a wine with minerality”. So the term had worked its way down the wine foodchain so to speak from expert to porch sipper.
As I go down the wine study path and attempt to hone my knowledge of blind tasting with the WSET Systematic Approach to Tasting, I start to obsess over the clusters, the red fruits, the black fruits, the citrus fruits, the tropical fruits, the stone fruits, the tree fruits, etc and where they come from and their relationship to the grapes and the wine. Many of the flavors and aromas have a direct link to chemical compounds found in those items. In wine writing and in conversation reference is made to these descriptors most of the time referring to them figuratively. There isn’t green pepper in the wine but there are pyrazine compounds that are found in green peppers as well. The most comprehensive article I found that discusses and explains these compounds in an understandable way for any level of wine drinker, was written by Anne Krebiehl MW in Wine Enthusiast, titled “The Science Behind the Main Wine Aromas, Explained”. She covers all the main aromas and flavors found in wines that one needs to know and their links. But there is no specific chemical link forthe textural elements on the palate associated with steeliness, chalkiness, slate, wet stones that one would associate with minerality, you could consider this the “missing link”.
Now before you read on, WARNING, I am about to go down a wine rabbit hole. In the fantastic Guildsomm webinars , Study Strategies given by Chris Tanghe MS and Ashley Hausman MW (I highly, highly recommend these for any wine student even though they are advertised for MS/MW’s), Ashley talks about going down rabbit holes and how it interesting it can be but at the same time sucks up time and she recommends structuring studying to give yourself time set aside to do just that, go down a rabbit hole. So if you are ready to go down a wine rabbit hole, here we go.
I am not about to give a structured essay on what the term minerality means because that is the current issue, what is it exactly and how to use it and how to translate it to a retail customer. But in digging around the web, I found some very helpful links, particularly on the site, IWC (International Wine Competition) and their emagazine Canopy by top experts discussing their current opinions on what exactly minerality is. So hopefully these will be helpful to you and something you can bookmark away and go back to if you need to review.
The best place to start is their article titled “Minerality, the Debate” written by Chris Boiling and is the recap of a seminar given by Dr. Jamie Goode, the one of all the wine books on Wine Science and Steve Daniel, head of buying at UK Importer Hallgarten & Novum wines. If you page down to the end of the article they give you links to other helpful articles in regards to minerality. You can “rabbit-hole away”. In the article they taste 11 “minerally” wines and discuss what they are tasting and where they think it comes from.
Minerality, A New Definition by John Szabo John is author of the book Volcanic Wines which I love, since, so many Italian grapes are grown on volcanic soil. In this piece he suggests minerality really refers to salty, sour and bitter sensations on your palate based on the levels of sodium, potassium and succinic acid.
Minerality: Second Opinion by Robin Goldsmith
The final link in the IWC article perhaps leads to the answer of why I have not heard the term used much anymore, Minerality: IWC judges view. When the 400 judges were surveyed in 2019, “minerality” was the word they thought was most over-used and needed to be banned from tasting notes. So there is my answer for why it’s use has mostly gone away. The ripple effect of expert opinion.
I love the old slogan from years ago from the retail clothing store Syms, whose tagline included “an educated consumer is our best customer”. This tends to be true with wine. As much I find it interesting going down a rabbit hole that leads to reading about the chemistry of wine and sodium and potassium, most people when they came into the shop, just want to pick up a wine quickly that they will like. Some people will ask for a wine that “is not sweet” when they really mean not fruity, some will probably say minerally when they mean not fruity. You know, that’s okay. Some days you have time to go down rabbit holes and some days not and thats okay too. The fun thing about wine, wine study, and wine drinking there is always something new over the horizon. If you have an inquisitive mind you will never be bored. As long you have the wine budget there is always something new to open. Cheers!