A friend asked me to address minerality in wine. While I understood the concept at a high level, I didn’t know enough to fill up an entire blog article. So I did some research, and here’s what I found.
For starters, the term “minerality” is very popular but very difficult to define. According to Jeff Cox of Wine News, “In deciding a case involving pornography in 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote in his short concurrence that ‘hard-core pornography’ was difficult to define, but that ‘I know it when I see it.’ Similarly, minerality in a wine is difficult to define, yet most of us seem to recognize it when we taste it.”
We know that some minerals are naturally present in wines: sulfur, magnesium, potassium, calcium, manganese, iron, copper and zinc. But when people talk about minerality in wine, they use terms such as chalk, slate, wet rocks, pet rocks (no, I just made that one up), flint and limestone.
Sometimes there’s something in the wine, a certain undefinable taste on the palate…old, musty; perhaps even an aromatic sensation rather than a taste…like an imposing stone cathedral or dank, mysterious cave. The more I read, the more I likened “minerality” to this elusive taste category.
The concept of terroir (the environment where the vineyards are grown) indicates that a soil’s composition, including the minerals, contributes greatly to the flavors of wine. For the time being, though, the science behind how any of this happens is very limited. Is it the deep roots that absorb the minerals or the shallow roots? Do microorganisms break up minerals differently, depending on how hungry they are? Does the plant itself absorb anything? Does moldiness in the winery play a role?
Nobody knows for sure. For now, there are many well-reasoned theories eagerly awaiting research funding. I’m planning to keep an eye on the minerality space, because I think it will be rich with new discoveries.
My personal philosophy is that wine is a very individualized experience, with no right or wrong tastes. So, if there is some vaguely unidentifiable “je ne sais quoi” in your wine, neither fruity nor flowery, perhaps it is minerality you are experiencing. Trust your senses and enjoy the discovery!