Minerality in wine
Almost every introduction to a discussion on minerality begins with an emphasis of the newness of the term in wine speak. In the renowned, “The Taste of Wine” by Emile Peynaud, first published in the 1980s, minerality did not appear once.
It seems likely that journalists and those in the business of selling wine adopted the term as public awareness in the relationship between soils and the wine’s character grew. Imagine a review that talks about “the sandy soils lend a fragrant, mineral quality to the fruit”; this makes a direct link between soil composition and the wine’s personality.
Does minerality come from the vineyard?
As the use of the term minerality has increased, so too has the voice of scientists in telling us that minerals cannot be smelt. Minerals do not vaporise and so low is their presence in wine that it would be impossible for them to be identified.
And yet, soils are core to a wine’s taste. Claude Bourguignon, soil microbiologist and wine consultant, when interviewed in 2014 whilst working in French Cahors said, “the longer the roots, the more minerals are extracted from the limestone. As the limestone originated from sea this can be felt in the wine as a kind of salty finish… minerality is an imprint of the soil but it is impossible to measure… it is empirical, not scientific… we feel it in the taste of the wine in the mouth. We have tried so many wines made from vines from horizontal roots, where the roots stop at the surface due to herbicides and fertilizers. With those wines, you cannot distinguish between different terroirs.”
Whilst we may not be able to taste minerality we can certainly identify traits that give us a sense of origin and thereby make a link to the mineral composition of the soil type. It is also worth bearing in mind that there are terms which now fall under the “mineral” banner. Wander around any professional tasting room and you’ll hear terms like “flint”, “earthy”, “chalk”, “saline”, etc…
Where do these terms come from? If a soil is low in nitrogen then the yeasts are more likely to metabolise with more sulphuric compounds which might lead to those “flinty” aromatics. Water stress will also impact flavour and can lead to more mineral-like qualities. Minerals are odourless, that is a fact. However, smells are an important part of our sensory lives. As individuals we can probably all bring to mind the smells that come when you strike a match to light the fire, sea air, or a walk at a river’s edge after fresh rain.
When we smell wine we are looking for a way to convey a wine’s qualities and these perceived aromas are an important part of that.
Are some wines more likely to be mineral than others?
In 2015, Excell Ibérica and Outlook Wine published a study, “Minerality in Wines”. The two-year-long study was another to show that the chemical composition of wines and their perception as mineral, bore no relation to the minerals in the vineyards soil. They found that chemical compounds from metabolism of the vine, fermentation and the vinification process, all played a part in the wine’s so-called minerality.
When it came to human analysis (smelling and tasting), the study identified certain grapes as being more likely to be described as mineral. The grapes the researchers identified were Albariño, Cabernet franc, Cabernet sauvignon, Chardonnay, Chenin blanc, Nebbiolo and Sauvignon blanc.
Reading around the subject, it is also clear that we imagine wines to be mineral before we have even tasted them! A great example of this would be Chablis. So long have the winemakers here been talking about their Kimmeridgean soils that it’s almost impossible not to pick up a glass of sense the oyster fossils.
Oh, and do not fall into the trap of thinking minerality is only for white wines. Sarah Jane Evans MW wrote, “Some argue that it [minerality] only applies to white wines, but anyone who has tasted a Priorat from the area’s llicorella (slate) soils will know it also occurs in reds.”
In the last year the winemakers of Alsace went to London and gave a tasting entitled, “The Rock Stars”! No hiding here – this is another region that makes a strong correlation between its complex and varying terroirs and the individual wine styles.
Furthermore, the lesser-known producers of Romagna in Italy went also in the UK not so long ago. The presentation focused on soil types and the correlation with wine styles. Modigliana was identified as a prime area due to its clay, marl and sandstone soils. Across a small flight of wines, “earthy” appeared repeatedly in many tasting notes. Mineral wines? I would have said so!
Minerality in organic or biodynamic wines
If you want to go mining (so to speak) for mineral qualities in your wines, then we think organic and biodynamic wines is the ideal place to start. We believe the viticultural practices used by producers supports fertile soils that gives the vines access to all the elements, minerals included that they need.
In healthy soils, the roots absorb minerals in their sap, depending on their individual needs. This means healthier fruit. In non-organic viticulture, things like excessive soil compaction and herbicides kills the micro organisms and the vines struggle to feed themselves.
So, if it’s minerals you are after – look no further than organics:
Collio DOC Friulano 2014 - La Castellada
Aglianico del Vulture DOC “Physis” 2015 - Ripanero
Image credits: Bradley Pisney