In the wine world, "minerality" is a highly marketable buzzword, the darling of connoisseurs and critics and a perceived assurance of quality in the glass. For winemakers, the term is closely linked to the concept of "terroir" — wines directly reflect the soil in which the grapes are grown. But the truth of this assumption is hazy at best.
As a descriptor, the term didn’t enter the wine tasting lexicon until the mid-1980s, when, due to the burgeoning popularity of California vineyards, it became necessary to distinguish more acidic, leaner Old World varietals from their riper, bolder, more fruit-intense New World counterparts. Minerality can be defined as the tastes or aromas of soils or rocks in wine — limestone, chalk, flint, granite, slate, etc. It has been described as the taste of a wet stone or the smell of a cement sidewalk after a rain. And indeed, wines from Burgundy’s Chablis district, whose soils are composed of limestone, clay, and ancient fossilized oyster shells, do exhibit sensory notes of this terrain.
The problem is, no one knows exactly what minerality is. Skeptics point out that since grapes grow in soil and not on rocks, it’s impossible for mineral molecules to be directly absorbed by the plants’ root systems. What’s more, minerals themselves have no taste or odor. Since most minerality is found in high-acid, cool-weather whites, acidity could be a factor, as could volatile sulphur compounds or simply the by-products of the fermentation process. Another possibility is that as vine roots dig deep into stony ground in their search for nutrients, they take up flavor compounds released by deep-draining rainwater into the decaying organic matter that coats the rocks.
Many other factors can affect the final expression of wine in the glass as well — soil composition, altitude, climactic conditions, and even the type of yeasts used in fermentation, not to mention direct manipulation by the winemaker.
But no matter what it’s source, blind taste tests prove that minerality is a very real phenomenon. Look for minerality in Burgundian Chablis, Sancerre and New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, Mosel Riesling, and Pinot Grigio and Chenin Blanc.
Expert Wine Recommendations
• Don Singleton
The Village Cellar
- 2013 Lady Hill Freedom Pinot Noir $21, sweet cherry fruit greets the nose, mingling with notes of spices and earth. On the tongue ripe cherries and strawberries mesh with accents of flowers and cocoa.
- 2014 Domaine Reverdy-Ducroux Les Vignes Silex $18, from the flinty soils of the Loire Valley, this 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc reveals pungent aromas of apples, gooseberries and citrus along with subtle notes of grass and hay backed by mouth-watering minerality.
• Anna Trost
Wine and Cheese by TCC
- 2014 Brooks Pinot Blanc $19, aromas of lemon blossoms and citrus waft from the glass, merging with a generous palate of apricots, tropical fruit and pears. The fruit is ripe and rich and the acidity is bright and crisp. From the Willamette Valley.
- 2013 Oak Farm Vineyards Barbera $25, this garnet-red 100 percent Barbera from Lodi offers a juicy mouthful of ripe plums and sweet dark cherries backed by hints of bourbon barrel, chocolate and tobacco, backed by buoyant acidity and silky tannins. Aged for 12 months in neutral oak barrels.