If you have ever wondered if you were missing something when you heard someone say a wine "has great minerality," then you are not alone. It used to be one the more trendy buzzwords in wine, but it has lost some luster because it has been attacked from all sides as being impossible to quantify or prove. As far as I am concerned, "minerality" is a useful descriptor for aromas and flavors, but only insofar as it can convey the perception of an appealing, non-fruit-derived quality.
There is a sense of unease surrounding minerality (hence the attacks) specifically regarding how it gets into a wine, and what exactly it is. I have a natural acceptance of this kind of mystery, so I am content to let the answers come as they may. Many, many people, however, have long been and continue to be minerality deniers, writing it off as the flights of fancy from exuberant and self-righteous wine writers. I wonder if these folks are impatient for answers. Just spend some time surfing wine blogs and you'll find more missives obviously borne of insecurity than anyone should have to endure on such an esoteric topic. This is too bad, because it's only a drink.
Anyway...since minerality is a commonly-used term, it is worth understanding it.
What Minerality Is...And What It Is Not
Minerality is a non-fruit-oriented notion a taster detects in a wine's aroma or flavor:
In the AROMA: any scent that your nose will immediately recognize as normally non-consumable, such as chalk, slate, silicate (like mica), calcium (like limestone), flint, or petroleum. When accompanied by ripe and succulent fruit aromas, these notions are quite attractive and usually the more pronounced and intense the minerality, the more mouthwatering the scent.
In the FLAVOR: a non-sweet, non-fruity, non-bitter quality that can be a component of a wine's flavor, usually expressed through shades of salty, savory, and/or sour flavors. For example, if a wine seems to have a rocky quality to the flavor, and this reminds you of the way the quartzite-laced flower bed behind your childhood home smelled (taste and smell are so closely intertwined) after a warm rain, then you've hit on it.
From Whence Minerality?
Does quartzite in the soil actually get into the vines and therefore our wine? This isn't fully known, but so far the evidence does not support the idea that a vine metabolizes soil-based minerals, thereby enriching the grapes with their essences so that we can taste them. However, plant biology still has too many dark recesses that are as yet unexplored for us to know conclusively what is happening. As any good erstwhile Liberal Arts student (and I am--the University of Chicago drubbed this into me!) would do, I'll wait until we know more before I decide that vines do not directly transmit the flavors of certain minerals in the soil, because I suspect this will be politicized for some time to come, and people will fall on one side or the other, probably even when the evidence is finally overwhelming in one way or another. This won't have the impact that Evolution has had on society, but it would spice things up if it were similarly controversial.
For now, the provenance of minerality remains beneath some stone unturned.
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