Rocks in their heads

‘Minerality’ is the latest buzz-word in wine-speak. It’s reached plague proportions, but only relatively recently in Australia, despite having been widely used in Europe for a long time. Writers and winemakers who never before uttered this word, now routinely describe wines as ‘minerally’, or possessed of some arcane quality known as ‘minerality’. But ask winemakers, sommeliers or spruikers what they mean by this word and they often flounder. We’re left feeling as though they themselves don’t know. In other words, it’s just another important-sounding word that wine-wankers sprinkle through their verbage to make it seem authoritative.

I spotted it on the back-label of a Petaluma riesling for the first time in the 2008 vintage (tastings). It reads: “The 2008 riesling displays typical minerality and lemon lime intensity – a hallmark of Petaluma’s Hanlin Hill vineyard since 1979.”

I asked chief winemaker Andrew Hardy what he meant. Like most winemakers he was a bit vague about it. “It’s hard to describe,” he said. “Its main effect is on the palate. It’s mainly a textural thing. It’s found more in riesling than other varieties, but I see it in some Adelaide Hills chardonnay, especially Piccadilly (tastings).” Does it relate to the soil and the rock from which a specific soil is derived? “It has to be mineral-related. It’s not the winemaking. Grosset’s Polish Hill is very minerally, probably because of the high slate content in the soil. In Watervale it’s a different kind of minerality, probably because of the limestone-based soils.” But ask him to describe it more precisely, and little light is shed.

Orlando winemaker Ben Bryant, who’s made a lot of white wine, including Tasmanian chardonnay for the company’s top label, Reeves Point (tastings), echoes many of Hardy’s opinions. We discuss France’s Sancerre and Chablis and agree that they epitomise ‘minerally’ white wine. Indeed, when you’ve eyeballed the chalky white calcareous soils of Chablis, Sancerre (and Champagne), it’s easy to imagine the chalkiness that you can taste and smell in these wines comes directly from the soil. In Sancerre, some of the vineyards are on flinty soils and the wines are often described as ‘flinty’ (silex in French).

Bryant thinks ‘minerally’ wines are from cooler climates or cooler vintages, and wines which have had acid added to them are less likely to show minerality. “Natural acid is an important part of it. If you have to add acid to correct the pH, you can lose the minerality.” He thinks Eden Valley riesling has it more than Clare, because it’s cooler and the soils are harder than in Clare. And in Clare, rieslings from ‘really ripe’ years don’t have it as much as those from cooler years.

Wine people tend to use quite a lot of words for effect: words that are perceived as being positive descriptors. When was the last time you heard a Kiwi winemaker describe his or her sauvignon blanc as smelling like cat’s piss or a sweaty T-shirt, although a lot of them do! Gooseberry, however, is widely used, although most people who drink these wines (and many who make them) have probably never tasted or even seen a fresh gooseberry. Some words are fashionable, others aren’t. Minerality certainly is.

And, like many wine descriptors, different people mean different things when they use it. I’ve heard some wine professionals say minerality is like the taste and palate sensation of one of the stronger-tasting mineral waters, because of its high dissolved mineral content. I can identify with that. But I’d like a dollar for every time I’ve listened to a marketer or winemaker describe a wine as minerally, when I can’t taste anything in the wine that could be described as mineral. I suspect much of the wine-drinking public is also puzzled about this word.

Personally, I can easily describe white wines such as the above-named Sancerre and other Loire Valley sauvignon blancs (but not Marlborough) as minerally; French Chablis; some Champagnes; dry Loire chenin blancs such as Vouvray; many rieslings from both the old and new world, unwooded low-alcohol traditional-style Hunter Valley semillon (there’s that natural acid theme again), but not a lot else. And very few red wines.

There’s no doubt some wines have an aroma of crushed stones, river-washed pebbles, struck flint, split granite or quartz rock. How it gets there is a mystery.

As yet, there’s no hard scientific evidence that the base-rock of vineyard soils (granite, slate, limestone, schist, etc) imparts a traceable mineral content – let alone taste or aroma – to wine. But no doubt, far into the future, we will know more about this. I, for one, would be willing to believe there is a connection. But until it can be proven I’ll remain skeptical.

First published in Gourmet Traveller WINE – Dec-Jan 2008-2009.

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