Minerality, a favorite word of wine lovers, is sometimes assailed for being non-specific: “It’s a word everyone’s using for everything,” a Chablis producer grumped in a recent Wall Street Journal column devoted to the term’s omnipresence.
But a recent conversation with wine blogger Jameson Fink prompted me to wonder whether the real problem is drinkers’ limited understanding of geology. Does “minerality” mean something else to earth science pros? Can a Ph.D. taste notes of igneous rocks?
Sadly, no, says Bob Nusbaum, a geology professor at the College of Charleston who conducted research at North Carolina wineries (presumably on topics slightly more sophisticated than the one I asked him to address.)
“While I haven’t heard of the term before, I suspect that it implies that certain minerals may influence the taste of the wine,” Nusbaum says. “Certain minerals in soils may hold water longer than others.”
Calcium-rich soils, such as the limestone soils associated with Champagne, Burgundy and Chablis, retain less water, a characteristic which has been linked with high acidity.
Although the meaning of “minerality” is nebulous, the Wall Street Journal column concluded acidity is a critical component of the concept. “Every one of the wines that I found could also be described as fresh and lively with lots of acidity,” critic Lettie Teague wrote of an experiment in which she tasted only wines typically described as “minerally.”
When drinkers say they want a minerally wine, they generally intend to convey their disinterest in big fruit and oak – it doesn’t matter much to them whether the grapes were grown in schist (metamorphic rock) or shale (sedimentary rock) soil.
Nusbaum says geologists don’t waste their time at cocktail receptions trying to discern the precise mineral notes in their glasses.
“If people are tasting specific minerals in soils, more power to them,” he says.