You know that something hot is happening when some of the UK’s most influential wine personalities all end up in the same place, at the same time. This is exactly what happened last week, when a bunch of vinous people – including this writer – gathered for an event organised by London merchant Hallgarten & Novum in London’s Shoreditch.
The event focused on minerality, likely the most controversial adjective of the wine industry’s jargon. Unsurprisingly, the seminar didn’t come close to settling the argument. Admittedly, the event’s purpose was much simpler than reaching any definitive answer. The aim was rather to give an informal overview of the subject and assess the quality of such ‘mineral character’ in a selection of Hallgarten’s wines (and yes, being Steve Daniels’ wines, there was some good Assyrtiko lying around).
The talk offered plenty of food for thought as well as a robust and persuasive feeling that, perhaps, we’re overcomplicating the issue.
Leave it to the pros
It wasn’t long ago that the word ‘minerality’ entered the wine jargon, around the 1980s. Since then, it has become one of the most overused, misused and controversial of all wine descriptors.
The debate centres around two core issues: first, what is it that we perceive (taste, smell or both) as minerality in the wine; second, where do these flavours and aromas originate?
Much of the confusion is generated by the fact that wine professionals tend to blur the boundaries between the two core questions – the former being much more open to personal interpretation than the latter – and that personal opinions and beliefs are promoted as scientific evidence.
How many times have we heard people claiming that vines slurp minerals from the rock themselves? This despite scientific evidence that vines do not intake geological minerals from rocks. They only absorb mineral nutrients (ie phosphorus or nitrogen) normally found in humus and topsoil. And neither is the vine sucking up minerals through underground water; sodium, chloride, and sulphite for instance, are all rejected by the plant.
If this wasn’t enough, even if the vine was indeed able to suck on rocks – science says – we wouldn’t be able to taste them in the finished wine, as rocks have no flavour. All we taste when we lick the surface of our geological goodies is elements generated by the decomposition of organic matter that sit on top of it.
In short, let’s leave the explanation of which, how and if minerals end up in the wine for the scientists to sort out. After all, science can only be challenged by new science – we all hope our doctors agree.
Minerality or mineralities?
Scientific research has also attempted to explain what we taste when we say a wine is mineral. Answers vary widely, informed by different cultures, degree of wine knowledge, etc. Salinity, citrus fruit and acidity are all taste or textural elements that have been associated with minerality.
In short, we simply can’t unanimously describe what we perceive as minerality. And yet, we all appreciate that some wines – especially if white, acidic and a bit austere – can display one or more elements that won’t fit any of the currently available descriptors.
Perhaps then, minerality is just a cluster comprising a number of well-defined sensations such as saline or petrichor (you’re going to google this one, aren’t you?). In fact, minerality isn’t dissimilar to any other cluster we commonly use in our assessment of wine. We say ‘red fruit’, for instance, just to get a rough understanding of a wine’s character, but then we need strawberry or redcurrant to really understand what it tastes like.
Therefore, when we describe a wine as mineral, ‘perhaps we just need to be less lazy’, as Daniel convincingly proposed, and just attempt to be a little more specific. Does the wine taste salty? Does it remind you of piping hot stones?
A ‘minerality cluster’ would be an extremely useful tool to describe characteristics that have yet to find their place in our wine vocabulary. As Daniel rightly pointed out: ‘Just a few years ago we didn’t even know what umami was.’ Perhaps, then, it won’t be too long until the use of 'minerality' in the wine jargon becomes homogeneous and unequivocal.