"Whatever producers and sommeliers mean by gunflint in a Sancerre, or oyster shells in a Chablis, it is not the terroir they are tasting"by Barry Smith / November 17, 2016 / Leave a comment
The most over-used word in the world of wine is the ill-defined term “minerality.” I have mentioned it before in this column when talking about tasting terms but it deserves closer scrutiny.
Although talk of minerality has wide appeal for producers, wine merchants, wine critics and sommeliers, and is often seen as a mark of quality, it’s a relatively new wine term, having arisen in the 1990s. There is no entry for it in Ann Noble’s wine aroma wheel or Emile Peynaud’s classic text, The Taste of Wine. (Though the latest edition includes a note on it and there is a new entry in the fourth edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine.) There is, however, no agreement on its meaning, or which wines show the most minerality and certainly no basis to the claim that we can taste the soils of the vineyards.
In a 2013 article in the Journal of Wine Research, geologist Alex Maltman looked at the influence of minerals on wine and found it lacking. It would take crushed rocks weathered by rain to add anything to the vine and we don’t find these buried near the roots of the vine. Besides, what do slate or stone taste of? Nothing, says Maltman. When we speak of smelling wet stone what we are actually smelling is the humus of organic matter on the stone’s surface released by the added moisture. Thus whatever producers and sommeliers mean by gunflint in a Sancerre, or oyster shells in a Chablis, it is not the terroir they are tasting. As Maltman points out, there is actually more iodine—though still in minuscule amounts—in Australian Chardonnays than in Chablis.
So what are wine professionals talking about when they say a wine has good minerality? It generally suggests quality and distinction. They know that minerality is often confined to white wines. But beyond that point there is little else they agree upon.
At a recent seminar on minerality at the Institute of Masters of Wine, we were invited to take part in a blind tasting of the wines used in two studies, one by Jordi Ballester on Chablis and one by Wendy Parr on Sauvignons. Attendees had to record their verdict on each wine, rating them on a seven-point scale between no minerality and intense minerality. We had…