The term “minerality” is being used more and more in wine-tasting notes and on the label of wine bottles. But I’m yet to find a clear definition of what it actually means. Can you help?
Tom from Sacramento, California
Sommelier Melania Battiston responds:
“People are much more aware of minerality these days. We often have people coming to the restaurant and asking for ‘mineral wines’. When this happens, people tend to have the idea that they’re going to find a linear wine – clean and crisp. Usually we’re talking about Old World wine where the acidity is slightly higher and you have slightly less fruit in the background.
“As a sommelier, though, we talk about minerality when we notice an expression of the soil. I would say that minerality is directly related to the soil rather than grape variety. You can see that with Chardonnay, for example, because you’ve got many different expressions of it. Let’s take an Italian Chardonnay, where the minerality isn’t so obvious, and a Chablis, which is made from the same grape variety but is incredibly mineral. For us, it’s quite a useful term because it’s an indication of place. In a blind tasting, for example, if you find minerality you can say, ‘OK, I find these flinty notes that I guess come from the Loire Valley.’ A mineral wine tells you about a place.
“I don’t want to go too deep because I’m not a scientist and I am not pretending to be one, but the confusing part is that in general we cannot actually taste minerals. It’s more of an association…more like a feeling than ‘OK, I smell lemon, I smell lime.’ It’s more like imagery that you translate into a flavour descriptor – one that reminds you of a particular flavour or sensation. To me, it’s about having a mental association that evokes a place.
“I think it’s quite metaphorical, which is why it’s hard to define. If you can imagine licking a rock, you would have a sensation of what it was like, and the feeling it would give you on your tongue. Even though you would never actually go out and lick a rock, by imagining it you can be like, ‘OK, it might be that way.’
“White-wise, I would say Chablis is a good place to start, as it has notes of oyster shell and clay coming through. Melon de Bourgogne [used in Muscadet] has this nice saltiness to it. Assyrtiko [grown on Santorini, Greece] has a volcanic character, coming from a volcanic island. You have slate in Germany. I’ve never smelt an actual piece of slate, but I can still smell a wine and spot those aromas.
You have an extra layer of complexity that speaks of a true sense of place
“It’s often said you can only find minerality in white wines, but I don’t think that’s true. Reds can offer a great representation of terroir and minerality, too. To me, a Malbec is always dusty, and I associate dustiness with minerality. Sangiovese can be quite grainy and smell like wet forest floor – I can really smell that with Bordeaux, too, and I find farmyard smells in some Grenache. And that smell to me is like minerality – I think minerality can be related to the earth as well.
“If I were to describe a mineral wine to a customer I would say you have an extra layer of complexity that speaks of a true sense of place – you really have this feeling of where the grapes are grown. I would say it’s a pure, linear and elegant wine. To me, the wine tastes longer on the palate, it’s tenacious and more persistent because it creates this extra dimension.
People say that because minerality is not fully understood yet as a term, it’s not good to use it. But I think as a sommelier, it gives you a great clue as to what the wine can be.
Interview by Laura Richards