Rock’n’roll blues, or a rose by any other name…

Dermot Nolan MW

The terminology of wine tasting is notoriously loose and ill-defined and this can cause problems when so-called experts (i.e. geeks like me) try to explain what a wine is like to a normal person (i.e. you!). What seems like a useful term within the trade can be confusing (or even off-putting) to a lot of consumers. One such term, which became fashionable about 12 years ago, is “minerality”. What is this “minerality” of which we speak? As it happens, even the great and good aren’t so sure…

The Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW) does many useful things but one of the most useful are the various tastings and other events which it organises worldwide. On 11th October, 2016, as a result of discussions between Dr Richard Smart, Dr Wendy Parr and Sally Easton MW, the IMW organised a seminar on “minerality” which was held in Saddler’s Hall, London.

Now, I cannot recall when I first heard the term being used but it has become awfully trendy over the years. A lot of people disagreed with my basic definition of the term: wines of moderate alcohol (12-12.5% ABV), low primary aromatics but with a medium to full middle palate texture. (Eh, texture, now there’s another word that’s got fierce trendy in the last 7 years or so! Does it taste like a tintáin rug or a deep shag?). For many people the word conjures up quite specific wines – Chablis, or maybe Sancerre or Wachau Rieslings and so on. Note, mainly white and wines which all fit my definition.

On the day, we learned that Richard Smart was not well enough to attend but we still had a cracking line-up to guide us with Dr JordiBallester and Prof. Alex Maltman also appearing. These are some of the world’s foremost researchers in wine so it was fantastic to them present their work in person.

We started with the superbly entertaining Alex Maltman who is a geologist with a super knowledge of wine. His presentation was excellent and basically explained how vines interact with, and how, and what, they take up from the soil. This was well-known to many in the room but he still had some insights and information that made things clearer; the problem, in general, is that so few people who talk about wine seem to have a very poor understanding of what goes on.

Minerals are inorganic chemical compounds formed by weathered rock. That word “inorganic” is crucial – it means they contain no carbon and are not derived from living matter. Consequently, they cannot have a taste or flavour. We know that vines get almost all their nutritional needs in the first 60 to 80 centimetres of soil and that the roots which delve deeper into the sub-soil are searching for water and cannot take in minerals at all. So anyone who can “taste” a mineral flavour in a wine is simply mistaken. So when someone tells you that wines from Pouilly-Fumé are “flinty” they’re wrong! If you’re told a Mosel Riesling has a “slate” character you’re being misinformed. Flint and slate are rocks which have no taste, no flavour. Indeed, the three key nutrients for vines (nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and sulfur (S)) all come from humus – from organic matter in the soil. Indeed, his basic message is that terms such as these and the eponymous “minerality” are little more than metaphors. They represent something we sense but cannot adequately describe.

There was lots and lots more but the key aspect is that vineyard soils cannot impart a specific flavour to a wine. As a quick digression, about 20 years ago Patrick Matthews wrote a book called “The Wild Bunch” and in it he mentioned a tasting held by Pieter Vinding-Diers for MW students in 1994 where he demonstrated how the microflora of the winery played a key role in the wine’s aromatic profile. I was one of those students and since then I’ve always believed that winery yeast is the key driver towards “terroir” differences and that’s still my belief, even if unproven.
Next up was Jordi Ballester who showed some fascinating information about how terms can quickly become popular. He went on to show that the term “minerality” was very meaningful to wine makers and professional tasters but more or less meaningless to consumers. Wines such as Chablis and sauvignon blanc-based wines were cited as being quite typical of “mineral” wines but his point about the difference between winemakers and consumers highlighted a point made by Richard Smart in a small presentation read by Sally: is this primarily a semantic issue? Does the term add to our ability to communicate about wine or does it act to mystify wine?
Jordi then showed that in blind tastings with winemakers there was quite a wide degree of variation in what was deemed to be a “mineral” wine. Tasters were given wines to taste three times – nose only, normal tasting, and palate only with nose pegged!

At this point he handed over to Wendy who basically put us through our paces with two blind flights. The first flight had five chardonnays which we were to rate on a scale of 0 to 10 (0 = no minerality, 10 = ultimate minerality). These all turned out to be Chablis 1er Crus and when the room was asked to identify the most mineral wine the scores were all over the place – each wine getting more or less the same number of votes!

We then moved on to a flight of ten sauvignon blanc wines. We had to score these, then group them and identify common aspects to each group. Again, the scores were highly variable and didn’t always agree with the scores the wines had got from the research tasters.

So what do we make of this? Jancis Robinson MW tweeted during the seminar that it was “predictably inconclusive” but, while I understand where she’s coming from, I don’t agree. What I learned is that there are terms which are used far too easily which are far too loose in definition and which, consequently, are not helpful in communicating about wine (Dr Smart’s point about semantics). Even within the room it was interesting to hear questions about “minerality” in red wines – not something I hear too often – and in sweet wines too! 

In fact, it seems to me that this term means little or nothing useful and my conclusion is that it is one best avoided; I have used the word in many tasting notes but not that often and I’m beginning to think it’s not a term worth using, especially when dealing with consumers. Now, how about a seminar on “green tannins”, “texture” or any other loose term that gets your goat! 


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