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In Defense of Minerality

When I just typed the word “minerality,” my spell-checking tyrant quickly underlined it in red, as though to say, “no such word.”  Meanwhile, those with recent degrees in wine education, with minors in enological correctness, continue to patter on social media that minerality really shouldn’t be used as a descriptor because it’s not definable. 

Sorry, I’m going to continue using the term.

I grew up in the country where as kids we scooped up double handfuls of fresh water from hillside pools fed by spring-fed rivulets that have carved their way through layers of rock.  At home, we loved drinking water out of tin cans, savoring the crisp metallic flavor they imparted.  So I know the taste of minerality in water – and in wine.

There are two basic arguments made against the use of minerality. One is that the term is imprecise. Of course, it is.  There are at least 50 shades of minerality including, in my vocabulary, chalk, flint, metal, carbon or graphite. But there are also uncountable shades of “fruity,” “meaty” and “savory,” but no one argues to abandon those terms. We start our process of identification with the broader term and work our way down to the specifics when needed.

The other argument is more scientific, or perhaps pseudo-scientific.  That is, that the flavors of minerality can’t pass from the soil into the grape and thus into the wine. I happen to agree with that, based on studies conducted at Mecca, aka U.C. Davis, and elsewhere. I’m a firm believer that the DNA of the grapevine (including its root stock) has a wide array of flavors and other characteristics that it can put forth, and a wide array it cannot. Terroir and the vigneron’s plan for how the grapes will be grown have an immense effect on telling the vine what kind of grapes he or she wants, and the vine will respond to the extent it can.

But it’s not in a Pinot Noir’s DNA to taste like a Cabernet or vice versa, no matter the terroir or the winemaker.  Add to this, what the vigneron does after the grape is picked – skin times, yeasts, temperatures, oxidation or no, malo or no, oak or no, lees and battonage or no, filter and fine or no – will affect how what the grape has given will taste like when the wine emerges from the bottle.

But all this is feinting the issue.  While we can argue about the influences of terroir, vineyard practices and winemaking on the final product, it is irrelevant to interpreting what we taste.  We may taste lemon, tart apples and chalk in our Chardonnay. And we may be curious about how those flavors got there, but that lineage does not change how the wine tastes.  I have tasted the flavors of dry, dead wood in wines that the winemaker never put in barrels or seeded with chips or staves. If I taste it, it doesn’t matter how it got there.

Finally, some people, trying to come up with alternate terms, have settled on “saline.” Yes, some wines do have saline characteristics, but saline – or salty, whether speaking of sodium chloride or other chemical compounds – is too limiting as an alternate to minerality.

So why should I quit using the term “minerality” as a starting point to describe an array of flavors and even of “feels?” So far, no one has given me a good reason.

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