Today’s “Wine 101” episode about minerality is sponsored by William Estate Winery, which is located on the Silverado Bench in California. It’s not an actual bench, it’s a strip of mineral-rich land between a slope and a valley. What does that mean? It’s ideal growing conditions for wine. Is the land tied to minerality and wine, you ask? Well, there’s only one way to find out. To try William Estate Winery and other wines we talk about, follow the link in the episode description to TheBarrelRoom.com.
On this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers breaks down a relatively newer term in the wine world: minerality. What does it even mean? Beavers looks at the science of minerality and how to look for it when testing (or smelling) wine. Tune in to learn more.
OR CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and I’ve been told that my French pronunciations on the podcast are actually not bad. Thank you. I don’t believe you, but thank you.
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast. What is happening? Today we’re going to talk about this thing called minerality. I know, it’s crazy. When we’re done with this episode, you’re going to be like, “Oh my God, this is crazy.” So why don’t you and I talk about minerality and get crazy?
OK, wine lovers, before we get started, I want to do a little bit of housekeeping. That’s what they say in podcast, it’s house cleaning. No, it’s housekeeping. Anyway, it doesn’t it matter? So Adam Teeter, CEO of VinePair, and myself are about to head out to Sonoma and Napa for a week to record a bunch of audio for upcoming episodes. Because it’s going to be an audio experience, if you want to see what I’m doing out there, follow me @VinePairKeith on Instagram and you’ll get visuals of all the stuff you’ll be hearing about in the coming weeks. It’s going to be awesome. Get into it. Let’s talk about minerality.
I got to say, sometimes I have a hard time getting these episodes started. I have so much information I want to give out to you guys that I sometimes don’t know where to start, even though I have notes and all this stuff. When it comes to something like minerality, I don’t even know where to start. It’s a wild one, man. It’s a key term that is being used. Is it new? Is it old? What is minerality? What is this thing? Are you, as a wine lover out there, hearing people say the word “minerality” when they’re talking about wine at all? Or are you hearing people kind of raise an eyebrow? Or do they just go, “No, there’s no such thing?” What’s happening out there, guys? I don’t know. Because in the wine world, in our world and the industry, the word minerality has had one hell of a ride as far as acceptance is concerned. The thing is, this wine term “minerality” is actually fairly new. It’s almost hard to explain. I was around and buying wine when the word “minerality” popped off. I remember hearing it and thinking to myself, “Oh, that’s a great word.” It really helped to understand certain wines. This word spread throughout the wine industry like wildfire. I believe it’s connected to the organic, sustainable, biodynamic movement of the late ’90s and the early 2000s. I think that’s where it came from. But it got to the point where the word got so popular that people started asking, “So if minerality is a word we’re using to describe something in wine, whether it’s an aroma or a tactile sensation, then what is it?” What is minerality, then?
This is where things got real weird in the industry. Everyone began arguing about what this thing was. What is minerality? Is it a perception based off of what you and I know, from listening to “Wine 101,” that you are trying to grab things from nowhere that your brain has experienced before is an aroma? Or is it something that actually comes from the Earth, through the vine, into the grape that translates and metabolizes into an actual compound that results in a minerality aroma in the wine? What is it? It got even crazier from there, because the more this was talked about, the more science got interested in it. Science started being like, “OK, let’s look into this.” And this went on for a while. It wasn’t until 2015, the fourth edition of the “Oxford Wine Companion” that Jedi wine master Jancis Robinson actually put minerality as an entry into it. So for a long time, it wasn’t even there. Because it’s being talked about so much, it had to be addressed and she addressed it. So a lot of the information in this episode is going to be mostly from that entry, because the speculation about minerality is all over the place. When you’re looking at something as polarizing or mysterious as this, you want to go straight to a primary source. Obviously, Jedi wine master Jancis Robinson is that source. This is a little aside: I love that in the past five or six years, this term got an entry into the “Oxford Wine Companion.” Because one thing that is constant in wine, from antiquity to right now, is its mystery. There are so many things about wine that science is still trying to understand. I mean, that’s crazy, guys. We know a lot. But man, there are still tons of stuff we don’t know. This word, “minerality,” is a great example of what we don’t know.
According to Jancis — we’re on a first-name basis, even though we’ve never met — she acknowledges that it’s a fairly new term. But one thing that she picks up on, and I’m not really sure about this, but I have to put it out there because it’s kind of cool, is that she associates this minerality idea with tasting terms or aroma terms of the past. How minerality is the leveled-up version of flinty, gun flint, chalky, and stony. That’s the thing is like, I don’t know if those words give you any sense of a negative vibe about a wine. Because it seems like the word minerality has come about because, at some point, we decided that minerality is a better, cleaner word for gun flint, stone, or chalk. But the thing is, if you’re smelling those things, there’s no denying that your brain’s interpreting them as what that is. This is where it gets weird because people are like, “No, no, no, that’s actually minerality.” But according to Jancis Robinson, she’s saying it’s just a version of this style or this thing in wine that science has not figured it out. What is minerality?
When I’m writing wine reviews for VinePair, I like using the word minerality. I think it’s a great word to express something in wine. And when I type it, it immediately goes to an autocorrect typo. The word itself, minerality, I don’t believe is available in the Webster Dictionary or anything. I think it’s a word that we kind of came up with, like Stephen Colbert coming up with “truthiness.” When I look up minerality on the Mac or in the dictionary that the computer has, the aroma wheel comes up. One day we should talk about the aroma wheel, because that’s some fun stuff. But minerality, the word, is actually not real, I guess. What we’ve done in the industry is we’ve created a word called minerality and never really explained what that is. I believe the word minerality is somewhat subjective, but has definite characteristics around it. When I’m writing a wine review, it was kind of annoying after a while. You’re writing “minerality,” and it’s not popping up. So I started saying things like “mineral-driven.” I started saying things like wet rock, wet stone, stuff like that. And that’s really what minerality is.
For our purposes, one way to experience what people say minerality is, is if you get a white wine from a cool region. The two most prevalent wines out there that will give you this minerality vibe would be the Sauvignon Blancs coming out of Sancerre, and the Chardonnay coming out of Chablis. Both of these wines don’t often see oak, so what you’re getting is the cleanliness of the variety and what it wants to show. And when you’re smelling those wines, it’s almost undeniable that you get this very high-tone perception of what you would think of as mineral. Sometimes I say you’re grabbing a rock out of a babbling brook and licking it or smelling it. It’s that kind of minerality. Sometimes minerality is the smell of asphalt after a rainstorm. Sometimes minerality is the chalkiness of banging two erasers together in school. Those are just some that my brain came up with.
Jancis also mentions crushed oyster shell, which makes sense. Also, this minerality is not only on the nose. Wildly enough, with the two wines that I suggested that you try, you get a bit of a saline vibe on the palate. You get the fruit, you get the acidity, but then there’s a lean saline mineral running through, as if you’re drinking mineral water. But it’s not watered down, of course, just part of the complexity of a wine. But just like there are no cherries in Pinot Noir, other than the perception of cherries, according to Jancis, “Geologists and soil scientists are clear that there can be no direct connection between the flavor of wine and the geological minerals in the rocks that underlie the vineyard or the mineral elements in the soil that are nutrients for the vine.” You may have gotten lost in that, it’s a lot. But what that’s basically saying is that the mineral in the Earth does not transmit through the vines system into the grape at all. She says that, “Minerals are found in wine but are below the threshold of our sensory perception.” So what we have here is a wine mystery, something that wine does through fermentation and through the winemaking process in general, that results in this perception of minerality. It’s also in red wine. In some very light Pinot Noir, there’s a very definite minerality vibe going in that. Sometimes in very lean Cab Francs, underneath all that peppery note, you can sometimes get a wet rock thing going on. There has been talk that sometimes this flinty, smoky stuff, which is actually very prevalent in some Sauvigon Blanc at times, is thought to be a big deal in Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs in New Zealand. There are these things called mercaptans. Mercaptans are normally not desirable in wine. They are a group of chemical compounds that are developed through the fermentation process, and they can be not very volatile. Meaning they don’t blow off as easily. So good racking and aeration can help. But it’s thought that in screw cap wines, there is a mercaptan called benzyl mercaptan, which gives off that gun flint type thing, and it is in such small proportions that they believe it adds to the complexity of a wine. They are sometimes called beneficial mercaptan. There’s one called furfural, which gives off a coffee note, and that can sometimes add to the complexity of a wine. I believe that you can smell those in Amarone. But that’s how this minerality thing works.
The entire industry doesn’t really know where it comes from. And I just think that’s wonderful. I mean, I want to know. I love science. I want to know where that minerality comes from. I want to know what the interactions are that the constituents of what will be a wine gives us. It’s very subtle, but very perceptive mineral thing that runs through wine. It’s a beautiful thing. But that’s the thing, minerality is something that you will come across. It’s something you will think in your brain and you’ll say, “minerality,” and you’ll be right. Because the thing is, the collective hive mind of the wine industry at some point decided that minerality was a word that was going to be used for this wet rock, lean, mineral vibe. But then, like I said, it got popular and we started arguing over it. To this day, no one has figured it out. If you ever are smelling a wine and you smell rock minerals, that’s what it is in your brain interpreting that for you. Your strong, big, healthy brain is telling you, “Hey, this smells like a wet rock. OK, that’s minerality.” So for right now, this is all the current information that Jancis and science has on this word. For now, until we figure it out — again, I don’t do these experiments — let’s use minerality whenever we want to. Let’s just say it. Hey, wow, I’m getting nice minerality on this wine. It’s a really great word. I love it. I think it’s a really great word. But then again, you could also say flinty. If it’s gun flint in your brain, it’s gun flint.
OK, I’m rambling on about this because I could just go in circles. But part of this episode is to show you that wine still has a long way to go. We have a long way to go in understanding wine. And also, it’s a word you’re hearing and you should be comfortable with using it because it’s there. It’s real. It’s minerality. Go drink some Chablis, go drink some Sancerre, you’ll see.
@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there.
And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.