Beginners Corner

Snooth User: kw8613

New to wine drinking and need help with wine descriptions please

Posted by kw8613, Aug 30, 2009.

I'm new to wine drinking and have tried a couple of wines that were described as "mineraly". What does this typically mean?

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Reply by Gregory Dal Piaz, Aug 31, 2009.

Uh oh!

We're gonna have a disagreement here! There is no true definition for mineraly in white. To me it's a combination of high acid and almost salty. I do get the flavors of minerals sometimes in wines. At the extreme it can make the wine taste like aspirin or vitamins. At it's best it tastes like limestone, or chalk, granite or slate. Elements of the great vineyards that we tend to see, perhaps against reason, in the their wines.

I'm comfortably stating that that is what it typycally means but other do and will disagree.

Reply by dmcker, Aug 31, 2009.

I was under the impression that certain salts (in the chemical sense, not sodium choloride per se) are soluble in water, and thus get absorbed in the grapes and then wine during the growing and vinification processes. One example being limestone from the vineyard, which can build a limestone-flavored 'mineral' character in, say, a sauvignon blanc. Or chalkiness in Chablis, etc. These salts are a large component of what gets called gout de terroir, and not just for whites.

I think this pretty much is what you are saying, Greg, so what are the other, contrary descriptions you allude to?

Reply by GregT, Aug 31, 2009.

dmker - I can't even guess as to what or whom he's alluding . . .

But let's think about it for a second. Calcium chloride. It dissolves. The ions get carried up into the grape. So the wine tastes like calcium chloride? In other words it tastes like salt? Or does it taste like elemental calcium and/or chloride? I would suggest neither.

Minerals are usually described as inorganic solids with a regular crystaline structure. Quartz for example. So if something has "minerality", it should conceivably taste like the minerals that were in the soil, no? Feldspar for example, would be found in slate soils. That's got aluminum and silica and some other stuff. Limestone would be calcium carbonate. Red soil would likely have iron oxides.

So which exact mineral are we tasting? Sulfates, chromates, halides? We certainly wouldn't taste the same "minerality" in a wine from slate as we would in a wine from limestone, would we? Can anyone distinguish the various "mineralities" they taste?

We see red soil, we think iron, and we decide we're tasting it in the wine. Only the iron in the soil may well be ferric iron and not ferrous. It's not necessarily going to find its way into the plant. In fact, your plant may suffer from serious iron deficiency even if you bury hundreds of iron pots and nails around it.

Gout de terroir is a nice romantic phrase that is essentially a load of crap in my opinion. For example, the chalk in your Chablis is exactly the limestone in your sauvignon blanc. Chalk is limestone is calcium carbonate.

Grapes actually have very low nutritional requirements, which is one reason they grow on land that's basically scrubland or desert. There is every bit as much "minerality" in the soils of Sonoma or Mendoza or Clare Valley as there is in Chablis. If minerality really referred to the taste of the actual minerals, you would notice it in virtually every wine. But that's not what people are experiencing. Look at the wines where you yourself find it. I think what they're "tasting" is usually acidity. And remember that lactic acid is much nicer and softer on our palates than say, malic or acetic acid or even citric acid. So depending on the absolute level of acidity, and the relative types of acidity, we experience something that we call "minerality".

I'm certain that people are actually experiencing something. I've picked it up myself. But I'm equally sure that it's got nothing at all to do with ionic bonds that have broken and with dissolved salts.

Reply by dmcker, Aug 31, 2009.

Too bad there wasn't anybody around to place a wager with, GregT. I would've won about how long it would take to draw you out... ;-)

So what exactly is that 'minerality', then? Just acidity???

Reply by Cheese and Grapes, Aug 31, 2009.

Try this one, it has lots of minerals: Michel Delhommeau Harmonie 2007. Oh yeah, welcome to Snooth!

Reply by GregT, Aug 31, 2009.

dmker - now why would you have thought that???

I don't think minerality is just acidity. I'm drinking a wine right now that has what might be described as minerality. But I think acidity, or the type of acidity has a lot to do with it. If I had access to a chemistry lab, I'd analyze the wines that were described that way. Personally, I also find a quality that I never know exactly how to describe. There's earth, but not humus - i.e. not organic matter, something else. Maybe ash? I like it in my wine. But right now I'm picking up some real tannins too. It's a 2007 Cote du Rhone, quite good actually, but I don't have the vocabulary or discernment to describe it.

Cheese - oddly enough I actually have a bottle of that.

Reply by kw8613, Sep 1, 2009.

Thanks for the responses. This is an interesting discussion.

Reply by Muchkabouche, Oct 8, 2009.

Being newly focused on wine tasting and actually recording what I taste, I have found it a challenge to break into the nomenclature of wine. A handbook that has provided a good start for me is DeLong's Wine Tasting Notebook. The suggested terms are explained, and have helped me run through a mental checklist whenever I try a new wine.

Reply by chadrich, Oct 8, 2009.

Short but fairly interesting article on the subject. Touches briefly on acidity relationship to minerality:

Reply by Gregory Dal Piaz, Oct 8, 2009.


Huh huh?

This should be good!

Reply by Eric Guido, Oct 8, 2009.

Funny but I never thought of the presence of something like saltiness meaning mineral. For me it would always be wines that showed a lot of soil and undergrowth as well as iron or iodine that would find me writing minerals in my notes.

Reply by GregT, Oct 8, 2009.


I like that guy's explanation. The thing is, minerals by and large aren't volatile. As a result, we don't smell them. Eric - is calcium chloride not mineral? It's a chloride? What about calcium bromide? What does iron smell like? Nothing really, it's a metal and at the temperatures we are likely to encounter it, it is neither volatile nor tasty. If it were liquid, you'd burn half of your face off tasting it.

So people end up describing what they think they are experiencing. If you sense iodine, mention that specifically. That's precise. If you have undergrowth, mention that. People call it forest floor, humus, etc. That is specific. Mineral? No. We're usually talking about absence of overt fruit, about bright and even harsh acidity, and a subdued aromatic profile.

Do you describe a Barossa shiraz as "mineral"? Perhaps you should. Australia has the oldest soils on the planet. They are almost completely mineral. No volcanic activity for eons. Little organic matter; most has leached out centuries ago. Try a big Barossa shiraz and talk about mineral uptake.

Like I said. I'm sure people are tasting something. I'm equally sure it has nothing at all to do with actual minerals.

Reply by dmcker, Oct 9, 2009.

I found Patterson's survey a bit spotty and fuzzy (perhaps it's the Berkely influence... ;-)). It was nice to see someone attempt to deal with this subject somewhat systematically, even if it merely covered ground we've already pretty much covered (kudos, GregT). Salty, acid, sulfur... Think someone with a chemistry background now working on an Oenology-related Doctorate at UCDavis should do a dissertation in this area...

Perhaps I have different olfactory senses than most, but *all* rocks smell to me. What is meant by a 'clean' rock, anyway? There are always particles of something--the rock itself, other dusts, plant matter, fungal spores, etc. And GregT, haven't you ever smelled rusting iron, wet pyrite, etc., etc.?

The wines I find most to offer up a 'mineral' aspect are whites from Graves (more than the Loire), Entre-deux-mers, Chablis and the Mosel. Several different grapes (SV, chardonnay, riesling, etc.). A few New World regions (such as the Ojai/Santa Barbara areas), and a few reds. But staying with my first grouping, the wines have an element of chalk or limestone or flint. And I can smell/taste in my mouth and sinuses something that I also sense when sliding down a shale hillside in the Sierras or even in Central Asia...

Reply by GregT, Oct 9, 2009.

But particles of something on a rock are not the rock, any more than perfume on a person is not the person. Lichen and molds smell like lichen and molds. The smell of a rainstorm is what the Indians call sondhi or the Australians dubbed petrichor a few years ago. It's not rocks though.

Chalk, limestone, marble, are all just calcium carbonate. Slate is mostly quartz, or silicon dioxide. That's stable at temperatures that melt iron. It's only volatile at the temps found in volcanos or the center of the earth. So we don't smell it. I think the question is whether one would find the same "minerality" in wine from the same vineyard that is made from grapes picked a little riper and put into oak a little longer, and especially that goes thru full malolactic fermentation. My hunch is that especially with whites, it's the malic acid rather than the tartaric and / or lactic acid that people are tasting - it's a harsher acid on the palate. The various sulfur compounds that are in the wine will attenuate the perception even more.

And I think sugar levels at picking also have an effect, although even those can be misleading and misidentified. We can find various compounds and identify organic odors and flavors - vanilla, banana, strawberry, etc. To some degree, many of those also make the substance seem sweeter, even though there is not additional sugar. So if you taste something reminiscent of strawberry or raspberry in your garnacha, you may still find it sweeter and less "minerally" than the garnacha that exhibits less of that flavor, even though both will have the same amounts of RS.

Reply by penguinoid, Oct 10, 2009.

I often notice a quality in white wines that I'd call 'minerallity'. I'd own up to saying that I don't know what the cause of it is, maybe it comes from an interaction of a number of factors including acidity, lack of fruit characters and maybe some other things? But it's certainly not true to say that you're getting ions from the minerals in the soil taken up by the plant and appearing unchanged in the wine, I don't think plants (or fermentation) quite works like that...

I don't see how this proves or disproves the idea of 'goût du terroir', though. Yes, I realise this is often translated as 'the flavour of the soil', but I think a better translation would actually be 'the flavour of the region'. It doesn't mean that the wine will literally taste like the soil it grew in, that would probably not be very pleasant. From what I understand, it seems to encompass pretty much everything from effects of local climate, effect of the soil, of the water balance of the vineyard, and of the local traditions on the wine being produced.

Reply by MarioRobles, Oct 13, 2009.

Huon Hooke, one of the most important wine writers in Australia wrote a couple of months ago an article on this very topic and he mentioned (what I can remember) that this "minerality" is due to the chemicals components in wine and fruits which in turn are the same found in some minerals... it's all in the chemical relationship of these... I will try to find it and expand on it...

Reply by dmcker, Oct 29, 2009.

More grist for the mill:

Though seemingly confident in trying to debunk the minerality 'myth', the geologists et al. at the conference admit that they still don't understand just what is happening in the vineyard and the wineglass.

Some quotes from the article:

--'"I am not saying that chemistry and geology have no effect on the wine. It may have effects that we don't understand," Maltman said. "But whatever 'minerality' in wine is, it is not the taste of vineyard minerals."'

--'Swinchatt agrees, but in California's Napa Valley, he's found subtle differences in soil texture that make a huge difference in grape quality. One grower told Swinchatt about a "sweet spot" in his vineyard that consistently produced his best grapes.... At another Napa site, vines growing on adjacent, similar-looking gravel-and-sand soils produced grapes consistently different in character. Swinchatt found that the two soil areas had different geologic histories: Floods laid down one, while volcanic debris flows deposited the other. "Some factors in the geology are reflected in the winemakers' tastebuds," Swinchatt said.'

--'The soil's water-holding capacity can make a difference. Different soils create better or worse conditions for roots and the fungi that help roots extract nutrients. But scientists have barely started to explore these factors in vineyards.'

--'Climate -- a hugely important wine-growing variable -- also is shaped by geology. In eastern Washington, the landscape is wrinkled into giant folds by north-south compression of the bedrock. As a result, "There are spectacular differences in climate over small distances," said Kevin Pogue, a geologist at Whitman College in Walla Walla.'

So I'm going to go out on a limb and posit that 'minerality' is something real, that many of us can sense, but is still so delicately ephemeral as to be beyond science's present ability to understand and explain...

Reply by GregT, Oct 29, 2009.

NYT did an article about that too. Lots of talk about it on other boards too. I think there definitely is something. I just don't think it has to do with minerals finding their way up into the wine. And some people make that claim. Others are willing to forego that argument and simply state that they note something that reminds them of minerals in the same way they find something that reminds them of leather. I'll go along with that although I still think that's a little far-fetched because as always - which "mineral".

Oh it makes my ears bleed. I need to go and drink a bottle of Sang de Cailloux

Reply by dmcker, Oct 29, 2009.

So what's the 'terroir' for the blood of stones?

Great naming for a domaine. Too bad you can't really get away with that type of name in English. Guess we have to suffice with 'Big House' or 'Suckfizzle' or '10 Minutes by Tractor'.

Reply by GregT, Oct 30, 2009.

It is a great name isn't it? Those other names just don't have the same panache. Even worse - Fat Bastard? The Bitch grenache?

That should be a thread - names of wines. I happen to like the Two Hands names - Angel's Share, Bad Impersonator, etc.

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