Sharing the Experience of Minerality

by Clark Smith

Please give a warm Wine.Woot welcome to our latest guest blogger, Clark Smith, chief winesmith at WineSmith Wines. If you enjoy this piece, Clark also writes about winemaking at Wine Crimes and on his GrapeCrafter blog.

Honored and delighted as I am to be posting my first guest blog, I need to start with a caution about wine writing. Wine is a medium of conviviality which works its magic mostly through aroma, taste and touch. This means you really need to be there. Print media are laughably ill suited to exploring its charms. Experience trumps description every time. You can explain to a deaf person that music conveys emotion, but they can never really get what you mean. For the same reason, endless argument about wine sensory phenomena are easily resolved by sharing a glass.

Twenty years ago, newbies learned about wine by taking classes, joining tasting groups, and hanging around experienced people. The internet has made it much more convenient to talk about wine in its absence, often with silly results. The inane discussion about minerality is a great case in point. The scant research that’s been done on the subject shows the word is bandied about without consistent definition, and always will be until we become grounded through shared experience.

I get my definition from Randall Grahm grahm on terroir – santa cruz mountains.pdf and my French tutors at Oenodev, who focused on it as an indicator of longevity and its flipside, reductive problems in youth. In my lexicon, minerality is not an aroma (petrichor), nor is it the wet stone flavor of Semillon, but rather an energetic buzz in the wine’s finish, almost like electricity run through the throat. It is an attribute of limestone and granitic soils, and but can be obtained on any site if living soil principles are applied. German Mosels usually have it, and their California counterparts don’t. It’s often mistaken for acidity, which is similar but occurs in the front of the mouth, not the finish (except for acetic acid). The varieties Cabernet Franc and Roussanne tend to be strong in this attribute. Minerality imparts a liveliness on the palate and a lengthy flavor persistence that sets Chablis apart from other chardonnays and living soil vineyards apart from other New World wines. This sensation is often masked in the New World by the bitterness of high alcohol.

Nobody has pinned down what exactly is happening. French terroiriste Claude Bourguignon believes that mychorrhizal fungi facilitate trace mineral uptake. In his thesis, Tuscan winemaker Paolo DiMarchi measured high iron content in his very minerally Nebbiolos. I worked with CSU Fresno’s Susan Rodriguez and Barry Gump to try to nail down what minerals might be responsible, but we couldn’t find a single simple driver. Hildegarde Heymann at UC Davis speculates that sulfur compounds cause minerality, but I believe this is backwards: minerality causes reduction, not the other way ‘round.

I hope it will not be considered crassly commercial for me to mention that I make some very minerally wines, particularly my WineSmith Cab Franc and Faux Chablis, and you could try them.