Is Judging Wine By Its 'Minerality' Total B.S.?

"It's like licking a wet stone," your wine-loving friend says. He seems to know what he's talking about. But why would anyone want to put rocks in his mouth? Minerality is a hot buzzword in wine these days, but like so many descriptors used in wine tasting, it's tricky to get a grasp on. At least, it's trickier than, say, berries or citrus or even vanilla or smoke. Minerality is not so much a flavor as it is an essence. A sensation.

So, what exactly makes a wine mineral?

First, it's probably a good idea to point out what minerality is not. For example, it doesn't refer to any measurable elements or compounds found in wine. In fact, you're pretty much guaranteed not to find trace amounts of slate, flint or limestone in wines that are described as such. Certain winemakers believe their wines taste chalky because their grapes were grown in chalky soils. The theory is that the soil's minerals, through some unidentified form of osmosis, find their way to the grapes, then the glass. Scientists disagree. And even if minerals did travel from soil to wine, they don't taste like much.

Yet, expert palates around the world swear that it's blue slate they detect in that German Riesling, limestone in that Chablis. They might just be pulling our collective leg. But maybe you've tasted it, too. Not necessarily blue slate, but something... salty? Stony? Maybe faintly metallic? Perhaps it came across as more of a physical tingle on the tongue than a flavor. Congratulations: you've discovered minerality.

If a wine is said to taste "chalky" and, thanks to a vivid memory you have of being four, you know that chalk doesn't taste very good or like much of anything, then what exactly does "chalky" mean? Theories abound in the world of wine. One is that while we may not know for sure what wet stone tastes like (although there are winemakers in France who insist that you really should lick that rock), we have smelled the stony ground after a rainfall. And the memory of that smell is what gets conjured when we take a sip of a mineral wine. So, it's possible that those who have inhaled the wet, post-rain air on the banks of the Mosel River in Germany are able to detect blue slate in a Riesling from there. In winespeak, limestone, granite, flint, slate and other elusive characteristics often refer less to specific flavors than they do to aromatic essences that trigger memories. Taste is 90% smell, after all. And smell is the most nostalgic of the senses.

However you explain it, minerality is a quality that evokes savoriness — and one that wine lovers can't get enough of. If you want to practice detecting it or just have a hankering for some salty wine, here are five that you should try:

  1. Tiefenbrunner Pinot Bianco Weissburgunder 2011, Alto Adige ($16)

From the part of Italy that acts more like Germany, this Pinot Bianco takes on the chalky gravel character of the soil it's grown in. The minerality comes across as a saline quality, rounded out by fruity and floral notes.

  • Clean Slate Riesling 2011, Mosel ($11)
  • Made from grapes picked in different parts of the Mosel in Germany, the wine has a steely backbone, fleshed out by peachy tones. As the name suggests, it's clean and crisp, with bright citrus and apple flavors and a hint of spice.

  • Domain Zind-Humbrecht Pinot Gris Calcaire 2010, Alsace ($27)
  • Made by one of the most revered producers in France's Alsace region, the wine is lush with great acidity. And yet, being named for the limestone (calcaire in French) soils it's grow in, it has an oyster-shell saltiness to it.

  • Rippon Mature Vines 2010, Central Otago ($46)
  • Reds can have minerality, too! Made from some of the oldest vines in a striking part of New Zealand, this biodynamic Pinot Noir delivers floral notes, bright fruit and a stony savoriness that calls to mind the region's schist soils.

  • Frank Cornelissen Rosso del Contadino 2009, Sicily ($26)
  • This cultish natural producer blends indigenous Italian white and red grapes for his "peasant" (contadino in Italian) wine. The cloudy raspberry-colored vino starts with a pleasant funk and blooms with juicy fruit, floral notes and an earthy minerality.

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