Does Your Wine Really Taste Like Rocks?

Posted: May 04, 2021

Winemaking can be a precise science, but it also relies on mysteries, accidents, and artistry. How certain elements—barrel choice, fermentation, and the ripeness of grapes when they are picked, among other things—produce particular effects is fairly well understood, but, sometimes, characteristics still emerge without clear antecedents. Hamvas’s contention that different physical landscapes produce distinctive tastes speaks to one of the most intriguing qualities that has come to be associated with wine: “minerality,” a nebulous concept that usually refers to a kind of chiselled stoniness. Many minerally wines are high in acidity, with a sharp, savory presence that verges on saltiness. Some have a powdery texture, as though saturated with pulverized quartz dust or pencil lead. These sensations evoke earthen matter, like iron, slate, or gemstones. The taste and aroma can trigger associations of the seashore, or freshly fallen rain.

Although the word “minerality” seems to have first crept into winespeak in the seventies and eighties, it wasn’t until the early two-thousands that it took off. In the past two decades, it has become one of the most common descriptors in the wine world. Lately, you can find a wine characterized, in all seriousness, as having “mineral flavors sexed up by a flinty nuance on the end,” offering “a granite quarry’s worth of minerality,” or compared to “sucking on a pebble.” The term’s popularity has likely been aided by its ambiguity. In 2013, French researchers found that wine professionals who were asked to define minerality often provided contradictory definitions. When it first appeared in “The Oxford Companion to Wine,” a cherished encyclopedia of the wine world, in 2015, its editor, Jancis Robinson, wrote that the word was “too prevalent to ignore—even if impossible to define.”

The term likely benefits, too, from the assumption, fed largely by advertising, that liquid that has run through rocks is healthier, more “pure,” or otherwise improved. Bottled-water companies have long alluded to the association of mineral springs—bodies of water that contain dissolved geological minerals in the form of elements, like sodium or magnesium, and salts like sulfate—with healthfulness, and have highlighted how their subtle variations in flavor result from the presence of these supposedly therapeutic minerals. There is, of course, an important distinction—spring water has been in direct contact with rocks, whereas crushed grapes have not—but the ubiquity of imagery suggesting that rocks can be absorbed by water has likely helped prime people to believe that the same can be true of other liquids.

By Adam Leith Gollner
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