Unfortunately there is really no real agreement among wine experts or even wine scientists as to how to define minerality in a wine. Some tasters attribute it to the smell or taste of wet stones, crushed rocks, salinity, a flintiness, or even a a savory earthiness...
... In contrast the scientific community tends to refer more to the volatile substances in wine such as sulphur or fuesel compounds.
And yet, others think of minerality in terms of the mineral from the soil that might end up in a wine. Soils contain varying amounts potassium, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, magnesium, calcium and iron. However, opinions differ as to whether the grapes, and the resulting wine actually does absorb any of these minerals from the soil. Soils that are alive and healthy supposedly are capable of transferring more minerals to the plant. Research and opinion is still somewhat divided.
Minerality and Place
Despite the cloudiness in terms of definition, I believe that rightly or wrongly minerality has come to mean something in a wine. As amorphous or imprecise as its definition might seem, it is somehow a manifestation linked to origin and terroir. For me a wine has minerality when its overall taste is not just an expression of the grape variety/ies and/or subsequent winemaking techniques, but it is something beyond - an expression of place. Perhaps not wholly tangible but present nevertheless.
There is something in the taste of certain wines that shouts minerality and origin. For example in the wines of Chablis in Burgundy (chalky limestone), of Pauillac in the Médoc (gravel), of Priorat in Spain (llicorella - decayed slate) or of the Mosel in Germany (slate).
The Taste of Minerality
One of the most difficult question to answer, and one of the most divisive is whether you can actually taste minerality, and if so what does it taste like. Is it really a taste or more of a sensation? Can you actually smell and taste stones or rocks? I would argue yes. Wines that have obvious minerality tend to make you salivate,not because of the wine's acidity, but more of a savory and non-fruit evoked salivation. However, sensations of minerality are delicate and more nuanced, that can be easily overpowered by overt fruitiness or oak in a wine.
Minerality in Old World Wines vs. New World Wines
If overt oak and fruitiness can mask minerality, perhaps this is why more tasters seem to refer to minerality in old world wines. In general (and I do appreciate that generalizations can be dangerous), Old World wines tend to have have more restrained fruit aromas and flavors, in contrast to many new world wines which are decidedly more upfront and fruit driven. Of course there are many exceptions on both sides.
So, to conclude, minerality is hard to tie down. It exists in a wine, and can be marked or evasive, depending on the many other things that influence the overall taste of a wine.
What words do you use to describe a mineral flavor in wine?
Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine), is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant.
(Image: Underlying image by Sadovnikova Olga via Shutterstock)