How Eliminating One Simple Word Can Make the World of Wine a Saner Place

Photo courtesy Morgan Dawson Photography

Photo courtesy Morgan Dawson Photography

Minerality. It is one of the most commonly used words to describe both red and white wine, and yet it remains one of the most confusing. Consumers new to wine often laugh quizzically when a critic or tasting room pourer describes a wine as displaying “minerality.” Merriam-Webster doesn’t even recognize it as a word—and they’re not exactly keeping the door locked on the English language, having recently added “agritourism,” “fanboy” and “soul patch.”

So what, exactly, is meant when someone claims a wine’s aroma offers “minerality?”

Nothing. Seriously—technically, it means nothing.

That’s because minerals—rocks, such as limestone and schist—are not volatile. They don’t themselves emit aromas. “Our olfactory system is designed to detect volatile compounds,” explains Cornell enology professor Gavin Sacks. “Therefore, if we claim that a river rock has a smell, we are almost certainly smelling something volatile formed by contact of the rock surface with water—say, the remnants of decomposing algae.”

Despite the colorful motto of wrestling champ Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, you cannot actually “smell what The Rock is cooking.” When we smell a rock, we must be smelling something else.

Even if this fact is known in the hallowed halls of Cornell or UC Davis, wine writers must have missed the memo. When it comes to describing a wine’s aromatics, minerality not only remains part of the wine lexicon, it’s thriving like never before. A simple Google search shows the term used by writers and bloggers around the world, from wine critic Jancis Robinson to Kori Voorhees of Wine Peeps, from Wine Enthusiast’s Steve Heimoff to—ahem—even me.

And it was used recently by one of the world’s most respected and influential wine critics, Wine Spectator’s Jim Laube. After tasting the 1961 Chateau Haut-Brion,  Laube attempted to describe for his readers the wondrous nose of this legendary bottle. He didn’t use only one instance of the confusing descriptor—he actually doubled down (emphasis mine):

“The aromas were sublime, with mineral, pebble, tobacco, dried currant and a loamy, earthy herbal edge that evolved into the cedar smell of a cigar box.”

I wrote Laube asking what he meant, here. At the very least, I’d have posited  that “pebble” was a subset of “mineral,” and so wouldn’t expect to see both terms hanging together on the same street corner. Laube wrote back his reply:

“I associate the pebble (or crushed rock) scent/taste with a pile of pebbles (or stones), and I often find it when I walk on a dry riverbed. White pea gravel for me also combines that “pebble” with minerality. There is also for me a wet pebble or stone scent that comes when they get wet. I keep a rock from Haut Brion in my office, a memento from hiking through the vineyard, which is deep gravel soil, and that character comes through in this wine, the perfect definition of terroir.”

I don’t begrudge Laube his enological pet rock. But here the terms “pebble” and “mineral” only serve to confuse the issue. After all, how many readers might have hiked the same dry riverbeds as Laube? And how many keep a rock from Haut-Brion on their desk for reference?

Photo courtesy of Francine Vernez
Photo courtesy of Francine Vernez

Each person’s understanding of minerality comprises a range of unique experiences. For me, the term doesn’t conjure dry riverbeds at all, but rather the rushing Chautauqua Gorge in western New York where I spent my summers as a child. The chilly water passing over slate and stone offered up smells that left their imprint on my memory. There’s no way now to know what caused these smells, but when I think “minerality,” these imprinted olefactory memories come rushing back.

I suspect this is why, despite the imprecision of the term minerality, I and many other writers stubbornly adhere to it—not because we’re lazy, but because we want to capture and convey the sense of a vivid memory.

Here’s another wrinkle: though minerals in wine don’t give off aromas, they can impart flavor. But the flavors they offer are so many and varied that, again, using a single catch-all term like minerality can cloud rather than clarify the meaning. In the Rhône Valley,  residents might associate minerality with the taste of iron. On Long Island, they might think of saline. Other tasters use the term simply to refer to a wine’s vibrant acidity.

“Considering the diversity in usage, I think ‘minerality’ is being used to describe several sensory attributes, not just one,” says Cornell’s Professor Sacks. “There appears to be inconsistency among wine professionals about when the term ‘minerality’ is applicable, especially in comparison to terms like ‘jammy,’ ‘smoky,’ and ‘tropical fruit.’ Hopefully, future work at Cornell or elsewhere can start to make sense of this term.”

Confused yet? Me too. As the Finger Lakes editor for the New York Cork Report, I would be handicapping myself mightily if I were to abandon this term. That’s because, again, these wines awaken my sensory memories of river rock and gorge water. And Finger Lakes Riesling is often positively crackling with miner—excuse me, with vibrant acidity. The 2006 Ravines Dry Riesling, for example, tastes to me like wrapping a river rock in a lime peel and taking a bite.

See, isn’t that more effective than saying it offers “minerality?”

Here’s my proposal: when wine drinkers encounter this term, they should ask for more detail. And  wine writers should take the bold step of ditching the term from their wine vocabulary.

I’ll be the first writer to take this pledge. It won’t be easy, but this way, we will all enjoy sharper descriptions of both aroma and flavor. If a wine smells like crushed rock, or saline, or lime peel, or if it makes you think of summers at the gorge, that evocation will convey far more meaning for the reader than a vague catch-all ever could.

Evan Dawson is the Finger Lakes Editor for the New York Cork Report and is completing a book about Finger Lakes winemakers. His paid job includes offering his best Ron Burgundy impersonation as a morning news anchor and political reporter for WHAM-TV in Rochester, NY.

About The Author

Evan Dawson
Staff Writer

Evan Dawson is the author of Summer in a Glass: The Coming of Age of Winemaking in the Finger Lakes. It won the 2012 Roederer International Wine Book of the Year. Outside of Palate Press, his wine writing has been published in Wine Spectator, Tasting Panel Magazine, and the New York Cork Report, for which he serves as Managing Editor. He hosts The Connection on WXXI radio, the NPR affiliate in western New York, where he focuses on community affairs. He is a middling but enthusiastic cook.

  • http://silenescellar.blogspot.com/ Richard

    Perhaps a stone, by itself, just hanging, not bothering anyone, is not volatile. Give it some energy, smash it to powder, dump a load of pebbles from a truck to the ground; then maybe it is volatile. I don’t know what credentials this Professor Sacks has, and I don’t really care. I have smelled what is considered to be ‘minerality’ and I and other wine folks in the trade use it. So what? Ever play that game animal vegetable mineral? Minerals are what aren’t furry, meaty, herbaceous, fruity or floral.

    I consider it just as informative as ‘Smoky’ or ‘Jammy’. In a sense, it works, but it lacks specific information. What kind of smoke? Hickory? Pine? Sure, I agree that the more descriptive you can be regarding aromas the better you can communicate your experience. But to just pick on minerality? Another non-issue. Heh, so why am I wasting my time commenting? I have another 5 yards of crushed bluestone to spread.

  • ned

    I have never thought of minerality as an aroma or aroma component but as part of the
    palate. Like sloshing grape juice around in your mounth if it was also filled with pebbles…

  • http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson

    Richard – I can tell you that Professor Sacks is one of the most highly respected professors on this subject in New York state, and he’s doing some outstanding work when it comes to wine. He is not an absolutist; he’s interested in gaining more and better information. That benefits all of us.

    When it comes to crushing or dumping rocks, I wonder: Do you think your readers assume you’re talking about crushed or dumped rocks when you describe a wine’s aromatics as showing minerality? I understand the impulse to use it, because for me the word is entirely precise. I have to remind myself that it is also precise for other people — only in very different ways, hence the problem.

    Cheers and thanks for taking the time to add your thoughts.

  • http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson

    Ned – I love your description. That mouthfeel is a kind of classic mineral description.

  • Mike K.

    Thanks for a fascinating post. I personally have only used the term in conjunction with white wines, esp. Reisling & Loire whites. However, your description below sounds more like what I call “stream bed” when it’s pleasing, and “pond scum, algae” when it’s not:

    “the term doesn’t conjure dry riverbeds at all, but rather the rushing Chautauqua Gorge in western New York where I spent my summers as a child. The chilly water passing over slate and stone offered up smells that left their imprint on my memory”

    The wet stone/algae aroma, is that really what everyone meant by minerality? If so, then I’m all for striking it from my lingo. I had been thinking more in terms of the “crushed gravel” idea. I had been under the impression that the wet stone/algae aromas were caused by some mercaptan. I don’t actually know. But like Brett.and other flaws,there seem to be different levels of tolerance for it.

  • http://undertakingwine.com/ Michael Gorton, Jr.

    Evan,
    Great article. You are one of my favorite writers because I can imagine and visually see what you are saying. I love how you draw pictures with your words.

    In my opinion, using the term Minerality, it makes the drinker more digestible. “Wrapping a river rock with a lime peel and taking a bite”, is spot on, but might be a challenge in a tasting room setting or listing on a wine label.

    So here is my pledge, a pledge I offered on Twitter, as a newbie wine blogger, I promise to further explain my word of minerality. I will even take it a step further, I will attempt to explain jammy, smoky,and tropical fruit when I use those words to describe a wine I am drinking.

    I am on your side!

    Cheers!

  • http://www.alfonsocevola.com Alfonso

    I’ll sign the pledge. ever since Karen MacNeil explained, ever so thoroughly, that it wasn’t a real word, but more importantly, that it was meaningless, I have shunned it from my world. I too, cringe, whenever I hear someone say it. I wish they would elucidate further. Thanks, interesting post and one which I will most likely forward to many folks

  • http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Lenn Thompson

    Evan, you and I have talked about this extensively already so you know I’m with you on one key point here — wine writers can and should do better.

    Richard, your reaction is one that I’d expect from a lot of bloggers and writers. Using “minerally” or “minerality” is the easy ADD-society way of describing those non-fruit/flower/oak components. I’ve done it myself and still may slip into it if I’m talking about wines quickly, depending on my audience.

    And you know what? I’d use it if I couldn’t pinpoint the ‘type of minerality’ I picked up.

    I use smoky, as you mention, but if I can, I go further. I’ve used “resiny smoke” (which I guess would be akin to pine) and “mesquite smoke” before.

    When we CAN be more precise, we should be, no?

    Next up, we need to talk about “earthy” which in many ways is the red wine equivalent to “minerally” in whites. Does earthy mean actual dirt? If so, dry or wet? Clay or rich topsoil? Dried leaves? Iron ore? Metallic? Again, I use earthy a lot, but when I CAN go further and describe it more precisely I do.

  • http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson

    Mike K – Stream bed is very close to how I think of minerality in many Finger Lakes rieslings, for example. Until recently I had never considered “crushed rock” at all when it comes to minerality in wine. I certainly will keep it in mind now.

  • http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson

    Michael Gorton – I think your idea is a good one. I have no problem at all if I see the word “minerality” describing a wine, as long as it’s followed by more detail. There is, after all, minerality in many wines. I dig the enthusiasm on your Undertaking Wine blog. Cheers.

  • http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Lenn Thompson

    I always wonder, what does ‘crushed rock’ smell like? I’ve never been around just-crushed rock.

  • http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson

    Lenn – To me, crushed rock conjures more tactile than aromatic ideas. Dusty. Like you, I haven’t hung around the gravel yards much.

    Perhaps earthy is the next frontier, though I have to believe it’s more specifically dirt-based. It’s a matter of what kind of dirt, right? Golf divot. Loam. I’d say the Clos Roche Blanche Cot is a wine I’d call an “earth bomb.” Is that term trademarked? Cause I’d like to claim credit. :)

  • http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson

    Alfonso – Great to hear from you… Your blog is one I consulted before my wife and I went to Tuscany last year. Cheers for that. I am unfamiliar with Karen MacNeil, and I am firing up the google to search for her!

  • http://www.winesooth.com Arthur

    Calcium receptors were said to recently have been identified. I don’t recall if they are on the tongue or, like capsaicin “detectors”, may be found in the non-gustatory epithelium of the mouth.

    So it stands to reason that the mineral (perhaps metallic, which is where I would place ‘iron’) *flavors* are 1) real and thus detectable and 2) quite distinct from a briny, salty character, or savory (meaty, soy) or sour.

    As for aromas of mineral, your thesis is strong and I am inclined to agree with you. However, dirt, loam etc are not volatile either and in the case of them being dry, one can detect some olfactory character (though it just may be a tactile sensation of the dust settling in the nose). Having “worked” in agriculture on my grandfather’s farm and in my father’s construction business when growing up, I am a bit torn because there were times when I could smell aromas, very clearly and commonly associated with the dirt and the rocks.

    Finally, it has been my observation that wines which smell of minerals *tend to* either have a strong underripe granny smith apple character (malic acid?) or – after deeper examination- a note of banana (Amyl or isoamyl acetate, which has been attributed to some yeast strains). It may be that the interplay of several aromatic compounds gives the illusion of “mineral” aromas. Then again, there may be such receptors….

  • http://silenescellar.blogspot.com/ Richard

    Evan – First and foremost I would like to apologize for the snarky tone of my first comment. There was no need for me to take offense from your article. It was late and I was deep in my cups.

    I do disagree with Sacks and you regarding minerals and whether or not the human olfactory system can detect any aroma from them. Not my field, but, I can say that I have smelled the following: salt, chalk, limestone, granite, bluestone, phosphorous to name a few. All would fall under the umbrella of minerals I believe. These aromas are not strong, and maybe it is not the thing itself that I smell, but something interacting with it. Even though all these things have a smell to me, when tasting a wine, I may not be able to pinpoint an exact item. In that case I have and will use minerals or minerality as a descriptor.

    I do agree with the sentiment; we should be as descriptive as possible when conveying our impressions, and i think that applies to all things in life. It just isn’t always possible. Good article. Thought provoking. Cheers.

    Lenn – As I state above, yes, we should be more precise. When we are able to. There are so many descriptors that leave much to the imagination. Minerals, earthy(as you state), floral, tropical fruits and even oaky falls a bit short. Some times the person describing the wine doesn’t have the experience or the vocabulary to convey a very detailed description. Someone may know quite a bit about wine, but couldn’t tell you when they use the word floral whether or not it is a Lilly or a Paeony or a Lilac, for example. Yes we should be as precise as we can, but the generic descriptor generally works when we can’t.

    Crushed rock/stone smells like, um, crushed rock/stone. It is not easy to describe. What does a Lilac smell like. A Lilac. I know I am being a bit obtuse here, but some things have unique aromas, and you just have to go out and smell them.

  • http://wineconnoisseur101.blogspot.com Constance

    Hi Evan-

    Your article is very interesting. I never really thought too much about the fact that I can’t exactly describe what I think minerality is. However, for me, there are quite a few smells like that. Until recently, I had no idea what the aroma or taste of lychee was, but when tasting wines, I trained myself to understand what it was when I tasted it (if that makes sense.) I rarely, if ever, use the term minerality with red wines, though I have seen that in the past. However, I think there is a specific taste that does go along with minerality. Like Ned, I’m not sure I would use it to describe a bouquet, but rather only a taste. I think your article also hints upon the debate over the influence of terroir — minerality is a way of enhancing the soil does play a role in the grape’s taste profile… I do have to say, however, that I do believe “minerality” has a specific smell. Perhaps it’s only when rocks get wet, but to me minerality means crisp, clean, stony… mineral waterey, though I’m not sure how I’d describe the taste of that either…

  • http://ithacork.wordpress.com Tom Mansell

    What’s interesting to me here is how we started using the term in the first place. I think it shows the tremendous influence that reading other people’s tasting notes has on composing one’s own. “Mineral is a word that wine writers use, so that must be what I’m getting in the glass.” I doubt that someone with no contextual wine experience would come up with such an obtuse descriptor for any wine. Unfortunately, nobody gains experience in wine by simply sniffing and tasting on their own, so it follows that an odd vocabulary springs up among wine aficionados (compare to crossword fanatics, who know the words ERSE, ARIL, OLIO, etc. solely because they appear in crosswords). Some of these words, while odd, convey a specific meaning (e.g., flabby, meaning low in acid), while others do not (“a focused beam”?). It’s an interesting study for a cognitive scientist, actually. Calling Steven Pinker!

  • http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson

    Arthur -

    Fascinating stuff, thanks. I have no doubt that minerals have taste. After all, who doesn’t remember that classic Saturday Night Live fake commercial for Quarry cereal? “Better tastin’ cause it’s mined!”

    As I relate in the piece, I can understand exactly why we associate “minerality” with aromatics. Finger Lakes riesling so often transports me back to that gorge, and so what am I smelling? It’s the rocks! Of course, it’s not the rocks, it’s the interaction of those natural elements, but I so badly want to think it’s the rocks. I mean, decomposing algae is far less romantic. :)

  • http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson

    Richard – No worries. I think your explanation that when a wine provokes a sense of minerality without offering more specifics for the taster, the term fits. That’s probably right. It’s important for me to state and re-state that I don’t claim that minerality doesn’t exist in wine. I understand very well why you’ll use it.

  • http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson

    Constance – Your perception of minerality matches mine almost exactly. And yet I heard from a wine writer last night who said that when he uses the term “minerality,” he often thinks of salt water. I certainly don’t! When I was in Montalcino the locals told me that “minerality” simply means something like “earthy” to them.

    So your point about minerality and terroir seems to have merit. In one region, “minerality” might convey one thing, and something entirely different in another region. Makes sense to me.

  • http://www.obsessionwithfood.com Derrick Schneider

    Jamie Goode has a section on minerality in his Science of Wine. It might be worth looking at for extra insight. He arrives at the same concept — it’s an ambiguous term — but he gets some scientist quotes about (I think) sulfur compounds and the like (“minerality is the absence of fruit,” says one of his quotees.

  • http://www.waterintowino.com Bryan

    Great post!

    I do think that you and others that agree with you should just back off and let us wine drinkers have our “go to” words to describe wine. If we don’t have words like minerality to throw around, then just anyone with a good nose could do what we do.

    Can’t we preserve certain wine terms that separate us from the civilians?

  • http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson

    I hope you’ll check out the follow-up comments from Professor Gavin Sacks, whom I quoted in the piece. He sent me the following via email today.

    >>>>

    There seem to be two issues here, yet again.

    One is: “Can crushed or wetted stones evoke a sensory response”? The answer is yes. Inorganic minerals cannot be detected by the olfactory receptors directly, at least not at any concentration that one would observe upon crushing them. However, aerosolized minerals could cause a trigeminal, irritant response (think: chalk), or other trace levels of odorants in the rocks could be released. Or, trace metals could catalyze lipid oxidation in the nose, resulting in “metallic” aromas. I think the former reason may be why some wines high in SO2 get called “mineral”. Regardless, this is an interesting question to explore.

    The other question is whether minerality is being used consistently among wine professionals, either intra- or inter-taster. As a result, using minerality as a tasting term does not always communicate as much information as other commonly used terms. I think this is the more important point, and you made a good decision to focus on this in your post.

    One other point of order: it may be worth clarifying semantic issues, which is pretty much the only thing chemists are good for.

    “Minerals” are inorganic, naturally occurring crystalline solids with well defined chemical structures. Minerals have no measurable vapor pressure under normal conditions, and even if a few stray molecules from a mineral got into your nose, its rather unlikely that they could pass through the mucosa layer protecting the olfactory receptors. However, its not impossible that aerosolized minerals (i.e. “dust”) causes an irritant response, or that they catalyze formation of “metallic” aroma compounds in the nose.

    On the other hand, “rocks” are composites of different minerals, are not well defined chemically, and may contain low concentrations of organic matter. If we’re talking about shalestone, slate, limestone, etc.., we’re talking about “rocks”, in which case there’s no reason that we couldn’t be smelling the aforementioned organic content that gets released about wetting or crushing, and this doesn’t include the organic matter that has set up home on the rocks.

    And therein lies the problem: if we’re talking about organic matter in/on rocks, then we’ve got a pretty poorly defined system.

  • http://www.heronhill.com Kitty Oliver

    As far as the word minerality is concerned – we do use it in our tasting notes, but I will request that the winemaker elaborates on that term from now on. When I think of minerality, used in describing wine, I have three variations. When we started building our house last year, step one was digging the foundation into a small hillslope. We quickly found out that the spot where we wanted to build was solid bedrock, so we brought in a 22 ton machine to perform this task. It was 4 solid (long) days of digging, breaking and crushing rock. The smell of wet, crushed stone, 15 feet down into the earth is the smell of an old vines Riesling.

    As you know, the Finger Lakes are ripe with gullies, creekbeds and gorges. Bluff Point on Keuka is steep, laden with gully after gully. I hike these in the fall and winter, it’s a workout because most are straight up and down. When it’s below freezing, you can still wear a t-shirt so that you don’t sweat through your clothes. When it’s damp and the water is running down towards the lake, it’s a refeshing scent, more of a wet slate, light. This is the smell of Pinot Gris.

    Desert hiking is something I’ve done in Arizona’s Pima County, California’s Mojave Dessert, Death Valley and Sierra Nevadas, and Colorado along the Grand Canyon. It’s dusty, sandy, sometimes mossy smelling in the spots that are perpetually shady. The rocks are not shifted as often as they are around here, the constant rain is always transforming the gullies here. There is also a tremendous temperature difference in the high and low desserts. This powdery, mossy undertoned, dry and earthy conotation is remnicent of a Pinot Noir.

    I also collect rocks and fossils like Laube – from everywhere I’ve been. These souvineers often call up memories – and help me with my own personal wine descriptions.

  • http://corkscrewpointe.com GianniWine

    Great article: All the comments are nice to read, for myself when I describe a wine as being mineraly I’m searching for a flavor descriptor that helps me sell the wine..I used to use “tastes like sucking on a wet rock” -I will search for a better term..thanks

  • http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson

    Gianni – On the contrary, I’d say you have it nailed. When I’m told that something tastes like sucking on a wet rock, that’s very vivid. It’s much more instructive than “tastes like minerality.”

  • http://www.newyorkcorkreport.com Evan Dawson

    Kitty didn’t mention her winery – Heron Hill in the Finger Lakes. I love those descriptions, Kitty. Very cool stuff.

  • http://www.examiner.com/x-24417-Seattle-Wine-Shopping-Examiner Ashlynkat

    There are so many wine descriptors that can be drilled down and declared ambiguous-earthy and smokey being two already mentioned. The highly personal and subjective nature of taste means that different terms conjure up different meanings to different people. That’s just the way it is and I don’t think there is any reason to “cringe” when someone uses a catch-all term instead of being more precise. If anything, those “catch-all terms” are more inclusive than hyper-precision tasting notes.

    Someone trying the 2006 Ravines Dry Riesling, may not get the perception of “wrapping a river rock in a lime peel and taking a bite” nor have any familiarity with the Chautauqua Gorge. But there is still something in the wine that they are going to perceive that evoke some sensory description for them. With the catch-all “minerality”, the reader is able to attach their own personal description to what term means. While their description of “minerality” in the 2006 Ravines Dry Riesling may not match 100% the perception of lime peel & river rock, it is probably not going to be very far off or incomprehensible.

    Fluid and descriptive tasting notes are fine and sometimes to read. Gary Vaynerchuk of Wine Library TV can be very entertaining when he describes as wine as tasting EXACTLY like “butter caramel popcorn with tobacco and Dr. Pepper poured over it” (true quote) But few people are going to fine hyper-precise tasting notes to match EXACTLY what they, themselves, are tasting. Hence the benefit there is to sometimes having “catch-all terms” in wine tasting.

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