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,