The presence of minerality in wine is beyond a doubt a one of the most controversial and hot issues of the wine world. It stands among topics like climate change, the impact of ”wild yeasts,” biodynamics and natural wines, all of which are capable of generating extensive and sometimes endless discussions. Unfortunately for this specific subject, science has only very limited evidence to present.

The term minerality is very often used — or misused — not only as a wine descriptor but also in connecting a wine directly with the major soil components of a wine region. For instance, in a Chablis wine or a Mosel Riesling some claim they cannot not only taste minerality but they can actually taste limestone or slate respectively. In the ”bible” of every wine lover, The Oxford Companion To Wine, the term minerality is actually missing, while only indirect reference is made through the characteristics of specific wines or grape varieties, e.g., Graves, Franciacorta, Pecorino (the grape, not the cheese), Gavi, Chablis, Assyrtiko and other entries.

Vineyards belonging to Scala Dei in the Priorato (Till F. Teenck, Wikimedia Commons)

The unofficial definition of minerality adopted by quite a few wine gurus looks quite logical and understandable to my eyes. In particular, they believe that minerality is the taste of stones or the smokiness usually accompanied by vivid acidity. Some define it simply as “the absence of fruit.” Trying to analyze minerality, we can see at first that the term could correlate with the mineral elements of the soil such as potassium, phosphorus, zinc or magnesium, among others. But from research to date, it is suggested that the concentration of these minerals in wine is too low to noticeably influence its main organoleptic characteristics. Consequently its impact is restricted to providing nutrients for vine growth.

Wines from famous wine regions like Chablis, Puligny-Montrachet, Meursault, Pouilly-Fumé, Sancerre and Priorat (among others), are classic illustrations of wines with minerality. But this is not to say that scientific evidence exists pointing to a direct relation between the soil and the flavor of a wine. In other words, even though, for example, intense minerality can be detected in the flavors of a Mosel Riesling, this flavor does not come directly from the slatey soils. The same case applies to Santorini’s Assyrtiko where intense minerality is not a result of the island’s famous volcanic soils. So it appears that the composition of the soil — whether it is clay, limestone, granite, etc. — does not affect the aromas and flavors of the wine in the same way.  Therefore there is no chance of someone being able to taste the soil and identify its composition. There is one exception where one of the main characters in the ultra-successful Japanese wine manga The Drops of God tests his abilities by tasting different soils from the Cote d’ Or Grand Crus. He actually identifies one of them as Griotte-Chambertin.  But that, of course, is a work of fiction.

Up to this point, it seems that no direct connection exists between minerality and a vineyard soil’s minerals or actual composition. But perhaps there is a very weak light somewhere in this dark tunnel of minerality – one which is provided by the only scientific evidence to be found so far. It comes from research on the role of mercaptans in wine aromas by well-respected professor Denis Dubourdieu and his team at the University of Bordeaux. Mercaptans or thiols are sulfur-containing chemical compoundsformed by yeast during and after the completion of alcoholic fermentation. Their formation is favored during reductive wine-making, contributing to foul smelling flavors of onion, garlic and cauliflower. And it was discovered that benzyl mercaptan contributes to the gunflint and smoky aromas present in wines made mostly from chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and sémillon grapes.Consequently, we see that minerality may be tied to the presence of sulfur compounds in a wine rather than influenced by the specific soil of a wine region — no matter how disappointing this may sound to soil theory aficionados.

Benzyl mercaptan, possibly responsible for the "gunflint" wine aroma

Filip Verheyden, who is a respected wine personality in Belgium and editor of TONG magazine, took this one step further. He supported the very interesting theory that minerality develops in wines that come from soils that are rocky and especially poor in nutrients. It is well known that lack of nutrients — especially nitrogen — during alcoholic fermentation forces yeasts to utilize sulfur-containing amino acids, generating mercaptans, which according to Dubordieu can give the impression of minerality in wine. So there may, after all, be an actual indirect linkage between soil and minerality.

In a similar vein, we find the discovery from New Zealand’s Lincoln University that the distinctive Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc character is credited to winemaking and not to the soil of the region. In particular, the wine’s passionfruit and grapefruit aromas are also connected with thiols because of reductive wine-making.

However, there are two cases that, though quite discrete from minerality, could be considered to show direct influence in a wine from a specific region. The first is the intense presence of eucalyptus and camphor in certain New World wines from Australia and California, due to the presence of eucalyptus trees close to the vineyards. The explanation is that oil from eucalyptus leaves vaporizes and finds its way into the wine through waxy coating of the grape skins. Smoke taint is the second extreme case, and intensely smoky, charred aromas can be the result due to buildup of the smoky aroma compound guaiacol. It is most noticeable in red wines because of skin contact during red winemaking. The taint, however, may be transferred to the fruit via the leaves, so white grape varieties cannot be excluded. Smoke taint has been a problem in certain recent vintages such as: in Australian in 2009 and 2007; in California mainly in 2008; and in Greece, in parts of the Peloponnese after devastating fires in 2007.

Summarizing the above-mentioned points, and, importantly, sticking with the evidence (otherwise, as a friend of mine suggests, we could still believe that thunder is the result of Zeus’s wrath):

  • Minerality in wines has nothing to do with traces of minerals in the soil, although these are vital for vine growth.
  • There is no real evidence that you can taste the soil, so forget the concept of tasting limestone in a Chablis.
  • The only evidence so far connected with minerality is a type of mercaptan, possible sources of which could be nutrient deficiency or reductive winemaking.
  • Recent theories suggest that minerality develops because of soils that are stony and poor in nutrients.
  • Eucalyptus and smoke taint are two unique cases that impart flavors to the resulting wines.

Ioannis grew up in Athens and at the age of 22 graduated from the Hellenic Naval Academy as Ensign. During his 21 year career, he met numerous challenges in various warships, however the greater challenge met, was flying Agusta Bell navy helicopters as pilot and instructor. Life’s ”true compass” eventually led him to the wine world. He holds the WSET Diploma with Merit and he recently joined the MW course. He recently became the father of a tireless son.

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34 Responses

  1. Joachim A. J. Kaiser

    Sounds reasonable, but don’t forget that organic substances with functional chemical groups like -SH or -COOH are polar. They associate with inorganic substances like K- or Na-ions (minerals), and build salts like tartar. If you ever have the chance to taste suger free extracts of wines, you’ll find that they definitely taste different for each wine. So I guess that the organic salts in wines do have an effect how the wines taste, but normally we are not sensitive enough to tell from which vineyard the wine comes from. But the inorganic minerals in the wine are highly specific, and chemical analysis (e.g. ICP) is like a fingerprint!
    There is a second way the minerals in the soil can effect the ‘minerality’ in the wine. The concentration of nutrients and micro-nutrients (lack, scarceness, abundance) effects the metabolism of plants, and the metabolites which are produced, and which we can taste. You described it in your article, benzyl mercaptan is one of these substances.
    I guess we can say that we can taste ‘minerality’ directly and indirectly.

    If you can read German, here are more details:
    http://vinositas.com/terroir/

    BR, Joachim (VINOSITAS)

    • Francesca Nadel

      How and where can you taste sugar-free extracts of wines? I want to do that, too.

  2. sotiris

    kalo to arthro gianni, de lew, kai ta stoiheia kala epilegmena wste na mporei na peistei kanenas gia tou logou to alithes. alla, alitheia anarwtiemai, epeidi grafeis kati gia Dia kai theous Olympou, mipws einai ligo paratravigmeno otan eseis oi geysignwstes kai eidikoi epi twn oinwn mas lete oti anakalyptete geysi mpananas se ena krasi pou ta ampelia tou megalwsane sto voreio polo, aplws kai mono epeidi emeine se ena dryino(!) vareli dyo mines parapanw apo ena allo pou ehei geysi kerasi, na mas lete oti ena krasi, diladi to proion tou froutou pou megalwse se enan topo, den pairnei tipota shedon sti geysi tou apo to hwma apo to opoio etrafi? apla milaw ki egw o ashetos ki anixeros…

    • Ioannis Karakasis AIWS

      Φιλε Σωτήρη, το θέμα είναι η ορυκτότητα και το αν έχει αποδειχθεί ή όχι η απ’ευθείας σχέση της με το έδαφος ή όχι. Τονίζω το direct. Είναι για μένα τουλάχιστον σχεδόν καθαρό ότι ένα κρασί παίρνει πολλά από το έδαφος, όμως η μεγάλη ερώτηση είναι τι μένει μετά την οινοποίηση. Αν δηλαδή αυτή αφαιρεί στοιχεία ή όχι και εδώ ανοίγει το μεγάλο θέμα, που δεν έπιασα για ευνόητους λόγους στο άρθρο μου. Ισως κάποια άλλη στιγμή. Ελπίζω να βοήθησα…

      • Ioannis Karakasis AIWS

        Paraphrazing Sotiris: How can someone discover banana aromas in vines grown in extreme regions(North Pole), simply because the wine was matured in oak while at the same time claim that the soil of a particular region doesn’t impart any characteristis in the aromas of the resulting wine?

        My comment: The issue of the post is if there is enough evidence to support a direct linkage of minerality with the soil. Concerning the relation between soil and resulting wine, it is pretty clear in my mind that a wine is heavily influenced by its soil but the big question is what remains after vinification.

  3. Madeline Puckette

    Very detailed article. I appreciate Joachim A. J. Kaiser’s comment on the topic as well. As an avid drinker of both American and European wines, the distinct lack of “minerality” in American wines continues to remind me that there is something afoot that needs to be understood.

    As an entertainment segment. Yesterday. The same day! we released a video on the topic: http://winefolly.com/episode/minerality-in-wine/ very strange how we wine drinking writers are going down the same path.

    thank you,

    Madeline P.

  4. Stefanos Tsalavoutas

    Very interesting article and well argued! So the conclusion is that although one cannot taste the actual soil where the grapes were grown,except only in comic books, there seems to be actually a relation between minerality in wines and ‘mineral’ soils. And this is not so bad after all for ‘soil theory aficionados’.

    • Ioannis Karakasis AIWS

      Very well said Stef…that’s the spirit

  5. Filip Verheyden

    Very good article indeed, Ioannis. In addition to what has been said about “soil theory aficionados” and about American wines (or New World wines in general) it is my view that winemaking – New or Old World – has more influence than soil: Gevrey Chambertin tastes different from Chambolle Musigny because winemakers in Gevrey conform to the standard of Gevrey being masculine. That automatically (!) means their extraction regimes are different than those from Chambolle producers, who will always extract less and more “refined”. Terroir is very much a concept of the “mind”. The same counts for New World winemaking: the reason why Chilean wine f.e. is so very recognisable is because there are no intricate appellation systems trying to sell “unique” wines, and second Chilean winemakers very much use the same vinification methods (with in general lower fermentation temperatures than the Old World, in combination with different, more aroma-performing yeasts). Anyway, a great discussion. And good you’re in the MW program too (I’m a second-year, trying to prepare for the exam in June…)

    • Ioannis Karakasis AIWS

      You made some very brave comments there, Filip. Thank you very much for that. In my mind, terroir perhaps has some meaning only for very confined areas(Mosel or Vosne, Gevrey…) and for single-varietal wines like Pinot or Riesling. But with what you just wrote you rocked my world. Hope we meet soon and good luck with your exam. BTW Tong looks great, cant wait for the next issue.

  6. Stephen

    i thought it might relate to the esterification of fatty acids.

    if you can classify olfaction in terms of gustation (and i believe you can), minerality converges with the umami.

    awesome article.

  7. One More Consideration of Colli Orientali del Friuli: The Role of Environment, Calcium, and Finally Minerality in Good Tasting, Good Aging Wines of the Appellation; Or, Let’s Make This Title As Long As Possible, Shall We? | Hawk Wakawaka Wine Review

    […] In traveling through Friuli-Venezia Giulia, and tasting the wines of Colli Orientali del Friuli, I became fascinated with the fact that the region itself seems to support more natural approaches to vineyard maintenance and wine production. In closing my series on the #cof2012 visit to the appellation I want to indulge my own geeky tendencies and consider the way in which environment, soil, and specifically calcium intersect to encourage the possibility of this more natural approach, as well as the aging potential of the wines. Doing so will lead too to thinking on the controversial, and somewhat esoteric idea of minerality in wine. […]

  8. One More Consideration of Colli Orientali del Friuli: The Role of Environment, Calcium, and Finally Minerality in Good Tasting, Good Aging Wines of the Appellation; Or, Let’s Make This Title As Long As Possible, Shall We? | Hawk Wakawaka Wine Review

    […] In traveling through Friuli-Venezia Giulia, and tasting the wines of Colli Orientali del Friuli, I became fascinated with the fact that the region itself seems to support more natural approaches to vineyard maintenance and wine production. In closing my series on the #cof2012 visit to the appellation I want to indulge my own geeky tendencies and consider the way in which environment, soil, and specifically calcium intersect to encourage the possibility of this more natural approach, as well as the aging potential of the wines. Doing so will lead too to thinking on the controversial, and somewhat esoteric idea of minerality in wine. […]

  9. One More Consideration of Colli Orientali del Friuli: The Role of Environment, Calcium, and Finally Minerality in Good Tasting, Good Aging Wines of the Appellation; Or, Let’s Make This Title As Long As Possible, Shall We? | Hawk Wakawaka Wine Review

    […] In traveling through Friuli-Venezia Giulia, and tasting the wines of Colli Orientali del Friuli, I became fascinated with the fact that the region itself seems to support more natural approaches to vineyard maintenance and wine production. In closing my series on the #cof2012 visit to the appellation I want to indulge my own geeky tendencies and consider the way in which environment, soil, and specifically calcium intersect to encourage the possibility of this more natural approach, as well as the aging potential of the wines. Doing so will lead too to thinking on the controversial, and somewhat esoteric idea of minerality in wine. […]

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    […] In traveling through Friuli-Venezia Giulia, and tasting the wines of Colli Orientali del Friuli, I became fascinated with the fact that the region itself seems to support more natural approaches to vineyard maintenance and wine production. In closing my series on the #cof2012 visit to the appellation I want to indulge my own geeky tendencies and consider the way in which environment, soil, and specifically calcium intersect to encourage the possibility of this more natural approach, as well as the aging potential of the wines. Doing so will lead too to thinking on the controversial, and somewhat esoteric idea of minerality in wine. […]

  11. One More Consideration of Colli Orientali del Friuli: The Role of Environment, Calcium, and Finally Minerality in Good Tasting, Good Aging Wines of the Appellation; Or, Let’s Make This Title As Long As Possible, Shall We? | Hawk Wakawaka Wine Review

    […] In traveling through Friuli-Venezia Giulia, and tasting the wines of Colli Orientali del Friuli, I became fascinated with the fact that the region itself seems to support more natural approaches to vineyard maintenance and wine production. In closing my series on the #cof2012 visit to the appellation I want to indulge my own geeky tendencies and consider the way in which environment, soil, and specifically calcium intersect to encourage the possibility of this more natural approach, as well as the aging potential of the wines. Doing so will lead too to thinking on the controversial, and somewhat esoteric idea of minerality in wine. […]

  12. One More Consideration of Colli Orientali del Friuli: The Role of Environment, Calcium, and Finally Minerality in Good Tasting, Good Aging Wines of the Appellation; Or, Let’s Make This Title As Long As Possible, Shall We? | Hawk Wakawaka Wine Review

    […] In traveling through Friuli-Venezia Giulia, and tasting the wines of Colli Orientali del Friuli, I became fascinated with the fact that the region itself seems to support more natural approaches to vineyard maintenance and wine production. In closing my series on the #cof2012 visit to the appellation I want to indulge my own geeky tendencies and consider the way in which environment, soil, and specifically calcium intersect to encourage the possibility of this more natural approach, as well as the aging potential of the wines. Doing so will lead too to thinking on the controversial, and somewhat esoteric idea of minerality in wine. […]

  13. One More Consideration of Colli Orientali del Friuli: The Role of Environment, Calcium, and Finally Minerality in Good Tasting, Good Aging Wines of the Appellation; Or, Let’s Make This Title As Long As Possible, Shall We? | Hawk Wakawaka Wine Review

    […] In traveling through Friuli-Venezia Giulia, and tasting the wines of Colli Orientali del Friuli, I became fascinated with the fact that the region itself seems to support more natural approaches to vineyard maintenance and wine production. In closing my series on the #cof2012 visit to the appellation I want to indulge my own geeky tendencies and consider the way in which environment, soil, and specifically calcium intersect to encourage the possibility of this more natural approach, as well as the aging potential of the wines. Doing so will lead too to thinking on the controversial, and somewhat esoteric idea of minerality in wine. […]

  14. One More Consideration of Colli Orientali del Friuli: The Role of Environment, Calcium, and Finally Minerality in Good Tasting, Good Aging Wines of the Appellation; Or, Let’s Make This Title As Long As Possible, Shall We? | Hawk Wakawaka Wine Review

    […] In traveling through Friuli-Venezia Giulia, and tasting the wines of Colli Orientali del Friuli, I became fascinated with the fact that the region itself seems to support more natural approaches to vineyard maintenance and wine production. In closing my series on the #cof2012 visit to the appellation I want to indulge my own geeky tendencies and consider the way in which environment, soil, and specifically calcium intersect to encourage the possibility of this more natural approach, as well as the aging potential of the wines. Doing so will lead too to thinking on the controversial, and somewhat esoteric idea of minerality in wine. […]

  15. Jorje Maslakiewicz

    A very good article and finally scientific common sense comes into the concept of “minerality”
    Tasting the soil in which the grapes grow was always something very far fetched, especially flint/granite. The latter is even used a building material because of it’s insolubility in water.
    Wine making methodology varies considerably even within small regions in France and all to often the character of a wine is attributed to soil or microclimate when differing methodology is the key responsible factor.

  16. Mike Tommasi

    I agree with you about disconnection with soil. Anyhow most good wine comes from soil poor in nutrients.

    I maintain that the combination of taste and mouthfeel that most often gets described as “minerality” (thus leaving aside the aroma descriptor for flint or petrol etc., which is not “minerality” but rather an aroma of minerals) is purely and simply the presence of salt in the wine. Try it: add a little salt to your wine glass, let dissolve, close your eyes, taste, swish around: minerality! Few wines have much salinity, yet we are well equipped to taste it; because it is not a familiar taste for wine, and because no wine tasting course talks about salt, we grasp at words like “minerality”, but we mean “salinity”.

    Cheers for a good article!

  17. Wine Jargon: What is Minerality? | Dessert Recipe Wall

    […] Where that sensation of minerality comes from is one of the enduring mysteries of wine science. There isn’t a generally-agreed-upon explanation for how the flavor of a soil finds its way into a grape. We don’t really know how it happens, though there are a number of theories. […]

  18. Wine Jargon: What is Minerality? | Recipes Pinboard

    […] Where that sensation of minerality comes from is one of the enduring mysteries of wine science. There isn’t a generally-agreed-upon explanation for how the flavor of a soil finds its way into a grape. We don’t really know how it happens, though there are a number of theories. […]