Minerality = [SS + A + CC] – [E + T] – [O²]
(Those interested in figuring out what this odd formula means should keep on reading.)

Funny how things happen. Until the 1990s, the term minerality didn’t appear in the most acclaimed guides, not even the Oxford Companion to Wine. For wine lovers all over the world, flavors were basically fruity, floral, spicy, herbal…

Then, suddenly, this new word – minerality – emerged to become the trendiest descriptor in the wine lover’s lexicon. Googling it produces more than a million results. The term itself is relatively new: according to a study examining the word’s evolution in French literature, associations between minéralité (minerality) and vin (wine) have increased since 1985. Yet, despite this recent explosion of popularity, a unique definition has not been created.

“Think of the taste of the sea, like oysters,” was one writer’s description. “It’s like chalk, or flint,suggested another. Or, the smell of the ground after a rain… No, wait a minute, that has already a name – petrichor – although almost nobody knows or uses it. For most people, minerality in a wine means aromatic characteristics such as wet stone, graphite, smoke, sometimes even hydrocarbon. Others associate the word with acidity or saltiness in wine. And there are still others who argue it relates to the soil where the grapes were grown.

“Soil contains minerals (potassium, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, etc.), and some people think they could be transferred to wine during winemaking,” says Marco Li Calzi, enology professor at Ecole d’Ingenieurs de Purpan (France). “However, opinions differ about the ability of grapes to absorb these minerals from the soil and especially about the resulting sensory impact.”

“In a study conducted at UC Davis by the Hildegarde Heymann group,” Calzi continues, “various white wines were studied by two methods: Projective Mapping (PM), which used a panel of industry professionals (winemakers, sommeliers, wine professionals, etc.) and the Sensory Descriptive Analysis (DA), by means of a panel of trained judges. Eventually, in both experiments, they found that minerality is most highly correlated with acidity.”

For soil, minerality is often correlated with volcanic soils; in fact, many people believe that if a wine is perceived as mineral, it must come from volcanic soil. But what does such a soil add to grapes and, as a result, to the final wine? According to Maurizio Gily, agronomist and publisher of Millevigne, who is also a consultant to several wineries in Italy, “it’s hard to say precisely, because volcanic soils don’t have one unique identity, so we might say that the key to interpreting this kind of soil is heterogeneity.” As an example, Gily notes the detailed differences between a vineyard planted in the Campi Flegrei area (Campania) and another one cultivated in the Etna (Sicily), or Soave (Veneto). “Usually, the concept of minerality is easier to find in cold climates and is linked to low pH, so this would indicate that it is more related to the climate than to the soil,” he continues. “Anyway, if a relationship between soil minerals and organoleptic descriptors exists, it must be very complex, and has not really been investigated thus far.”

Acidity. Cold climate. Low pH. Altitude. And volcanic soils. It seems that maybe we are putting together some pieces of the puzzle.

To learn more about volcanic soils and the impact they have on minerality, I reached out to John Szabo MS, author of the notable book Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit and Power. Our conversation follows:

Why did you decide to study volcanic wines? Are they more mineral than others?

“Volcanic wines, as a very general category, tend to fall more on the savory-salty-earthy side of the flavor spectrum (you could call them mineral), but not necessarily more mineral than wines grown on other geologies. I came to write a book on volcanic wines sort of by accident, at one point about seven years ago making the connection between a group of disparate wines that fascinated me – Santorini, Etna, Badacsony and others – wines that all happen to come from volcanic soils.”

And what if the secret of the current success of mineral wines around the world is just their innate appeal, in other words their “drinkability?” In this case, though, it might be just a matter of acidity-saltiness balance…what do you think?

“The answer depends on your definition of minerality. But for me, the wines I describe as mineral are invariably very “drinkable”, thirst-quenching, fresh and gently salty.”

Last question: what is the definition of minerality according to your research? Is it possible to find “mineral wines” in non-volcanic soils?

“I’m working on some research to come up with a more specific definition of minerality, based on measurable components in wine. One component could be geosmin (the main contributor to petrichor), though many consider that a fault. The more interesting avenue of research however is an investigation into the salt component of wine: sodium chloride in seaside vineyards, but also other mineral salts and acid salts that could derive/evolve from soil composition. These would be quantifiable and testable “minerals” in wine, and thus definable. More speculatively, I plan to look into the electrical conductivity of wine, and measure ions that could also originate in the soil and be present in wines, to a greater or lesser extent.”


Drawing my own conclusions, I’d say that the definition of minerality in wine still remains an open question, depending very much on the personal concept that each of us has about the word. However, in this article, we’ve found that in the characterization of “mineral wine” almost everybody agrees with the presence of certain elements such as acidity, cold climate and volcanic soil.

And here is the explanation of the initial formula at the top of this article. Conceived by prof. Marco Li Calzi, this summarizes our current knowledge:

Minerality = [SS + A+ CC] – [E+T] – [O²]

Where SS = Stony Soils, A= Acid, CC= Cold Climate, E+T = Esters (fruity aromas) + varietal Thiols (fruity aromas characteristic of some grapes, as sauvignon blanc) and O²= oxygen.

It’s just a playful equation, of course, but it gets the idea across, doesn’t it?

 

About The Author

Staff Writer

Elisabetta Tosi is a freelance wine journalist and wine blogger. She lives in Valpolicella, where the famous red wines Amarone, Ripasso and Recioto are produced. In her working time Elisabetta is a web-consultant for wineries, and in her free time she writes books about Italian wines. Elisabetta is a contributor to Vino Prigo.

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  • Wayne Young

    Love the article Lizzie, and I agree that minerality is hard to pin down.. But I think it IS possible to have a Sauvignon Blanc that has minerality, so there’s the exception that proves your formula!
    I also like the concept of saltiness and Italian *sapidità* that i like a lot, that we have LOTS of here in Friuli, but without volcanic soils..

    • Oh goodness – sapidity again! The problem with “Sapidita” is that it doesn’t translate well. I remember having this discussion elsewhere, and I think where we got to is that the usual translation as “sapidity” is not helpful at all. In English it’s a vacuous, meaningless word.

      • Wayne Young

        I’d like to hear more about your discussion about the term. While you may think the term is meaningless, those of us who know the sensation well have a distinct idea of what it means.
        Yes, some terms don’t translate. Terroir would be a good example. That doesnt meant that the term is meaningless… Let’s find a way to express the sensation better in English, rather than dismissing it as meaningless.

        • I didn’t say it’s meaningless in Italian, only that the translation doesn’t work.

          The English definition of sapidity is “having taste”, or “having a pleasant flavour”. Or maybe “having a savoury flavour”.

          That’s why I believe you will almost never hear someone whose mother tongue is English use this word.

          • Wayne Young

            Yeah, maybe savoury is better, but that brings in the idea of umami for me which isnt quite right… I agree, Sapidity is kind of like “tasty” which doesnt say a lot… How can we better convey this sensation in english? C’mon let’s invent a new word!

            • VinoPigro

              This makes me even more convinced that some discussions about sensations in wine tasting are a matter of…vocabulary! 😀

            • Minerality. 😉

    • VinoPigro

      Glad you appreciated my article, Wayne. I absolutely agree with you, and I rather convinced that minerality is the summa of many kind of saltiness… 😉 again, yes, Sauv Blanc in Friuli are mineral, in that sense 🙂

  • Mike Madaio

    I struggle to see a correlation between soil type and minerality. The idea the this type of wine *must* come from volcanic soil is easily disproven by Chablis (arguably the most famous wine for minerality). Li Calzi instead uses the term “stony,” which is rather vague and is probably hard to apply to every wine that exhibits these characteristics. Surely there are certain soils that better tease out these flavors in the end product, but generalizing further than that seems difficult.