Wine Science, Minerality, and Mission Creep

vineyard soilJancis Robinson has a nice article up on the hottest topic among wine geeks—minerality. (I did my own write up on it a few weeks ago.)

Jancis, like most wine writers today, finds the term useful in describing a range of flavors found in wines—wet stones, struck flint and “gaseous whiffs” for her. I use the term to refer to steely sensations and the smell of crushed rock as well.

It has been well established by science that what we’re tasting has little if anything to do with minerals in the soil. That’s fine. We’re trying to describe a sensation not discover the underlying cause of the sensation.

So it rankles me a bit when wine scientists criticize writers for using the term. Geologist Alex Maltman “went on to mock us for our use of the term gunflint, a common tasting term for Loire Sauvignon Blancs”, and “ is utterly bemused by the many bottlings nowadays that carry the name of a well-known soil type”. Dr. Richard Smart  continued in the same vein, “Does the term add to the pleasure of wine?’ he asked rhetorically, before asking us all to stop using it.“

Well in fact Dr. Smart, yet it does. It helps us describe flavor notes that would otherwise be elusive without the term and its relatives. As long as we aren’t misleading readers by claiming we’re tasting soil minerals transferred to the wine, I don’t see the problem.

It’s the scientist’s job to find the causes of wine flavors; its the writer’s job to describe experiences and communicate them. Don’t scientists have enough to do without the mission creep?

We will happily leave the science to the scientists. They should leave the poetry to us.


  1. We can’t generalize about all scientists, but their core tenet is deduce from concrete, measurable data a conclusion. Of course they are threatened by a more metaphorical use of the word minerality, because its use in wine is a moe general reference to something that cannot be measured and quantified so easily: sensation.

    The writer seeks to invoke the feeling through words. This effort is not always completely successful, since it is just a stimulation of or replication of sensation that is sought after. Only the wine itself can produce the sensation. The process is called communication, and that is elusive indeed.

    So congratulations for slapping their toes for stepping on turf that is outside their purview. Forgive them, they know not what they do, and that is why all technicians need to study writing and literature along with a dose of humility. Grant them the wisdom to know what they don’t know. if science truly drove the world, we would have decreased tobacco deaths decades earlier, begun mitigating climate change starting in the 1970s, and countless other issues where the social and political will of societies were subdued by commercial forces of distraction and legislation.

  2. Hi Jim,

    Thanks for the shout out for liberal education! Indeed I do forgive them; their intentions are (usually) to seek the truth which is the worthiest of goals. But their tendency to think only science is worth of study is both silly and dangerous. Surely not all scientists are so self-deceived but too many are.

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