The term “minerality” is now a routine descriptor when describing wine flavors, appearing in wine reviews from all the major wine writers. This is a relatively new phenomenon. The term never appears in classical manuals of wine tasting and appears in the Oxford Companion to Wine only in the most recent 2015 edition.
Yet I suspect most ordinary wine drinkers don’t really know what it means. After all, minerals are found in rocks and so one might naturally think wines that exhibit minerality must take like rocks. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t spent much time tasting rocks and I have no idea what rocks taste like.
But its important to remember that when we’re talking about wine flavors (and food flavors as well), we are most often referring to aromas, not tastes. There are only 5 or maybe 6 categories of taste—sugar, salt, bitter, sour, and umami. (Some scientists think we have fat taste receptors as well). The distinctive tastes that foods and beverages have, even when they are in your mouth, comes from aroma wafting through the channels in your mouth that lead to your nasal passages. (Hence the cumbersome term “retronasal olfaction”.)
So minerality is an aroma, or more accurately a family of aromas. And we know what rocks smell like under certain conditions. Wet stones after a rain have a distinctive aroma. So does a rock quarry where rocks have been crushed. Flint when striking steel has a distinctive aroma as does the mineral sulfur on a matchstick when struck. Chalk is calcium carbonate and has an aroma you might remember from school chalkboards. Chalk also has a texture when you rub it so it has become a common way of describing the way certain foods and beverages feel in the mouth.
All of these characteristics of minerals can be discerned in wine. It is most readily apparent in white wines. A good Riesling from Mosel will smell like wet stones. Chablis and Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc has a flinty aroma and often will smell like a struck match as well. Chalkiness is usually a textural characteristic exhibited by many white wines that have a bit of graininess and resistance on the finish. Some white wines have a transparency to them that is reminiscent of mineral water from a spring. Salt is also a mineral. Occasionally wines will have a subtle saltiness in their flavor but more often they will smell like a sea breeze. We call it salinity but is probably not the smell of salt but of iodine, marine algae, and decaying seaweed. Albarino and Melon de Bourgogne sometimes have this aroma.
Red wines also exhibit minerality. Willamette Valley Pinot Noir often has a distinct aroma of crushed rock. Many wines from Bordeaux smell like graphite—think of the metallic aroma from a freshly sharpened pencil—or exhibit aromas that smell like freshly laid gravel. I have been drinking quite a bit of natural wine and wines with more restrained fruit and less oak lately. All that restraint tends to expose a seam of crushed rock or gravel that emerges midpalate as their most distinctive component. Some wines have an electric snap on the finish that is part textural that is sometimes described as minerality.
The term minerality is a short hand for all those more precise descriptors and it is an enormously useful category for describing wine, even if it is sometimes metaphorical. As we become more refined at sorting out various kinds of minerality it will grow in importance. It is one of the new frontiers of wine description.