The Myth of the Myth of Minerality

rocks in the vineyardVicki Denig writes a balanced article on minerality despite an ambiguous headline and a misleading introduction. Entitled “Nailing the Myth of Minerality”, she introduces the post by asserting “Minerality is perhaps the wine industry’s most overused, underwhelming, and misunderstood descriptors of them all.”

What’s wrong with this? For starters, “minerality” isn’t a myth; it’s a metaphor. And it’s neither overused nor underwhelming. She gets the “misunderstood” right but it’s misunderstood in part because of headlines like this. Happily she interviews enough somms and winemakers who routinely use the term and find it useful, so in the end the post leaves the impression that minerality is “a thing” as she calls it.

“Minerality” is a general term we use to describe wines that exude aromas such as flint, crushed rock, wet stone, or sea breeze or that have textures of chalk, hard stone, gravel or a kind of electrical snap on the finish. Since it is clear from tasting notes that many, many wines have these features, and they are highly prized among some wine critics and winemakers,  I don’t see what is “overused” or “underwhelming” about the descriptor.

The whole controversy really comes from some scientists talking out of school. Scientists have definitively shown that minerals in the soil do not transfer to the vines or fruit, and many (although not all) scientists use that fact to berate wine writers who use the term to describe wine. But although the fact that soil characteristics are not transferred to the wine is an important and interesting scientific claim, it is entirely irrelevant to the question of whether the term “minerality” is a useful or accurate descriptor.

We are not literally tasting rocks in the wine anymore than we are literally tasting cherry, peach, or barnyard soil in the wine. Most wine descriptors are metaphorical. Wine literally tastes like grapes; there are no cherries, peaches, or soil in your wine. These are all metaphors. But that fact has little to do with whether these descriptors are useful or accurate.

No doubt there isn’t a precisely established definition of “minerality”—it’s a metaphor(Sorry for screaming) While still “living”, a metaphor will not have a precise definition. That is why metaphors are useful—they flexibly and creatively pick out properties for which there is no literal description.

Denig quotes geologist Brenna Quigley who, to her credit, actually does seem to understand the usefulness of the term.

The science is quite clear that the vine is not literally picking up minerals from the soil and transferring them into the wine,” she explains, adding that this does not mean that experiences that tasters may have and describe as minerality do not exist.

This is exactly right.

This “controversy” would go away if a few more scientists had paid attention during English class. We should listen to scientists when they talk about science. When it comes to language we should listen to people who write and talk for a living.

(I suspect, by the way that Denig’s headline, is deliberately ambiguous. Is it the association of minerality with mythology that is being nailed or the allegedly inappropriate use of the term “minerality”? It is a clever headline. Apparently, Ms. Denig paid attention in English class.)

8 comments

  1. I like your article. But it is not fair to accuse scientists of not understanding metaphors. Most of the time, they are reacting to statements along the lines of, “This wine has a distinct minerality, as a result of the calcareous/granitic/volcanic/blue slate/etc soils on which the grapes were grown.” See the difference?

    It is also not quite right to state that cherry and peach flavors in wines are metaphors. Certainly there are no cherries or peaches in grape wine, but the aroma compounds in wine that remind us of those fruits are literally the same compounds. They are not analogs or proxies.

    1. Peter,
      Thank you for commenting. There is a vast difference between claiming a wine tastes of the soil the grapes were grown in (which is generally false) vs claiming that soil composition explains a wine’s flavor profile (which is often true). It might be drainage characteristics, heat retention or some other factor.(It clearly isn’t the absorption of minerals) Most winemakers I talk to think soil composition is important to the particular taste of a wine including mineral characteristics although the precise causal pathways seem elusive.
      As to the fruit flavors being metaphors, I doubt you will find fully constituted compounds that explain the flavor profile of a peach in a Riesling. The wine contains flavor and aroma precursors that are close enough to what we find in a peach to call the aroma “peach”. But it’s a likeness, not an identity. Since metaphors are based on perceived likenesses between the source domain and the target of the metaphor it seems reasonable to think of many aroma descriptors as metaphors.

  2. Dwight,

    I think your third paragraph undermines the whole ‘minerality’ argument, i.e. if ‘minerality’ can be used generically for any or all of these terms, why simply not simply use whichever of those terms fit most accurately?

  3. Pat,
    Thanks for your comment. Because sometimes general terms are useful if you want to indicate a general direction. We talk about fruit or earth without always mentioning the specific aroma, texture of flavor. Sometimes the signal is just too faint to be precise. Sometimes the flow of the writing doesn’t call for specificity

    1. I take your point Dwight: ‘fruity’ or ‘earthy’ are valid generic descriptors. But I also think they are more in tune with the vocabulary of someone coming to wine than someone well versed in tasting.

  4. I think of comparing “minerality” in wine as similar to the flavor difference between tap water and bottled water… I don’t care about where the mineral flavors come from scientifically, but I can certainly taste the difference!

  5. Hi Dwight, thought provoking article, I quoted you in my thoughts on the subject over at LinkedIn. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/minerality-tea-taste-rock-tsc-tempest
    I don’t know much about wine so I can’t speak on that point. I do agree with Peter Bell about flavour compounds. However, I will comment that aside from flavour, aroma, and taste, mouth sensation or mouth feel is a separate area altogether and minerality IMO is a sensation, it is felt. As such this is not something you can detect in a Chemistry Lab. Final point, soil composition does have a distinct impact on the growth and sensory characteristics of fruits and other organisms that we consume. To say that minerals in the ground do not manifest themselves in the organism in some manner is a curious form of “Schördinger’s Cat Syndrome,” if you ask me. 😁

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