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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.)