Typically when we refer to a wine’s structure we mean those components of a wine that form its foundation, the way the wine is put together. Fruit power, acidity, tannins, alcohol conspire to form the body of the wine—it’s structure. The wine’s structure is primarily accessed via tactile impressions or mouthfeel.
This weekend I opened a wine that seemed to have an additional structural component—minerality.
Minerality has been a controversial concept over the past two decades. It was seldom mentioned in tasting notes prior to the early 2000’s. It then received some mention as a synonym for the “flinty” aroma of a Chablis or the aroma of petrichor—the scent of rain falling on dry stones often found in white wines. Today it is a common feature of tasting notes describing a wide range of additional non-fruit, non-spice aromas and flavors—crushed rock, salinity, gravel, slate, steel, or chalk.
It’s interesting that what we call minerality today is not always an aroma. Some wines have a texture akin to the sensation of licking a stone or the dry, gritty character of chalk. Minerality is a marriage of aroma and mouthfeel.
The wine I opened this weekend was a 2006 Syrah from David Girard, a very good producer in California’s Sierra Foothills. At 13 years after vintage date, there was still some juiciness to the fruit but it was beginning to fade. There was no heat from exposed alcohol. The tannins had softened to a whisper. There was no hint of sourness and the sharp bite of acidity was just a nip. All of these structural components had receded behind a torrent of minerality—aromas of crushed rock, a wide seam of gravel on the palate, and lingering chalk on the finish.
If structure is what gives firmness and stability to a wine, the structure of this wine consisted of minerality. It’s as if age had stripped it bare revealing bones of steel.
We don’t really know where minerality comes from, although we know it is not transferred from the soil. Whatever it is, it’s a product of fermentation and seems to result from a particular way the tannins, acidity, and fruit are woven together. This wine suggests it lurks in the shadows until the more familiar structural components are worn away by age.