Understanding “Minerality” in Wine: A Practical Assessment

Defining Minerality and Mineral Flavors in Wine

While there is no one true definition of minerality in wine, most professionals in the wine industry agree that “minerality” describes the “stony” or “earthy” nature of various aromatic and flavoric notes in wine. Where this mineralistic flavor is derived from varies in opinion and there is no scientific explanation as to which is completely correct (yet).

Schist and Slate Minerals Present in the Soil of Spain's Wine Regions
A classic example of a piece of slate found in Priorat during a trip in the Spring of 2015. The excessive abundance of this style of rock within the soil directly affects the resulting wines in the region. Making them some of the most concentrated in the world. Image courtesy Greig Santos-Buch.

What is clear, however, is that the soil composition itself can directly affect how grapes grow and ultimately taste. The positioning of various soil compositions within different layers of the earth, how compact they are, and what the chemical makeup is, all play a crucial role in how the root system develops and absorbs nutrients.

A classic example of this exists within the Priorat Wine Region of Spain, where the soil makeup is largely that of schist and slate. These large rocky structures offer easy drainage of water and poor nutrients for the vine, forcing the roots to struggle and grow deeper while they search for what they need to survive. At the same time, schist and slate generate excessive heat at the base of the vine during the day, which has an impact on how it grows. All of these factors ultimately affect the flavor concentration of the wine each vintage.

It’s the perfect metaphor that echoes what Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty…” The best tasting wines often result from the vines that struggle the hardest. Hence why Priorat is known as one of the most special wine regions of earth. 

At the same time, the presence of magnesium, iron, potassium and other common minerals within the earth can change the degree of mineral tastes experienced when you drink wine.

Minerality in wine
Limestone minerals are present in many famous wine growing regions like Rioja, Spain. Limestone is actually what remains of ancient inland seas, where over millenia, the remains of coral and other sealife stack on top eachother creating immense pressure. The result is limestone, which is often loaded with fossils. When you’re drinking a wine grown in limestone, you can imagine that you’re sampling ancient sea life in your glass! Image courtesy Summitpost.org.

Describing the Flavors of Minerality in Wine

You’ll often hear wine experts use descriptive phrases and terms along the lines of chalky, wet limestone, slate, flint and gravel-like during their aroma and flavor assessment. In fact, describing minerality (or lack there of) is included in the first part of the master sommelier tasting assessment.

A 22-million year old oyster fossil bed found in the Sainte-Croix-du-Monte sub-region of Sweet Bordeaux, France.
A 22-million year old oyster fossil bed found in the Sainte-Croix-du-Monte sub-region of Sweet Bordeaux, France. It’s largely argued that the terroir of the region has a direct impact on the flavor(s) of wine present here. Image courtesy Greig Santos-Buch.

People Describe and Experience Minerality in Different Ways

This is often overlooked, but remember that when interpreting minerality, one individual may perceive and interpret it differently than another. This is also true when describing other aromas and flavor notes within a wine.

If you’ve never smelled wet cement or chiseled limestone up close before, your description may gravitate to other stony objects you’ve interacted with previously. Bare this in mind when assessing or listening to an assessment of a wine. Get out there and try to let your olfactory sense experience as many smells as possible so you can most correctly describe a flavor.

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