MINERALITY: Animal, Vegetable or Mineral?

The term ‘mineral’ is a fashionable wine characteristic right now, but what does it actually mean? Sally Easton MW finds there is a lack of precision and unanimity in defining the term and suggests it be used only very cautiously.

minerality.jpg The term minerality is bandied around with gay abandon by winemakers and industry folk alike, who regularly struggle to define it precisely when probed. But, “Minerality in wine is difficult to define,” says Kees van Leeuwen, professor of viticulture at ENITA – Bordeaux University, precisely “because it does not refer to a specific substance present in wine.”

This leaves us floundering with an imprecise language to describe the term. Among many, Andrew Jefford has described it as an “absence of fruit, animal, wood”. Others intone the chalky, flinty paradigm. So if it’s not animal, nor fruit nor vegetable, must it be mineral?

In trying to unravel minerality, we have to overcome “tasting by association”, which is trained into our understandings.  Professor Ulrich Fischer, at the department of viticulture and oenology at Neustadt in Germany said minerality is a “self-fulfilling prophecy – you learn Chablis is flinty; Mosel is wet slate. You know you have heritage and you pick it up”.  But if you lick that flint or that piece of Mosel slate, there’s not a lot of direct flavour.

One thing’s for sure: it’s trendy. And there’s an implied quality innuendo when minerality is mentioned. So there is a responsibility not to abuse the term. For analytical study, certain chemical compounds are attributed to certain aromas, for example the floral character of monoterpenes or the green pepper of methoxypyrazines. The chemical compound can be analysed to study how the character is formed. Yet no one compound has yet been attributed to mineral character, which explains why there is no consensus on its use.

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