What exactly is minerality? An emerging understanding

Friday, 14 June, 2019
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The notion of minerality has become a valuable aspect of the rubric of wine tasting for some professionals. To understand this multidisciplinary and multimodal phenomenon, we need to turn to geology, botany, chemistry, oenology and sensory science.

Minerality has been met with skepticism by scientists who point out that, whatever tasters mean by this term, it cannot be the actual taste of stones and fossils in soil. When a winemaker or critic says that a wine possesses the flavor of minerals, it is not only meant as a compliment but may also serve to identify a specific vineyard origin. Put another way, minerality has become a surrogate for terroir. That, unfortunately, does not make it easier to define objectively.

Where did the word come from? Surprisingly, it is difficult to say for certain. Even now, minerality is absent from most English dictionaries from Mirriam-Webster to the Encyclopedia Britannica – and, for that matter, Microsoft Word. On the other hand, mineralogy, the study of minerals, does have ancient origins. One of the early examinations of mineral substances was undertaken by Theophrastus, a disciple of Aristotle, in the 4 th century BCE. His tome, De Mineralibus or “On Stones,” gives physical descriptions of onyx, amber and quartz together with precious stones such as emerald, sapphire, diamond and ruby (Theophrastus, 1498). Pliny the Elder built on his work in Naturalis Historia of 77 CE. In the 16 th century, Georgius Agricola went further. In De Natura Fossilium (Agricola, 1546) – which has been called a foundational textbook of mineralogy – he wrote that “some minerals have a sweet taste,” halite (sodium) is salty, and copper is “very bitter and unpleasant.” He also observed that “certain minerals have an odor when struck with an iron or stone.” This has unexpected relevance to the discussion of minerality in wine. It was not until much later that certain key minerals were discovered in a chemical sense by Sir Humphry Davy (Davy, Encyclopedia Britannica). He is credited with isolating sodium and potassium (1807) along with calcium and magnesium (1808).

Oxford Dictionaries claim minerality has late 19th century origins, but on investigation it appears this early usage related to mineral water, not wine. Oxford’s terse definition is simply: “a mineral quality.” For elaboration, we must turn to sources within the wine community. Wine Spectator offers the following: “Minerality is a tricky one to explain, but it refers to a group of non-fruit, non-herb, non-spice notes…Think of the taste of the sea that you get from crunchy sea salt or oysters. The smell of a sidewalk after it rains”. We may suspect that minerality must be the phonetic equivalent of the French “la minéralité” but this leads us on a wild goose chase as notable contemporary French references fail to cite that term. As happens in the evolution of language, minerality appears to have been simply made up, in the not too distant past, by someone who evidently found it to be evocative of flavor characteristics which lacked a suitable one-word description.

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