The New Yorker ran an amusing online parody of a usage guide for “I’m good” – something I’d have expected to see on McSweeney’s more than in the New Yorker – demonstrating how “I’m good” can be used to mean darn well anything you please. “Minerality” might be much the same, though whether everyone has a different but individually consistent definition of minerality, or whether we all tend to use it to describe a whole host of different generally desirable perceptions is still up in the air.
I was recently sent two expressions of Santorini Assyrtiko and a sweet Vinsanto. Two were perfectly delightful, and none were boring. The two dry whites shared a common freshness despite being made in very different styles. The Thalassitis 2011 Santorini dry white blend was very aromatic, light on its feet, bright with acidity and citrus-pear flavors, and with plenty of what I intuitively call minerality. The 2009 Nikteri Nyxtepi from Hatzidakis was badly over-oaked with too much butter and heat for my taste (not surprising at 15% etOH) and little more than oak on the nose, but still managed enough mid-palate salty herbal notes to keep it drinkable. I didn’t realize until after doing a bit more reading that my using “minerality” to describe the first wine and “salty” to describe the second was telling. Am I thinking of minerality as a set of flavors of which salty is one? Or am I drawing a clear distinction between minerality and saltiness? I’m not sure that I’m prepared to answer that question with any conviction.
The Vinsanto was exquisite – not a word I apply lightly to wine – with a different character than other similarly-syrupy dessert wines I’ve had: resinous, in a pleasant way, and without being bitter; raisiny, but without being cloying; oddly sippable for something so sweet. My response to this and the Thalassitis was to curse the combined effects of living in a small town and on a small budget, since I’m unlikely to get any more of these delights any time soon. A shame.
A lot has been written about minerality of late, mostly to the tune of “everything we’ve been led to think is true about minerality is wrong.” Clark Smith probably said it best way back in 2010 – “No topic has wrought more confusion and ruffled more feathers among dedicated enophiles than the incessant bandying about of the lofty sounding “M” word.” – but the debate continues because while some, like Smith, take minerality as a given, others are still concerned by what seems a nebulously ill-defined area of wine description. What to do when wine enthusiasts can’t agree? More research, obviously.
“Expert” wine tasters (winemakers, researchers, and teachers) recruited by a recent French study tended to characterize minerality as something perceived by both nose and palate, though with no great consensus: about 20% defined minerality as strictly an aroma characteristic and about 20% as strictly an in-the-mouth sensation. The same experts, when asked to define wine minerality, called on a bewildering array of aromas, flavors, and textural sensations from “algae” and “honey” to “tension,” “flavorless,” “dynamic,” and “optimal terroir.” Some associated minerality with saltiness, some with bitterness, some with acidity, some with lack of aroma, some with gunflint aromas…the list goes on.
I don’t feel comfortable taking these findings too far – ideas about minerality could be and probably are very different amongst, say, Oregon winemakers or Chinese sommeliers compared with these French experts specifically acclimated to Burgundy – but I think that it’s still fair to put this study in the pile of evidence weighing against a clear-cut definition of minerality. Asking whether minerality is well-defined is a very different question than asking whether it exists, and there are some cross-language and cross-culture issues to be examined here. Still, defining what we mean by minerality is an obvious and key step toward answering the much more interesting question of where minerality comes from. After all, without defining her starting terms, how’s a scientist to proceed?
And here I’m forced to return to my initial thoughts about minerality being like “I’m good.” How’s a scientist to proceed? Maybe by acting like a linguist, listing all of the different situations in which “minerality” is found, and focusing our search for meaning on context instead of the word itself. But I’m still not convinced that that strategy will help us figure out what viticultural or enological practices contribute to “minerality” in any of its forms.
**Samples courtesy of the North American Greek Wine Bureau**