What does mineral mean?

What does the word “minerality” mean to you when it comes to wine? Chances are very little, though you’ve probably heard the word used, or possibly read this term in tasting notes. Wine tasters claim to taste minerality and like to apply this description to wine – it indicates lofty praise.

“The smell of gravel”, “dusty” and “like sucking a stone” are some of the answers when I ask wine-makers what minerality actually tastes like. You may think it’s not altogether desirable to find these dimensions in your wine, but you’d be wrong. The more your wine tastes of barren, dry stone, the closer it apparently is to expressing the soils it comes from.

Now I don’t know enough about the vine’s ability to suck stone flavour from the soil it grows in and deposit this in the grape. It also seems something of a literal interpretation, that a mineral taste comes directly from the soils. On the other hand, I can imagine that certain soils, with high concentrations of particular trace minerals, can affect the mineral content in the grape and ultimately influence the wine. But correlate with the taste itself? I think I will begin to suck the stones and do my own trial.

Perhaps it is because we live in a country where our wines tend to be incredibly fruity (due to the abundance of sunlight) that flavours of other dimensions are given such high praise, but in many cases the alleged “minerality” in some of our wines is not always very obvious to my palate.

And then recently I had the good fortune to taste a few white Burgundies of pedigree, and these chardonnays – with their unmistakable stone and dry chalky flavours – made it very clear that while many of our wines may have elements of these flavours, few have them by the barrow-load.

The wines were a 2000 Louis Latour Meursault and a 2002 Josef Drouhin Beaune, and they were downright austere compared to local examples of chardonnay. The compact nature of their flavours (much of this in the stony zone) suggested much maturation potential, with the 2000 vintage wine beginning to show some of the citrus flavours that chardonnay is more often known for. But make no mistake, these wines came across as serious and stern.

Fruit flavours are friendly. They’re more accessible, and they are easier to identify with in a drink that is, after all, made from a fruit. But it is these other dimensions of flavour that wine is capable of that makes it fascinating. These dimensions are also what make wine great at the table, for mineral flavours interact with food in diverse ways. Primarily, they act not as obviously “opposite” or “complementary” flavours, but rather as foils to the nuances that the food already has.