On a warm summer morning in 1986 I found myself marking time in a stale smelling bar-tabac drinking bad French coffee while fingering the last crumbs from a buttery apricot tart. Back then this part of the northern Rhône valley was nearly as famous for apricots as it was for grapes. The local vineyards had not fully recovered from post-war neglect and the steep hillsides were not an attractive option for the working youth of the community. The wholesale expansion of the Côte-Rôtie appellation was still years away and today’s wine bar darlings, St. Joseph and Cornas, were yet to be discovered. To be honest, there was quite a bit of bad wine around, so, when you were lucky enough to find the good stuff, it was like finding gold.
Thank God pit-fruit farming was a viable economic option.
I was in the village of Mauves to meet with an icon of wine, Gérard Chave, courtesy of Kermit Lynch and his Beaune office, which, as chance would have it, was run by Erin Cannon, the future wife of Gérard’s son, Jean-Louis. These were the nascent days of syrah’s international popularity — a full year before publication of Robert Parker’s Wines of the Rhône Valley and Provence and a mere eight years after John Livingstone-Learmonth’s ground-breaking The Wines of the Rhône.
Luckily for me, Mauves was quiet and tourist-free that day which made for a relaxed visit with plenty of time to indulge in Gérard’s famous tasting protocol — barrel samples of each of the Hermitage climats (Le Méal, Bessards, Beaumes, Diognières, et al.) followed by several vintages of finished wine from the bottle.
As Gérard rushed off to retrieve a pipette and some glasses, I luxuriated in the cool humidity of the cellar while taking note of its clean mushroom odor. All around me, and in several side rooms, were numerous arched recesses draped with thick pads of undisturbed mold. It was impossible to see what lay inside these cocoons but I guessed from the stories I had heard there were countless mysterious bottles within. Sure enough, when the time came to open a few, Gérard reached in — up to his elbow —and pulled out several unlabeled, dust-covered bottles.
As fun as it might be to tell the story of that tasting this piece is really about a fundamental lesson I learned that day. Well, maybe two lessons:
First, it’s never a bad thing to grow great apricots.
Second, and most importantly, wine is a sponge that soaks up the odors of its environment.
I haven’t been to Chave’s cellar since that day (by the way, the Hermitage is still made beneath Gérard’s house) so I can’t tell you what it’s like now, but one thing is certain — back then, winery hygiene as we know it was not yet a thing in rural France. As a result, most wines tended to smell like the cellars from which they came — good or bad. Whether you called it terroir, Old World complexity, or cellar funk, the odors found there were often powerful enough to dominate a wine until age gradually softened the impact.
Please, don’t take this observation as a criticism — I adored those wines and the Chave family is doing just fine — but the era of scrupulously reductive winemaking, screwcaps, air conditioning, stainless steel tanks, ionized air, operating room sterility, fault-fixing, flavor customization, and refrigerated transport has done a lot to change our expectations of how wine should taste and smell. Mold, clean smelling or otherwise, is no longer what we expect to find when we open a bottle of wine.
Perhaps as a result, the language of wine has changed, too. Is it a coincidence my first encounter with the word “mineral” coincided with this new era of hygiene?
The first time I heard the word “mineral” used to describe wine was shortly after my trip to Mauves when the voluble importer Terry Theise presented a master-class on post-scandal rieslings and grüner veltliners from Austria. The exact term he used — “liquid minerals” — described both a texture and a flavor he found common to these varieties. Instead of questioning the science — how minerals get sucked up by the vine and end up in the wine — I took the word to be a useful metaphor and a catchy way to describe something that was increasingly obvious.
Wine was changing and my appreciation for it was changing, too.
Instead of surly, hard, rustic and, yes, smelly wines from France and over-ripe, over-oaked, super clean, fire-breathing wines from California, I began to appreciate purity, finesse, freshness and transparency.
I began to scan my mental archives for some of the wines that set me on this path.
The study Minerality in Wine: Towards the Reality behind the Myths identifies five characteristics in wine that correlate to an enhanced perception of minerality: (1) Acidity; (2) Reductive Phenomena and SO₂; (3) Compounds producing Stony/Smoky Notes (BMT); (4) Compounds Producing Saltiness (succinic acid); and (5) Absence of Fruitiness and/or Wine Flavor.
Back then, California wines were never short of fruit or oak and not normally imbued with any of the other four characteristics described above, so my search for transparency (minerality) was pretty much confined to the Old World.
One of the earliest and most famous references to minerality in wine is the gun flint aroma commonly associated with Chablis, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. Science tells us this is probably from thiols and related sulfur-compounds, such as BMT, which resemble, even in low concentrations, the odor of struck match or the sulfurous discharge from a struck gun flint.
This was problematic.
I recall numerous wine enthusiasts at the time vainly attempting to discern the flinty aroma of Chablis from examples that were all too often overloaded with sulfur. A fatal point of confusion ensued and the sulfur/flint misidentification lasted for many years. Chablis wasn’t alone, much of the white wine produced in France and Germany was overloaded with SO₂ and it was sometimes difficult to tell a Meursault from a Sancerre let alone tease out the subtle aroma of flint.
Even more subtle was what Theise called “liquid minerals” a kind of tasteless, odorless density that suggested something pure and crystalline. It seemed to me white Burgundies like Corton-Charlemagne and Pernand-Vergelesses had this stony purity plus the extra density that distinguishes, for example, fresh spring water from urban tap water. This was an important discovery in my appreciation of wine. How could something tasteless and odorless contribute anything positive to a wine? It dawned on me that texture was a new factor to consider and, even more, there might be some flavor chemistry at work in the mouth of the taster that spark’s curiosity and heightened awareness.
Liquid minerals began to show up in the new wave whites from Italy like Teruzzi & Puthod’s vernaccia-based Terre di Tufi, La Scolca’s “Gavi di Gavi” made from Cortese and Abbazia di Rosazzo’s Ribolla Gialla. One of my other favorite whites of the time, Clos Ste. Magdeleine’s Cassis blanc, added a pinch of salt to the above group. Examples from this growing “liquid mineral/salty” cohort were probably variety dependent — all of them are somewhat neutral, distinctly non-fruity, and highly acidic. Coincidentally, these are the characteristics most associated with mineral wines.
Closer to home in Switzerland, Chasselas, one of the most transparent wines on earth, often showcases the trifecta of salt, flint and spring water texture. In the same way, Muscadet comes to mind. Both demonstrate that minerality need not be expensive.
Red wines have always been trickier for me. Reductive winemaking and reduction-prone varieties are where I tend to find minerality among the reds. That said, my first experience with an overtly mineral red was the first vintage from Domaine de Trevallon with its distinctly metallic, bloody, iron-like flavor which its first importer (Kermit Lynch, again) attributed to bauxite in the soil. This was almost forty years ago when we believed minerals in wine came from the soil and was evidence of terroir.
Among the varieties, syrah, a stubbornly reduction-prone grape, often shows a mineral side as does the similarly stinky mencia — perhaps the current darling of mineral red wines. The wines of Priorat, especially those with high carignan content, are often described as minerally. As important as these wines are today they were not available when I was first discovering minerality but they remain reference points in my own journey.
Sometimes minerality was right under our noses all along but we didn’t have a name for it. My favorite Bordeaux appellation, Graves, is an example that taught me early on to appreciate gravelly (pebbly) flavors and textures. Perhaps, Haut-Brion was a precursor to my understanding today’s concept of minerality.
In the end, it’s for the scientists to tell us how and why minerality is perceived in wine and how it gets there, but I’m convinced modern winemaking has a lot to do with it. For me, it’s not if minerality exists but how it’s expressed. Not all wines have it, indeed most do not, but after years of looking I feel pretty confident I know it when I see it.