Volcanic Wines II: Wine and Minerality

Everyone I met in Sicily who was trying to sell me wine, in restaurants and drinks stores, told me that my glass of white wine is ‘minerally’ because it’s produced from grapes grown on the slopes of Etna – and that (either explicitly or by implication) volcanic grit, ash and lava puts minerals into the wines which you can taste when you drink them.  It’s a great story (or a great marketing theme – depending on your particular perspective) but it’s arrant nonsense.  With very few exceptions (sodium chloride – common salt – is the main one, but even that isn’t a rock) minerals don’t get taken up into grapes and then processed into wine.  Your lovely bottle of Contrada Caldera carricante, grown on basalt, decomposed lava and the odd bit of pumice doesn’t taste of those rocks – although at least one online wine store suggests that is the case!  Even the smell of ‘wet stones’ which many people find on good chablis is nothing to do with minerals; to the extent that stones have an aroma it’s due to the microflora attached to them.  For those of you who want more on the science behind this then there’s a great book called Vineyards, Rocks and Minerals: A Wine Lover’s Guide to Geology by Alex Maltman, a professor of geology at Aberystwyth University.  Meanwhile a great deal of research has been carried out into what drinkers actually perceive as minerality in wine, including colleagues of mine such as Jordi Ballester in Dijon, Wendy Parr in New Zealand and Sally Easton MW in the UK.  Some key factors which may give rise to a sensation of ‘minerality’ include reduction in the wine (which may reduce the intensity of fruitiness), various acids, bitterness, and the results of compounds produced by fermentation (especially some including sulphur).  However, it is also clear that there is a cultural dimension: research suggests that acid is linked to perceptions of minerality in some places but is negatively associated in others and that expertise in tasting also influences this response.

So why is everyone trying to sell me a wine which tastes of minerals?  One of my students in Burgundy did an interesting research project on volcanic wines.  Marine Delmon explored the perspectives of producers of these wines in France, Italy (including Sicily) and the USA.  The people she talked to felt that volcanic wine is a special category of wine, and it does offer a network of special places; yet at the same time they used it in their marketing less than might be expected – and some even played down the volcanic aspect (this was less evident in France than Sicily).  One or two producers even noted that they had ‘never thought of their wines as ‘volcanic wines’ until it become so trendy’.  However, on the subject of minerality, some discussed how their wines had a minerally character – yet again it was the French who promoted this idea most, with a few Italians as well.  Sometimes they linked the minerality of the wine to a saline character.

The use of the term ‘minerality’ for wine has only become significant in the last 20 years or so.  Why has it become important in this time?  The answer to this is clearly not because scientists can now show that geological minerals move from the soil to the grape (the opposite is true); rather it is a cultural shift.  I think there are two reasons.  The first is producer-led, and has to do with marketing.  This is a crude analysis, but if you go back 30 years, essentially the wines which came from New World countries (especially, I feel, Australia and Chile) were intensely fruity.  European wines (especially Italian but also Spanish and even French) were much less obviously fruity.  There are cultural reasons for this difference which I’ll save for another post, but as more and more wines began to eat into a market traditionally reserved for Europe, traditional producers responded by promoting the more subtle nuances and the sophisticated complexities of their wines.  ‘Minerality’ was one of the ways of describing these subtle complexities.

This was mirrored by another cultural shift that began (in the English-speaking world) about ten years before the rise of ‘minerality’: the use of the term ‘terroir’.  This will also have to be developed in a future post, but essentially Anglophone wine lovers barely used the term before about 1990; then it suddenly became a key buzzword for quality in the production of wine.  Terroir means ‘earth’ doesn’t it?  Well, actually it doesn’t – it refers to the whole ecosystem of a vine and the cultural approach of people making the wine in that place, but the similarity of the word to the French word for soil (terre) made people feel that tasting terroir in wine was about tasting the ground – tasting the geology.  From there it is a short leap to start thinking that in tasting terroir you taste the rock which means that you taste the minerals.  Eureka!  Good wine has a taste of minerality.  If I say that is nonsense it doesn’t mean that I think all wines should just be fruity.  I like subtlety, nuance and even a sense of austerity in my wine.  But we need to be honest, and not attribute that to the rocks on which the vines survive; complexity in wine is much more complex than that and owes at least as much to the cellar as it does to the vineyard.

The rocky minerality of an Etna vineyard.

However, it’s one thing to have sommeliers in Sicily selling me a wine because of its ‘minerality’; what did the producers on the island themselves think about the concept?  I paid particular attention when I visited a few on the ‘wine terrace’ of northern Etna.  I didn’t raise the subject initially – I wanted to see what they had to say about it voluntarily and it was very interesting.  When they did mention minerality it was about the environment of the vine, and how it gives it specific conditions in which to flourish, (especially in the context of their beloved contrade) but it was never with an implication that the wines actually tasted of the minerals.  Patricia Papotto at Cottanera, for instance, noted that ‘minerality gives a footprint to the terroir’. So far, so scientific – and the picture above emphasises the inescapability of that comment.  Later in discussions I would ask specifically about the taste of minerality in the wine.  No-one I spoke to felt that it is important to talk about this; the minerality is in the vineyard.  Christian Liistro at Terre Nere said that minerality ‘is a state of mind’; thus it is about what they feel they are doing with the grapes and the wine rather than a precise explanation of the way the wine tastes.  A touch more metaphorical than Patricia’s definition perhaps, but a very evocative way of describing their philosophy and the experience of their wines and wine production.  This was not a ‘statistically significant’ sample of producers there – but based on my experience ‘minerality’ on Etna is used much more as a reference to the soil and the vineyard environment and their identity than to characteristics of the wine.

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