Wine Jargon: What is Minerality?
"Lick it," he told me, "Lick the rock." I had heard of this kind of thing before, but still, I figured that Thibeault Liger-Belair, winemaker and inheritor of crazy-good chunks of prime Burgundy vineyard land, must have been at least halfway kidding.
He wasn't. He demonstrated, turning an oblong hunk of mottled limestone in his hand and then dragging it lengthwise down the center of his unfurled tongue. He did it kind of hard. It was a little grotesque looking. He tossed the rock back into the clay of his sizable section of Les Saint Georges vineyard, for which Nuits-Saint-Georges is named.
I followed suit, taking it easier than he. He started making a weird pursing motion with his mouth. "Feel that? That is true minerality." And, actually, I did feel it. It was a kind of pastiness, a thick adherent texture in the middle of my tongue. I have, in fact, since detected a shadow of this sensation when drinking wines from limetone soils. So, yeah, maybe Thibeault was right.
Minerality can be a slippery concept for new wine drinkers, partly because there isn't a lot in our common culinary language to compare it to. Shellfish? Mushrooms, maybe? Overpriced bottles of acqua minerale?
There is also the fact that minerality comes in so many shifting shades. Often, it is recognizable as a scent, like the smell of river pebbles, hot rocks, or straight-up wet dirt. Other times, what we're talking about is a flavor, a rocky saltiness, and this can feed into a saline, pasty texture. I think this was probably what Thibeault was driving at.
Where that sensation of minerality comes from is one of the enduring mysteries of wine science. There isn't a generally-agreed-upon explanation for how the flavor of a soil finds its way into a grape. We don't really know how it happens, though there are a number of theories.
But minerality isn't just in our imaginations. We have experienced it for, like, thousands of years. And its effect in wine—which seems to work opposite of fruit flavors—can make the difference between a wine that is just okay and one that is truly fine. I don't think we are dreaming. I don't think we are nuts. Even if we are standing around, licking expensive, significant rocks.
About the Author: Steven Grubbs is a sommelier and wine director at Empire State South (Atlanta, GA) and Five & Ten (Athens, GA). Ask him what to drink on Twitter, where he also accepts questions on tacos and manhood.