Terroir as like a tree falling in a forest. Just because you don’t hear it, it doesn’t mean it didn’t fall.
I think that the one aspect of terroir-related qualities that we had—and continue to have—the hardest time grasping is the concept and perception of “minerality.” Minerality, if anything, is like God in religion: We know it exists, we can grasp the idea, but there is no real proof. (Unless, of course, you are highly religious, in which case all bets are off.)
The easiest explanation for minerality in wines used to be the obvious one, that sensory qualities suggesting minerals are derived from minerals found in vineyard soils. More recently, however, we’ve been fortunate that scientists such as Alex Maltman (University of Wales), Anna Katherine Mansfield (Cornell Department of Food Science) and Carole Meredith (U.C. Davis Department of Viticulture & Enology) have all been coming out with pretty much the same clarification: That tiny amounts of dissolved ions in soils can indeed be absorbed by vine roots, but none of them are ever of sufficient enough efficacy to contribute to actual sensations of minerality in a wine’s aroma or flavor. That is to say, minerality never comes from soil content.
This has reminded me of a statement made by Steve Mirassou in a conference about 35 years ago, when he said something to the effect: “If wines got their flavors from soil, the strawberries I grew as a kid would have tasted like crap, since I always used manure as a fertilizer.”
In a 2012 Practical Winery & Vineyard piece called “Minerality, Rigorous or Romantic,” Jordan Ross pointed out that it is no coincidence that sensations of minerality also happen to correlate with wines grown in colder climates—wines, as such, retain higher natural acidity. In the article, Ross quoted Grégoire Pissot of Cave de Lugny in Mâcon as saying, “’Mineral’ is, at times, used when ‘acid’ would be more appropriate.” Ross also cited the Mosel vintner Nik Weis, who draws attention to the fact that, although grown in similar gray slate, a higher acid Ockfener Bockstein will always taste more minerally than a lower acid Piesporter Goldtröpfchen—primarily because Goldtröpfchen is a slightly warmer site, producing Riesling grapes that are lower in acidity and more obvious in fruitiness.
This was interesting to me because, for a 5-year span during the 1990s I was traveling to Germany every year, ostensibly to produce a couple of white wines for my restaurant programs. I cannot think of a better way to study minerality than to taste through German wine regions. For instance, an Ockfener Bockstein, growing in gray slate and sandstone, retains slightly different mineral notes than that of nearby Ürziger Würzgarten, named the “spice garden” for the pungent qualities associated with its steeper, red slate slopes with higher iron content. Anyone who travels through the Saar, the Pfalz or the Rheinhessen cannot help but be enamored by the fascinating variations of “mineral” perceptions found in these famous Rieslings.
Soil differentiations in Germany, however, are clearly as much a red herring as soil differentiations in regions of France, or anywhere else known for wines with pronounced minerality. When it comes to actual manifestations of minerality, soil content is only a factor insofar as the extent to which it contributes to higher acidity in resulting wines. At least, as we now understand it.
The connection between minerality and acidity might be even better demonstrated in New World wine regions. In Australia’s Hunter Valley, a considerably warmer growing region, Sémillons are typically very minerally. In this case, minerality has less to do with climate or specific soil types than the simple fact that Hunter Valley Sémillons are picked very early, usually at 10 to 11 percent potential alcohol, when grapes are very high in acidity. All the same, it is obviously Hunter Valley’s phenomenal terroir that allows Sémillon grapes to be picked at lower sugars, yet are strong enough in flavor profile to produce these legendary wines known to mature in the bottle over spans of 10 to 30 years.
Ten years ago I spent a day in Santa Cruz Mountains studying Chardonnays grown on four different slopes and aspects in the immediate vicinity of Thomas Fogarty Winery & Vineyards, growing on 1,700 to 2000-ft. slopes. All four vineyards were planted in the early 1980s on identical trellis systems, and all to Clone 05 Chardonnay (California’s most ubiquitous selection). My findings? Across multiple vintages, Fogarty’s two coolest, slowest ripening sites (Portola Springs and Albutom Estate) consistently taste more minerally—retaining a taste commonly described as “wet stones”—than the two warmer sites (Langley Hill and Damiana Vineyard). In this case, higher acid sensations seem to correlate with increased minerality. Moreover, the more a Fogarty Chardonnay tastes of ripe, sweet-toned peach, pear or apple-like fruit, the less minerally the flavor profile.
Then there is the consistent inverse relationship between high pH in soil and lower pH in grapes, which is another reason why wines grown in more alkaline, calcareous soils are often associated with increased minerality (eg: Chablis, Sancerre, Champagne). Nonetheless, warmer climate wine regions that have calcareous soils with off-the-charts alkalinity, such as much of California’s Paso Robles AVA, are not nearly as closely associated with wines replete with minerality as colder climate calcareous terroirs, such as those of France. Paso Robles wines have plenty of natural acidity but are known, if anything, for ultra-intense, dramatic fruit profiles. If there is minerality beneath all that fruit and heft, it tends to be below most people’s sensory threshold.
Are we over-thinking this? Maybe. Suffice to say, minerality is often (not always) part of many a wine’s terroir-related profile, but not always for the same reasons. Every vineyard, and every wine region, is different, and the times—and climate—are a-changin’. That’s what makes it all so interesting.
Randy Caparoso is a full-time wine journalist/photographer living in Lodi, California. In a prior incarnation, he was a multi-award winning restaurateur, starting as a sommelier in Honolulu (1978 through 1988), and then as Founding Partner/VP/Corporate Wine Director of the James Beard Award winning Roy’s family of restaurants (1988-2001), opening 28 locations from Hawaii to New York. While with Roy’s, he was named Santé’s first Wine & Spirits Professional of the Year (1998) and Restaurant Wine’s Wine Marketer of the Year (1992 and 1998). Between 2001 and 2006, he operated his own Caparoso Wines label as a wine producer. For over 20 years, he also bylined a biweekly wine column for his hometown newspaper, The Honolulu Advertiser (1981-2002). He currently puts bread (and wine) on the table as Editor-at-Large and the Bottom Line columnist for The SOMM Journal (founded in 2007 as Sommelier Journal), and freelance blogger and social media director for Lodi Winegrape Commission (lodiwine.com). You may contact him at [email protected]