Rocks in Yer Head

(Originally published March 2005)

Everyone knows what a lazy SOB that Hanes is. Give him a way to cut corners or take a shortcut and he's all over it. Don't think Hanes doesn't know this. Watch this month as Hanes abases himself for the amusement of all when it comes to a certain element of his tasting notes.

To wit, what is meant by “minerals” or “minerality” or “stoniness” in a tasting note? These descriptors are bandied about in so many tasting notes they almost seem ubiquitous and thus uninformative. When Hanes or anyone says there's strong minerality in a wine, is he talking about a particular mineral, two minerals together or some curious amalgam of 4,672 different minerals?

To answer this question let's start by defining what a mineral is. Basically, minerals are dissolved non-organic ions found in grapes and wine. These particles get into the grapes via the root system as the roots draw in water from the soil. Grapes also get minerality from sitting on toilet seats. The mineral content of wine can be measured in fractional parts per billion. But most wine geeks don't go around carrying a spectrometer to analyze their wine in a restaurant or friend's home. Those who do know who they are.

In terms of mineral nutrients, vine roots seek out elements such as oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, sulfur, calcium, iron, zinc, chlorine, boron, etc. in the quest for a “well-balanced diet.” It is likely that, just as with other organic entities, a deficiency or excess of any one or few elements will change the health and genetic structure of the vines.

Minerals and stones are ineluctably linked to that troublesome concept the French call “terroir.” As James E. Wilson discusses in his excellent treatise “Terroir,” geology, climate and culture all play roles in the formation of any particular terroir, be it specific rows of vines in a vineyard, an entire single vineyard, a sub-region, or larger wine growing region proper. All together they form what the French refer to as “goût de terroir,” or the “taste of the soil.” While equally paramount, we shall here eschew much discussion of climate and culture so as stay on topic, kill fewer trees, and sidestep the whole scientific argument of the merits and/or existence of terroir. So there.

Roots naturally seek out sustenance in the soil. Depending on the soil composition among the various strata at hand, the roots will be shallow or may dig deeper in an attempt to find more nutrients. Vine/root age also comes into play here. The abundance of minerals and stones varies incredibly from vineyard to vineyard. Some may have lots of rocks on the surface and upper strata, some only below. Or there may be different types of minerals and rocks among the strata. And this is where things get tricky (and perhaps more subjective). An expert vineyard manager or winemaker knows the vineyard soils well, going down many strata, knows what kind of strata there are, how much drainage a particular row of vines get, etc. Hence, the people working the land believe they are able to taste these differences in the grapes and/or finished wine product. Over time, the plots which produce the best, most complex wines are identified. These may result in special bottlings, separated from the general vineyard bottling. In California these wines are called “Reserve” wines and may only be sold if there are a minimum of 5,000 cases of Reserve wine produced.

As we are approaching this problem through the lens of writing wine tasting notes it is natural that we ask a simple question - can a normal human (or even Hanes) taste the difference between nitrogen or boron, calcium or potassium? To date, Hanes has not been able to discern qualitative differences at such a granular level. This must be what they teach in the Master of Wine courses. If one cannot taste the individual mineral nutrients, how does one sensorially register minerals?

In many regards, they are registered via the soils and stones within which they exist. So, while it may be silly to pronounce that “This wine is flawed by a surfeit of manganese,” it's not so silly to frame the presence or absence or minerality in terms of general soil characteristics. This is really the level at which humans may meaningfully discuss what they are tasting. As a result, the discussion necessarily moves up a level to how soils are perceived and then communicated to others.

There are many, many, many different types of soils. And, as noted, these soils may differ within feet, be this vertically or horizontally. As the result of many geologic periods, no soil forms perfectly flat, horizontal layers, instead the layers zig-zag up and down as if the ground is having a heart attack. Just a few among the multitude of elements vine roots encounter under the ground are clay, sand, gravel, limestone, chalk, granite, gneiss, quartz, sandstone, loam, dolomite, feldspars and chert. The weathering over time of these elements creates particles the root hairs can then chow down on. Note that these elements may combine well or alternatively “fight” each other, all depending on lots of reactions and factors. This accounts for many differences among soils and, in large part, why certain grape types may thrive in certain soils (i.e., vineyards or wine regions) and other grape types not. It is also worth considering that how deep the roots go have an effect as the strata differ. Deeper roots are not necessarily better, just different.

It appears, then, that terms such as “minerality” or “stoniness” are then shorthand for granite, chalk, gneiss, etc. “Shorthand” meaning “Who knows what the hell chert tastes like?” Alas, many people do know these things. Thus, any humble wine scribe must suck rocks if she be to earn the title. Hanes himself has done this. For example, he has a collection of rocks from various Austrian vineyards he once visited. The same Riesling and Grüner Veltliner grapes grown in the calcareous slate of Kremstal taste different from the sand and loess of Rust or the clay of Donauland. Nothing like sucking on sandy loam to prove a point. But there is a point to be made and one the true wine geek should not ignore. When someone discusses how within Germany's Mosel region the blue slate makes the Riesling taste different than the red volcanic soil around the bend, it ain't no lie.

All that said, it's relatively easy to discern these differences and nuances when one is in the vineyard. Yet, how does one sharpen these skills thousands of miles back home? That's the big challenge, training one's palate to remember these unique flavors not encountered in everyday living, to find the “terroir-based” similarities in wines made from the same vineyard across different producers and vintages. Otherwise, it's back to generalities such as “minerals” or “pebbles.”

Or you can do like Hanes does and just make shit up.