Vegetable or mineral?

Image of Jancis Robinson

Those of us who taste wine for a living are well aware of how ill suited words are to describe the sensory impressions of our favourite drink with any useful accuracy – and without making us seem very silly.

As someone who has been writing and reading tasting notes for many decades, I am intrigued by how flexible the language of wine tasting is, and by how tasting terms come and go. I remember so well, when I first started reading wine columns in the 1970s, how impressed I used to be when the then wine correspondent of The Times described a wine as “four square”.

Then from the late 1970s, and through the 1980s, the term “oaky” was used often and approvingly. Small oak barrels were highly fashionable and, for a wine producer, particularly one outside France, a symbol of aspirations to belong to the fine wine club of which French wine was the undisputed president. But by the turn of the century, oaky had become a pejorative term and winemakers now go to considerable lengths to ensure that their wines do not smell of oak.

We tasters are always trying to find flavours in wine that can be easily identified with other, more familiar objects. In my experience Californians in particular find reassurance in a long list of easily assimilable descriptors. Seeking an example of this, I went to the website of the first Napa Valley winery I happened to think of, Beringer, and clicked on the first wine mentioned to find these tasting notes from the winemaker: “The 2008 Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon shows youthful characters of fresh blackberry, black cherry and blueberry, and has bright characteristics of blackberry and blueberry aromas, accented by notes of toast, graphite, cedar and brown spices. The palette is rich and supple with seamless, mouth-coating tannins. The rich, juicy fruit core is highlighted by flavors of cassis, blackberry, sweet cocoa and a light savory note.”

Ignoring the customary confusion between a palate, palette and sometimes even pallet, I suppose we can be reasonably confident that this wine tastes of blackberries because we are told so no fewer than three times. But then, even counting the decidedly vague “brown spices” as one flavour only, at least nine different flavours are identified in the wine, which I for one find rather intimidating. And I would imagine that any newcomer to wine would feel woefully inadequate if they could find a mere two of these.

The fact that different aromas are found in the same wine in different countries suggests that the business of attaching descriptors to tasting notes may not be 100 per cent objective. Berries and cherries tend to dominate American tasting notes while South Africans in my experience are the only ones to routinely find guava in white wines. Meanwhile, many Asian tasters are flummoxed by western tasting notes because they are exposed to a different range of fruits.

Some common tasting terms have evolved as a sort of sloppy, tautologous shorthand. “Spicy”, for instance, is a term we tasters often apply not just to red wines that remind us vaguely of some spice (brown or not) but routinely to wines made from the headily scented Gewurztraminer grape (which actually smells rather like lychees and sometimes rose petals). This is presumably because, as German speakers know, gewürz means “spiced” and basically all this tasting note is saying is that the Gewurztraminer in question smells like – Gewurztraminer.

Fashions in tasting terms can sometimes be traced to a single source. “Blockbuster” used to be a term of approbation in a wine review but no longer. The American wine critic Robert Parker was frequently associated with the “gobs of fruit” he noted in favourite wines, while I think it was in a review written for Wine Spectator by another American, James Suckling, that I first read that a wine was “focused”. I often read that a wine is “sexy” but, a bit like “focused”, I’m not sure I know what it means, though I’m pretty sure a wine could not be both focused and sexy. I’m also certain that male wine critics are more likely to describe wines as sexy than female ones.

One tasting term that seems to me increasingly fashionable can, I think, be traced to the late Len Evans, the Welshman who turned Australia on to wine. As far as I can make out, “line” is a complimentary description of the linear impact of a wine on the palate, the opposite of a wine that is big and broad, and I see it slowly seeping into tasting notes written by Brits if not Americans.

But there is one relatively recent and extremely popular wine tasting term that excites an enormous amount of comment: “minerality”. A recent post entitled “Minerality in Wine: Fact, Fun or Fiction?” in the online forum of my Purple Pages quickly notched up 60 posts and 111 responses to a questionnaire in its first four days. For many tasters, “minerality” in a wine is a sensation that seems derived less from anything animal, fruity or vegetal and is more reminiscent of something stony, especially wet stones, or redolent of a chemistry lab. Scientists scotch the attractive but simplistic idea that such a wine might be expressing the minerals present in the soil in which the vines were grown, pointing to a difference between rocks and the sort of mineral nutrients a plant is capable of absorbing. And anyway, the vine then does all sorts of things to those minerals; it certainly doesn’t act as a passive conduit of them into the grapes.

Some point out that this elusive character goes with relatively high acidity – which I think is true in white wines (think Chablis, Pouilly Fumé, Saar Rieslings). But then there are very rich, full-bodied reds such as those from Priorat in Spanish Catalonia, where there is a particular sort of schist they call llicorella together with a “mineral” sort of taste to the wines. Indeed schist, also found in north-west Spain, some parts of Roussillon in southern France and Côte Rôtie in the northern Rhône valley, seems to me to be associated with a notably strong “mineral” imprint on the wines made there.

One thing is sure: whatever minerality is, it is extremely modish.

Tasting notes on Purple Pages of

Some superior ‘mineral’ wines

• Clos du Caillou, Les Quartz Châteauneuf-du-Pape

• Coume del Mas, Les Schistes Collioure

• Dom Patrick Javillier, Cuvée Oligocène Bourgogne Blanc

• Mullineux, Granite Syrah Swartland

• Nittnaus, Kalk und Schiefer Blaufränkisch Burgenland

• Torzi Matthews, Schist Rock Shiraz

Stockists from

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