From back in the 2008 archive: the new minerality: have we worked out what it tastes like?
Geology students lick rocks to help identify them. This takes a lot of education and practise. But although they’re implicitly involved in the extraction of flavour from the air and the ground, winemakers never taste their dirt, perhaps because they tend to pump it full of poison.
So how come, suddenly, they’re all boasting about “mineral”, “minerally” and “minerality”? Out of the blue, “mineral” makes ordinary wines more glamorous and alluring. My desk is covered with press releases boasting of wines with “minerality”. All my colleagues in the wine writing racket see it in their favourites. Suddenly it’s on more back labels than, say “fruit-driven”, or “goes with most foods”, or, the even more handy “goes with all foods”.
What is a mineral?
My basic schooldays geological primer, Whitten and Brooks, says mineral is “a structurally homogenous solid of definite chemical composition, formed by the inorganic processes of nature”. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary On Historical Principles is a little less rigid. It first permits any substance which is obtained by mining. Mine-eral, see? So. Uranium? Salt? Arsenic? Coal? Peat? Then it tightens up, and suggests “the ore of a metal ... any natural substance which is neither animal not vegetable... a mineral medicine or poison”. The current online Oxford says “a solid inorganic substance of natural occurrence, such as copper and silicon ... an inorganic substance needed by the human body for good health, such as calcium and iron ... a substance obtained by mining ... fizzy soft drinks”.
“The only allowable exception to the rule that a mineral must be solid is native mercury (quicksilver), which is a liquid”, Whitten and Brooks say, and “this definition includes ice as a mineral, but excludes coal, natural oil, and gas”.
So why, when a wine tastes of organic phosphate, chalk or limestone (mainly from ground, one would hope, packed with marine skeletal remains), or lignin, peat or coal dust (perhaps from burnt oak if not from freaky soil made from decayed vegetation), why would you say it was minerally?
Chlorite is mineral. Diamond, gold, flourite and graphite. Gypsum, haematite and opal: all minerals. Silver, sulphur and talc. At least sulphur’s in there, which is probably what most of these “minerally” characters are, particularly under the sanitary screwcap, which seals and preserves sulphur as much as primary fruit.
Which is not much help to the new drinker.
Such words come and go. They fester at wine shows, where you invariably have a Young Turk who likes to show off by claiming certain wines have a character they think they can detect. The more impressionable judges start to look for this character in their own vast suites of glasses, and eventually the word is all over the show. If the word is derogatory, the character will suddenly seem to be in nearly all the wines which don’t win anything shiny. If it’s seen as an attractive character, it’ll suddenly seem to be in all the favourites.
Invariably, there’ll be wine writers there to launch the new term in the media, and soon we have a rash. These words emerge, fester and fade as another one moves in. It’s fashion. Mercaptan was THE word in the late ’eighties. Wikipedia says this is “a colorless gas with a smell like rotten cabbage ... a natural substance found in the blood, brain, and other animal as well as plant tissues ... disposed of through animal faeces ... It is one of the main chemicals responsible for bad breath and the smell of flatus”. I never met a judge who knew that. And while I’ve smelt it in their perfidious miasmas, I haven’t heard a wino actually utter “mercaptan” for years.
At a tasting in Walkerville in 1982, I called a wine “dusty”, because it smelled like an Australian paddock in the summer. My colleagues thought I meant sawdust, and before long “dusty” was being applied to wines with overt sawdust characters.
Those of us in the business of floating these new terms win shiny approvals of our own when such terms catch on. The greatest trophy is to see the chemical industry produce an essence named after your word. I’m sure I was the first person to use the word “fluffy” in published regard to the way certain wines felt in the mouth. Soon you could ring up your essence dealer and order a product called Fluffy Tannin. I have yet to see the telltale forty-four of “MINERAL”, but it can’t be far off.
The good folk at the Australian National Dictionary Centre are halfway though the next edition of the Australian Oxford, and they’ve already done M. It’s highly unlikely that the wine business will nail the meaning in time for the next one after that, so maybe the lexicographers should wait ’til the essence manufacturers get their product out, give them a call, find out what’s in it, then tell us what we mean.