De temps en temps je retourne à ma langue natale pour mes articles. Cela sera le cas aujourd’hui, sans raison particulière.
From time to time I revert to my native language for my articles on this blog, and that will be the case today, for no particular reason.
The two topics that I will be combining in this article are not apparently linked, yet I did encounter, in the course of translating an article on the first topic, numerous mentions of the second one, which made me decide to combine the two. I suppose one could attribute such an apparently fortuitous connection to that concept that I greatly appreciate: serendipity. (You can look it up of you are not already familiar with the word and its meaning).
So, in the first part of the article, I will be discussing the reasons why I have not participated, for the past 16 years, in any tasting sessions of Bordeaux wines that are proposed under the term « en primeur », at least not with making any ensuing written or spoken comments on these samples collected well before their final bottling. I am not about to change my position on this either, and that also goes for any other region (and there are some, in Italy and Portugal for instance) who initiate the same procedure. The second part will be about the increasing use of the terms « mineral » and/or « minerality » when people attempt to describe wines.
Now for the serendipitous link between the two which triggered this article. While translating into English a series of descriptions from an « en primeur » sample tasting of the 2020 from Saint-Emilion for a French wine magazine, I noted that the author used the « m » words 8 times when describing wines, but also another word that I suspect is used as an alternative, namely « salty », 7 times. As these two terms were not used together in the same description, I make the total 15, which means that there must be quite a lot of minerals, perhaps including sodium, floating about in these 2020 wines from Saint Emilion. And indeed, at one point, the author even described the vintage itself as having a « mineral » character.
Why I do not want to comment on « en primeur » wines
The essential reason is that I do not consider it to be fair, or even totally honest, to be putting out detailed comments, usually with marks attached, on wines which cannot possible be identical to the « same » ones that consumers will find when these are finally put into bottles. The « en primeur » system is well-known, well exploited commercially, and has entrained a kind of world-wide media circus behind it that sees so many people, some of them highly competent and experienced, others much less so, putting into writing their impressions on these adolescent wines that are still in their maturing containers and, in many cases, are not exactly the final blends. And thereby influencing some people to buy one wine rather than another.
We all know that wine is not chemically stable in time, and that, as a consequence, many of its components, aromas, flavours, balances between acids and tannins, and so on will necessarily become modified, to a greater or lesser extend, during the maturing process. We also know that when the wines of the latest vintage on show are being tasted, in the spring following the date of harvest, that these are between 12 and 18 moths away from the time of final bottling. We also may or may not know that, given the commercial weight of the sales of these wines as « futures », that estates have every interest in preparing samples that will taste well at this stage, even if this means selecting certain barrels and producing a blend that shows well at the time of tasting. Additionally, there is the question of various operations of stabilization, filtering or whatever that may or may not take place between the moment when the samples are tasted and that when the wine is bottled, not to mention the modifying effect of micro-oxygenation, all of which which will inevitable affect, more or less, the profile of the wine.
In other words, the comments that are made on these early samples of unfinished wines, while not entirely worthless as a possible general indication of their qualities, are necessarily quite inaccurate with regard to what will finally end up in the bottle. So why do this? My only answer is market pressure, or more simply put, money! There is a lot of money involved and many estates in Bordeaux finance all or most of their stock in barrels of tanks by selling these wines as futures. They are not about to abandon this system that saves them tons of cash while gaining extensive media coverage around the world. And this is why other wine regions have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to jump on this bandwagon.
I should add, that over recent years, Bordeaux chateaux have increasingly refused to allow the press to taste these wines blind, which makes total nonsense of any pretense at impartiality!
So, let’s wait until all wines are in their final containers and as they will be delivered to consumers, to pass any judgments on them. At least that would remove one major variable for what is, in any event, a tricky game.
And what about this concept of « minerality » in a wine ?
The use of such a descriptor is very much a personal affair as, for one, nobody seems to agree on what is meant by the term or terms. It is also personal since not all authors use the term. In other articles that I translated for the same series on Bordeaux 2020s, I found the « m » word very rarely, and even not at all, because they were not written by the same tasters. Now I don’t know what the author of the Saint Emilion article intended by their frequent use of these terms, but I do see these words being used with growing frequency elsewhere, although they barely existed at all some 15 years ago. How can one explain this? Do contemporary wines contain more minerals than in the past? Have some tasters become more proficient in identifying new flavours? Or are they merely living under some form of delusion as to the reality of their sensations and the ensuing poverty of our language to describe them, perhaps enhanced by a subtle form of spin-doctoring induced by repeated messages sent out by various wine producers and communicators. You may guess that my hypothesis is the third option, and you would be right!
To show that I am not the sole wine professional on this planet to be bothered by what I consider to be inappropriate and misleading use of words to attempt describe wines, I would like to quote extensively from an excellent piece by a Swedish writer, Britt Karlsson, recently published on the blog that she shares with her husband, Per, and which I recommend :
RE: BKWine Brief 212: Minerality, the Swiss Army knife for the taste of wine? | The Wine & Wine Travel Newsletter
« Since the word “minerality” was introduced in the wine tasting vocabulary perhaps around 15 years ago, there has been an unparalleled focus on minerals. In older wine books, the word does not exist. Producers, wine tasters and not least marketers now use the term indiscriminately. Every other wine that I read about is described with the word mineral in some form. It can be “touch of minerality”, “integrated backbone of minerals”, “calcareous minerals”, “austere minerality”. I have been most puzzled by “floral minerality” and “creamy minerality”. It is no longer just chablis, champagne and the occasional riesling that are given the epithet. Now people give it to both white and red wines, in different styles and price ranges. There is inflation in minerality.
Strictly speaking, minerals can be two things. Minerals are, in the geological sense, rocks such as limestone, granite, basalt, schist, etc. Basically, any kind of rock. It can also be a mineral in the sense of nutrients, such as iron, magnesium, phosphorus, etc. Both are important for vines and wine lovers alike. But that mineral means two different things, makes it complicated. When we read that wines come from soils with “lots of minerals”, “interesting minerals”, “rich in minerals”, etc., we can probably assume that the writer means the nutrients, although it is often not clear what the writer actually means. Mineral nutrients nourish the vine. To say that the soil contains lots of minerals is another way of saying that it is nutritious. A soil rich in minerals is nutrient-rich soil. The vine does not have to go hungry. To say “a poor but mineral-rich soil” doesn’t make much sense.
But there is a third use, the one that this text is really about: mineral or minerality as a taste descriptor. Used as a wine tasting term, it is probably more the geological meaning of the word that is in the mind of the taster. Probably. It is hard to believe that they mean that the wine tastes like phosphorus and magnesium. It is more likely (although it sounds strange), that they mean that the wine tastes like granite or slate. But rocks and minerals have no taste. The word is, of course, a metaphor for something. I have asked people what they mean by minerality. Some say saltiness (although it is highly unusual to find salt in wine), others say freshness, wet stones, flint. Maybe they see rocks, cliffs, the big Ocean in front of them when they drink certain wines. Perhaps they sense something cool, crispy, steely. But how does that fit with floral or creamy minerality? Maybe minerality means a particular stringency in the wine, an opposite of softness? Something that lifts the wine and gives it vitality. Perhaps the reader will be none the wiser by that description. And maybe minerality means something entirely different for some. So, how should you interpret the word “minerality”?
Personally, I (Britt) have stopped using the word. I want the reader to get an understanding of what I mean. »
As Britt suggests by the wine examples used in her article, the term « minerality » is often used in association with wines with high levels of acidity, such as Chablis, Champagne etc. I would also add that this is also often the case for wines that are not very expressive aromatically, usually in the fruit department. In other words, I would therefore contend that people often use the « m » word when the wines is acid and fairly neutral. When you can find nothing else to say, say « mineral », it fills the gap and people think that you know something that they don’t! Of course, saying that a wine is aromatically neutral and very acid is not exactly going to be construed as a key selling point. And this is where the spin doctor comes onto the scene with impenetrable words or phrases such as « fine tension », or « mineral and saline finish ».
Another point, perhaps more personal, is that I do not find that these words attract me to any wine to which they are applied. I do not enjoy chewing bits of metal, or rocks, or whatever is being suggested here in the mineral department. I want to find fruit or vegetable-based aromas, maybe with other ingredients such as spices from barrel ageing, or more complex and harder-to-define ones that derive from slow ageing. Definitely NOT « minerals », or what may be suggested by this word, since apparently minerals are flavourless anyway!
As to the question of the reality of any perceptible « mineral » (and one has to define what is meant by the word « mineral » in this context) content in wines I can refer you to the geologist Alex Maltman (author of the book shown in the photo above) who has studied the question in some detail. This is the abstract from a 12 page paper published in 2012 in The Journal of Wine Research :
« Tasting ‘minerality’ in wine is suddenly highly fashionable. And, unusually, for a wine-taste descriptor, the term is very often taken to imply a genesis: the sensation is the taste of minerals in the wine that were transported through the vine from the vineyard rocks and soils. However, there is an array of reasons why this cannot be. The minerals in wine are nutrient elements – typically metallic cations – and only distantly related to vineyard geological minerals, which are complex crystalline compounds. The mineral nutrients in wine normally have minuscule concentrations and they lack flavour anyway. Although attempts to explain the perception of minerality involve allusions to geological materials, these are irrelevant to its origin. Whatever minerality is, it cannot literally be the taste of minerals in the vineyard rocks and soils.
So, can we agree to abandon the use of these words in connection with wines? Or, at least, to make a serious attempt at trying to define what we mean by them and, in any event, dissociating their use from a supposed and romantically inferred connection with the nature of sub-soils?
PS. As for hoaxes and « fake news » of all kinds, I cannot resist adding, just for fun and a bit of mockery, this cartoon that I picked up recently somewhere.