… the M-word, part 3

Have you heard the word “petrichor”? Lovely – the smell of rain on the ground after a drought. The word was invented in Australia in the early 60s. The word is constructed from the words for stone (petra) and the blood of the Greek god (ichor), so, “rock blood”. The smell stems from vegetable oils, exuded from plants, plus a substance called geosmin that stems from bacteriae. I could imagine a vineyard somewhere in the Nahe with a name like that (but in German, of course). “Steinblut” or “Felsenblut” … just a slight digression.

My previous blogpost caused some commentaries from two guys whose opinions I value very much.

Mike Tommasi: ” I would distinguish ”mineral aromas” (like riesling) from ”minerality”. If anything because the former is easily described. The latter, elusive as it is, seems to be mostly found in northern whites, mainly Loire and Burgundy, even Champagne. I suspect it is merely… salinity.”

Yes, quite so. Mineral in the nose and mineral in the mouth could be quite different things.  I therefore re-read the latest entries in Guide Hachette, sticking to 2016 (because there were the most entries of wines considered ‘mineral’), adding the Alsace Rieslings of the same year.

C/PC Riesling PF Sancerre
Total 74 34 40 51
M(all) 40 7 13 14
N 6 5 8 5
N+B 7 1 2 3
B 27 1 3 6
68% 14% 23% 43%

Here, ‘M’ stands for total number of mineral wines, C/PC are Chablis combined with Petit Chablis, PF obviously Pouilly-Fumée, ‘N’ stands for ‘nez’ (nose) and ‘B’ for ‘bouche’ (mouth). It would appear fairly obvious that, in the case of the C/PC, the minerality is mostly a sensation of the mouth, while with the other three groups, it is on the nose that the mineral manifests itself.
One thing I noted was that the mention of a mineral taste was almost always the last thing recorded, and, very often with an adverb like, ‘tonifiant’ (invigorating, right?) or ‘soulignant’ (that would be underlining).  In a few cases, the word ‘salinity’ was mentioned.

Mark Lipton: ”  I can provide a bit of help here, Nils, as one who often finds mineral notes in wine. First of all, most of the smells we associate with minerals, if not all, are due instead to small organic molecules that are associated, for one reason or another, with the inorganic substrate. One example is that ”stainless steel” reference you cite. The smell of metal is now known to be due to oxidized fatty acids that accumulate on the surface of the metal. Another example is the smell of wet stones. One chemical associated with that smell is geosmin, which is produced by plants but accumulates in the soil.”

Indeed, Professor. Yes, wet stones – often mentioned in the context of minerality in wine, and, I did a small experiment.
We have for a long time carried home stones and pieces of rock from all over the continent, to deposit them on the kitchen window sill. I picked up two, one a piece of Alpes-Maritimes limestone, and one a nicely rounded piece most likely of granite I found by the sea shore. I dunked them both in cold water and tried smelling. The round granite did not smell of anything, while the piece of lime had a definite smell – my wife compared it to sand – somehow giving the impression of dryness (despite being wet), or earthiness. I then proceeded to scrub it with a little detergent, rinsed it carefully, and, lo and behold, the smell had disappeared. Too bad I do not have the means to run some kind of spectrometry on the rinsing water to see what’s in it – geosmin comes certainly to mind. Anyway, the agent causing the smell was apparently not the stone, as such, but some easily removable coating. I suppose we could do some research on this. Anyway, this mind blowing experiment clearly indicates that a) not all wet stones smell alike and b) most likely even if they do smell, it’s not the stone but the dirt on the stone that smells.

My next planned experiment is banging two pieces of flint against each other, to find out if that produces any “gun flint” smell. Anybody done that? I mean, you read that, but, is it true?

In several of the articles I have read before sitting down to commit these thoughts to cybermedia, it has been claimed that denial of the direct absorption of mineral into the wine is the same as denial of the concept of ‘terroir’. This claim comes most often as a sort of counter, from those who reject the idea that mineral enters directly into wine – but, whoever made the claim, I would like to point out a recent discovery, also founded on solid experiments (like my experiment with the stones, only, more scientific). A recent study from New Zealand, in which a quantity of sterilized grape juice from Sauvignon Blanc, is subjected to different strains of the Saccharomyces Cervesiae yeast, collected from the grape skins in different vineyards on NZ, and, after fermentation, the resulting wine is quantified for various organoleptically active substances. It is then shown that there are measurable differences which can only be caused by the various yeast strains, as all else is equal.
My reflection is that this was in New Zealand where wine growing is fairly recent and the time for the different strains to assert themselves have been short (c 120 years, perhaps). Compare this to France and Italy where the time for local strains to establish themselves is measured in centuries – millennia, for Italy.

Ill be backBy the way, Mike claimed “mineral aromas” were “easily described” – so, I asked him to describe them, which, to date, he has not done.
We are waiting with bated breath, Signor Tommasi …

… the M-word, part 2

”No M-word is allowed today”

Je suis certainement très mal placé pour parler de la minéralité des vins car je n’utilise jamais ce descripteur pourtant très à la mode, tant je suis incapable de le définir clairement.
Thus the words of two enological experts – the first one may be apocryphal. At least, I have found no independent corroboration, and, in other contexts, Ms Robinson indeed uses the M-word. It is however glaringly absent in the 2006 Oxford Companion to Wine (I checked, recently).

I will, for the moment, side with Dubourdieu. I cannot define the ‘mineral’ clearly, and will not use it descriptively. This does not mean that I believe it is redundant, or a delusion (delusions being, in fact, where I have some professional capacity).

It appears to be fairly clear that the relation between the sensory ‘minerality’ and the actual minerals in the vineyard is very indirect.

Wine with a stable, or barnyard, character
Wine with a stable, or barnyard, character

Really, one should not have a problem with that. A traditional Bandol does not smell of stable because a horse was involved in its making. Nor do actual felines figure in the making of “cats piss Sauvignon Blanc” (I have been the happy owner of numerous cats and in no case did their litter boxes smell of Sancerre, so, something must be amiss there).

I did realize that the word has come to be used more and more frequently. To make sure that this was in fact the case, I looked into some of our older Guide Hachette, particularly looking for those wines that most often are described as being mineral.

Guide Hachette grades the wines it mentions using a 4 tier system – awarding between 0 and 3 stars to the wine. It must be realized that the mere mentioning of the wine should be considered a badge of merit, and you will read the guides through and through, you will never find anything disparaging said about the wines. The closest to a negative critique you will find is a recommendation of “some cellar age required”.
On top of the 4 tier gradation, there is also the “coup de Coeur”. The ‘heart’. Slightly oddly, the ‘heart’ may have 2 or three stars. I suppose the two best wines from a certain appellation will receive the ‘heart’, or something like it? If a ‘heart’ wine has 2 stars, there will not be a wine with 3 stars.
I started counting the number of wines where (sensory) minerality was mentioned, making no discernment between olfactorial and gustatory minerality. First, I looked into Petit Chablis and Chablis because, these are wines often described as ‘mineral’, plus, I happen to be very fond of Chablis. I started with the oldest Guide Hachette in our library, which happened to be 2004, then 2005, 2014, and 2016 (we apparently never bought the 2015, or we misplaced it). Having done that, I continued to the central vineyards of Loire and Pouilly-Fumée (PF), and Sancerre, also wines that I sincerely like. I considered finishing with Alsace Riesling but decided that I was bored, having, by then, considered 627 wines.
One thing I did look at was the mentioning of silex, or pierre-a-fusil, as a sensory descriptor, apart from minerality. I was struck by the paucity of its use: for Chablis/Petit Chablis, ten times, for PF/Sancerre, four times. Only twice was it mentioned after 2005, giving the impression that the use of the term is declining, at least in Guide Hachette.

Here are the data for the four appellations over the four editions of Guide Hachette:

2004 2005 2014 2016 Total/appellation
Chablis 33% 41% 58% 65% 183
Petit Chablis 27% 32% 54% 65% 95
Sancerre 28% 18% 25% 27% 156
PF 8% 12% 24% 33% 193
Total/annum 149 137 176 165

The full data set including how minerality relates to the HAchette grading system exist on a spreadsheet that I will share to those interested. It is very boring.

With the exception of Sancerre, the number of wines described as ‘mineral’ has obviously increased.
So, it would appear that, whatever it is, ‘minerality’ is more often described in these wines today than ten years ago.

The question remains, at least to me, What is this thing?

Ill be back

… don’t mention the ’M-word’.

What is the M-word? Met him pike hoses? Oh rocks. And one nerd-point if you identify that.
No, ‘M’ as in, ‘mineral’. The organoleptic experience named mineral, or, minerality. The qualia of mineral.
DSC_0547Fact 1: minerals are rarely volatile at room temperature. Meaning, they do not evaporate, so, in fact, their propensity to smell is very small.

Fact 2: minerals are rarely soluble in saliva; few, if any, minerals are soluble in slightly acidic liquids. Meaning, they deliver little, if any, taste to wines directly.

Ascribing properties in an irrational way to wines is ubiquitous and I would admit to being a perpetrator. How about, “the smell of white flowers”? smag av hvid blomst“Taste of yellow fruit”? Or white fruit, for that matter. Yellow fruit, yes, bananas, plums (yellow plums), pineapples (if you cut them open, that is). White fruit? None comes to mind, except, oh yes, white mulberries, which taste very much like red mulberries, and white currants, amazingly similar in taste to red currants. Then, there are white peaches, quite distinct from yellow peaches, but, also distinct from white mulberries.

I remember that the petroleum aromas of certain Rieslings, particularly late harvested, and wines with cellar age, and Australian ones, used to be explained as deriving from the slate, or shale. In the German, Mosel, vineyards, you understand. That it came directly from the slate, and slate was needed for it to develop. Now, have you sniffed slate? With the possible exception of certain petroleum carrying slate ore, slate does not smell of petroleum. Today, the origin of the petroleum aroma is known to be an organic molecule deriving from the skin of the grape. It has nothing to do with slate/shale/schist. Some of the best Riesling grows on the shale, that is true, but, I do not dislike Riesling from GC Brand, which is granite.
German Riesling are still fabulous when they are good.

Next, flint. In French, silex, or, pierre-a-fusil. Mentioned with Pouilly-Fumée, the East side sauvignon blanc of upstream Loire. Strike a piece of gun flint with steel (or a SECOND piece of flint), to get a spark, to start a fire or, to fire an old 18th century rifle. You may perceive a fleeting olfactorial sensation, it even stings the nose, briefly. Some of the best vineyards, on both sides of the Loire, contain flint – it may be written on the label (‘Silex’).  So, does not light gun flint aroma present in some Loire SB obviously derive from the flint? No, apparently not. And flint, on its own, does not smell, nor taste (I refer to facts #1 & 2, above). The ‘gun smoke’ aroma is identified as being at least partly derived from a Sulphur containing organic compound, benzyl mercaptan, which is not normally found in flint. It is, on a sidenote, interesting to what degree compounds that in other circumstances smell absolutely vile, in small amounts (we are talking seriously small amounts here) will be delightful and add harmony to a product.

Onwards and downwards. Chablis. One of my absolute favorites. Young and perky, old and wisdom inspiring, I love Chablis when it is good. I remember somebody likening the impression given by Chablis to, “licking a blade of stainless steel”. Could have been early 90s? Well, yes, but, what does stainless steel taste and smell like? Obviously nothing! It does give a definite sensation, licking a steel blade, but it does not TASTE of anything (except if you get some kind of voltaic reaction from the fillings in your teeth, which would be unpleasant). Yet, Chablis is one of the wines most often ascribed ‘mineral’ characters – both in smell (“on the nose”) and in the mouth (“on the palate”).

Hugh Johnson, in a book I have misplaced somewhere, hypothesized that the ‘mineral’ character in Chablis might be some compound resulting from an in-bottle reaction between the added SO2 and other molecules present. I have so far not found any support for this hypothesis, though.

Succinic acid, and derived substances, exist in wines. The acid is present in maturing grapes, but the concentration falls and is very low by harvest time – most succinic acid and succinates appear as a by-product of alcoholic fermentation. The succinate ion has been implicated in the mineral aroma and, there is an article citing blind tasting of wine, spiked with varying amounts of sodium succinate. The wines were either Italian Riesling (a k a Welschriesling) or Grüner Veltliner, and the tasters were very well able to discriminate between the various concentrations of the addition. The description of the ‘spiked’ wines were “vinous, sapid, salty and sometimes even bitter.” The word, conspicuous by its absence, most interesting is of course ‘mineral’. They are not considered ‘mineral’. The terms vinous and sapid could perhaps be assigned to a taste enhancer, but, salty and bitter are both true tastes, not aromas, and, the sodium succinate is odorless – so in no way could it be considered the mediator of a “minerality on the nose”. Too bad – succinate is a compound that would appear to be “terroir driven”, as the concentration is dependent on the vine’s access to nitrogen compounds – a poorer soil (in terms of nitrogen) will, if I understand this correctly, lead to a higher concentration of succinate, all else being equal. Succinic acid also yields two esthers with ethanol, both of which are organoleptically active, yielding discreetly fruity aromas (apple), and, according to one commercial site, adds to the feeling of fatness in the wine (does this in any way correspond to the Italian ‘sapidità’?). Let’s not forget succinic acid – I will get back to it.

Back with some more boring stuff forthwith.