On the Semantics of Minerality
If you have been wondering about the state of research into minerality in wine, Alex Maltman in Decanter has you covered. He summarizes all the latest theories about minerality and supporting scientific evidence for them and ends up concluding—well, we still don’t know what it is or where it comes from
But as I read through the article it became clear to me that one reason the science is inconclusive is because there is no agreement on what we mean by “minerality” and the disagreement seems to largely stem from cultural differences.
Another illustration of the communication problem is the different word associations reported by research groups at Lincoln University in New Zealand and at California’s UC Davis. While both teams noted positive correlations between minerality and words like citrus, fresh, zingy, flinty, and smoky, the Lincoln researchers differed from those at Davis in finding no correspondence with acidity or reductive notes.
One study showed that minerality represented different things to Swiss and French wine consumers, and that the Swiss group used a markedly broader vocabulary.
When Professor Maltman turns to the question of where minerality comes from, it seems the science is hampered by that lack of agreement on what the term “minerality” refers to:
A later investigation, from UC Davis, reported that professional tasters found minerality in wines with greater malic and tartaric acidity and, to a lesser extent, free and total sulphur dioxide. However, a New Zealand study, while supporting a role for sulphur dioxide, found no correlation between acidity and perceived minerality, nor with reductive notes.
Here is what stood out to me. The New Zealand study found no correlation between acidity or reductive notes as the cause of minerality. But notice in the first quote, the New Zealand team found no correlation between minerality and word associations indicating acidity and reductive notes. In other words, for New Zealanders, high acid or sulfur compounds were not viewed as the cause of minerality because they don’t refer to high acid or sulfurous wines as “minerally”.
The basic problem is that there are cultural differences in the words used to describe wines. Thus, cross-cultural analyses of causal connections between compounds in the wine and our perceptions will be influenced by how we talk about those perceptions.
This is not unusual. Obviously in our language use we are deeply influenced by the people we interact with and there are often significant cultural differences between language groups even if they nominally speak the same language. There is little reason to think New Zealanders and Americans or the French and the Swiss would share all linguistic references despite the overlap in their official languages.
People have different names for things. That doesn’t necessarily mean we disagree about the underlying non-linguistic phenomenon.
What there does seem to be agreement on is that “minerality” doesn’t come directly from soil or rocks. Despite the tendency to talk as if there are such connections the science seems conclusive.