What Does Minerality Mean When it Comes to Wine?

Wine does not, of course, taste like rocks.

Photo: From Left to Right: Courtesy Loosen Bros. USA, Courtesy Quintessential, Courtesy Domaines Albert Bichot, Courtesy Loosen Bros. USA, Courtesy the Winebow Group

Here's a simple test: "That 2016 Blockenhocker Riesling has incredible minerality." If you are a wine geek, you will read that and think, "Absolutely." But if you are a normal human, even a wine-loving one, you will think, "Huh? You mean it tastes like rocks?"

Well, yes. And no. Wine does not, of course, taste like rocks; rocks, generally speaking, don't taste of anything (and if you bite them, you break your teeth).

Yet some wines, most often white, have a kind of ... stoniness. Or mineral character. Or something. The aroma and taste of Chablis can recall the bottom of a box of blackboard chalk (in a good way). The flinty-smoky note in Pouilly-Fumé is so distinct that it gave the wine its name (fumée: smoke). Other wines can taste a tiny bit salty or saline.

In a way, minerality is the umami of the wine world. Umami is the term for savoriness, the fifth taste. Neither sweet, sour, salty, nor bitter, it's—well, it's hard to describe, right? Meaty, maybe? It's real—technically it has to do with how glutamic acid binds to your taste buds—but the problem is describing it.

So, too, with minerality. It does occur; how and why remains somewhat of a mystery. To try to discern it yourself, your best bets are usually lightly or unoaked whites from cool-climate regions. Conveniently, these crisp wines are also great for spring drinking: Serve them with everything from raw oysters to cacio e pepe with fresh fava beans.

2016 Fritz Haag Riesling Trocken ($20)

Sometimes German Rieslings have acidity that almost tingles on your tongue—one winemaker described it to me as "fizzy" (though there's no actual fizz). This one has that, plus peach aromas and a drying end that's like moisture soaking into slate.

2016 Messmer Muschelkalk Riesling Feinherb ($20)

Name your wine after the fossil-bearing limestone soils its vines grow in ("Muschelkalk") and it had better express some kind of mineral character. Appropriately, this does: It smells of wet stones and flowers, and with its very light sweetness and racy acidity, it would be great with Thai food.

2016 Dr. Loosen Blue Slate Riesling Kabinett ($22)

This lightly sweet German wine literally made me throw my hands up and yell, "That's it!" because whatever minerality actually is, it's here in spades. I walked all the way back to my desk feeling like I was sucking on a pebble.

2016 Lo Triolet Vallée D'Aoste Pinot Gris ($25)

A light touch of smokiness lifts from this lovely, nectarine-inflected Pinot Gris from Italy's tiny Valle d'Aosta region.

2016 Mastroberardino Novaserra Greco Di Tufo ($25)

Is it chalky? Slaty? Both? Any way, this green appley, southern Italian white has an unmistakable minerality (which is characteristic of this grape variety).

2016 Estate Argyros Santorini Assyrtiko ($28)

This Greek white suggests talc or clay more than stones: Call it earthy. Add to that this wine's lemon-zesty liveliness, and it's a great combination, not to mention incredibly refreshing.

2016 Domaine Long-Depaquit Chablis ($28)

One of my favorite words ever aptly describes the aroma of Chablis like this one. That's "petrichor," which means the scent produced when rain falls on dry soil. It comes from the Greek words petra, meaning stone, and ichor, or the fluid that flows through the veins of the gods.

2016 Massican Gemina ($30)

For his Massican project, Napa Valley winemaker Dan Petroski focuses on northern Italian white varieties—like this crisp blend of Pinot Grigio and Greco with a finish that has a distinctly seaside salinity.

2015 Frankland Estate Isolation Ridge Riesling ($40)

This totally dry Riesling from Australia's remote Frankland River region smells flinty, like a rock hit with a hammer, yet its bright, zingy flavor recalls fresh limes.

2015 Denis Jeandeau Secret Minéral Pouilly-Fuissé ($66)

A light touch of oak on this subtly spicy white Burgundy doesn't obscure the distinctive struck-flint note here. Jeandeau, a young winemaker in the Mâconnais, farms organically (working the soil by hand or with horses) and uses only native yeasts in his winemaking.

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