Tag Archives: Sauvignon Blanc

Exploring minerality

‘Wine producers like to kneel in their vineyards and scoop up a handful of dirt for you to admire. “See this gneiss (or schist, or limestone)” they’ll say. “Minerality. You can taste it in the wine”.’

The idea that the rock type that a vineyard’s soil is based on can affect the flavour of a wine, giving it so-called minerality, has been knocking around for a long time. It is certainly a romantic thought that you can go into a vineyard, look at the soil and be able to ascribe certain aromas and flavours in the wine to it. There is something about the sensory nature of soil – you can see, touch, smell and even taste it – that makes it easy to apportion wine flavour to. But is this idea of minerality really accurate, or is it just a romantic notion used by marketeers to add to wine’s mystique?

The thorny topic of minerality formed the basis of a recent seminar held by the Institute of Masters of Wine and aimed to shed light on these questions. By the end of it would a room full of MWs be able to agree on what minerality is? We were about to find out.


IMW Minerality seminar


The first part of the presentation was hosted not by a wine professional, but by geology professor Alex Maltman from the University of Aberystwyth and was titled ‘Why ‘Minerality’ is not the taste of vineyard minerals’. So, stating his position very firmly then.

Thus followed a quick chemistry class in minerals, how they are formed from constituent elements and how they are bound in rocks, followed by the disconnect with how vines take up nutrient elements from the soil to grow. Essentially, geological minerals are made up of compounds formed of eight elements. These minerals bind with each other to rigid aggregates aka rocks. Over a long time rocks can be weathered to sediment, which mixes with moist humus (organic matter) and water and becomes soil. Vines need 14 essential nutrients to grow which they can take up from soil when dissolved in water. So, on the surface it sounds like:

Elements combine → minerals which then combine → rock.

Rock weathers → soil → vines uptake minerals from soil.

But herein lies the disconnect: just because some geological minerals are in the soil, it doesn’t mean that they are able to be taken up by the vine. And on top of that, weathering is such a slow process that it cannot provide all of the nutrient elements that a vine needs. Instead, these nutrient elements come from the humus – the recycled organic matter in the soil (dead leaves etc). On top of that, the three main essential nutrients that vines need are sodium, phosphorus and sulphur and these can only come from humus, not weathered geological elements.

So Professor Maltman proved quite succinctly that minerals in the rock are not taken up by vines – let alone find their way into grapes and onwards into your glass. He then went further, arguing that beyond the geological arguments, you simply can’t taste minerals themselves. He gave the example of flint, a wine descriptor that often occurs in so-called mineral white wines. Flint itself is silica which is flavourless, odourless and tasteless. The aroma we link to flint is actually the smell of flint being struck – striking flint releases sulphur and iron impurities into the air, giving a distinctive smell. It is not, however, the smell of flint itself. Professor Maltman concluded by noting that minerality is a metaphor – you have to be alluding to something else. ‘Whatever minerality is, it’s not the taste of vineyard minerals’.

So, if minerality is not from vineyard minerals then what is it? What does it mean?

Well, in the words of pre-eminent viticulturist Dr Richard Smart, ‘Minerality as a wine descriptor is a nonsense…..I think that it is a deliberate method to mystify wine by wine writers’.

So, is mineral a term used by wine trade but not understood by consumers? The final two speakers, wine sensory scientists Dr Jordi Ballester and Dr Wendy Parr, were on hand to share their research on what minerality means to people.

Dr Ballester’s research asked people simply to define minerality. Perhaps unsurprisingly the wine experts (Burgundian winemakers) came up with many descriptive words, all of which were positive – with the most used ones including gunflint, acidity and shellfish. On the other hand, consumers lacked any sort of consensus over descriptors and these were not always positive. This seems to indicate that whilst the wine trade knows what they mean by minerality, consumers do not – and aren’t sure if it is a good thing or not. The other result of note was the lack of consensus on descriptors from the wine experts – 34 people were surveyed resulting in 17 groups of words, including everything from gunflint to salty to flower. Not exactly a ringing consensus of what minerality means.

Dr Parr then expanded on this by talking about her research which looked at French and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc producers to ascertain whether minerality is a specific character (or characters) in a wine – or if it is driven by expectation: the idea that you think something is mineral and therefore you taste it.  She found that the French and New Zealand producers could both smell and taste minerality and that there was cross-cultural consensus on what flavours were associated with minerality. Simply put, there was definitely something in the wine driving a description of minerality. And in general these wines tended to be more citrus/fresh with an absence of passionfruit and green characters. But, she also reported that the wines had been put through a rigorous chemical analysis and they didn’t find anything that ‘minerality’ can be attributed chemically.

This research seems to show that minerality as a concept does exist and can be tasted in a wine – but there is a lot of variability in terms of the actual descriptors used by different people. So, could a room full of MWs and their guests agree what minerality was? We were about to find out.

What followed was a blind tasting, first of 5 Chardonnays and then of 10 Sauvignon Blancs. We had to taste each wine and score it on a scale of 0 (no minerality) to 10 (high minerality). Easy, you might think. Well, the results were fascinating.




This graph shows the results for the Chardonnays and the number of attendees who scored each wine as ‘the most mineral’. As you can see there wasn’t much consensus! There was a similar result for the Sauvignon Blancs, leading Dr Parr to comment ‘the notion of mineral doesn’t tell us a lot’.

An open discussion with the room then asked what we mean when we say mineral. The comments included chalky, acid, salty, palate weight, lack of sweetness, hardness, tension and friction amongst others – an interesting mix of true flavours, textural ideas and even more semantic concepts.

So if a group of MWs can’t agree on what minerality is, means, or tastes like – what hope do consumers have?

Indeed, Dr Parr ended up by arguing that minerality is an umbrella term with many aspects to it and that we as wine professionals should be more specific when describing mineral aspects in a wine. So just as using the descriptor ‘fruity’ is very generic and can be broken down into the type of fruit, whether they’re ripe or unripe, fresh or cooked – so minerality should be dissembled and wines should be described as salty, stony or steely – or any of the many other descriptors out there. Not only would that be more understandable for consumers it would also open up the world of minerality further and shed light on what we are really describing in a wine.

So, if minerality can be tasted in a wine but it does not come from vineyard soils – where does it come from? That sadly is a question still to be answered – quite simply, the research hasn’t yet been done. Professor Maltman commented that there is a possibility that geology could influence soil bacteria somehow – which then might have some effect on the vine and resulting wine. Certainly, the microbiology of soil in vineyards is a topical subject at the minute and might shed some light. Or perhaps it is some climatic influence happening at a local level.

For now we simply don’t know what causes minerality in a wine. It will just be another one of wine’s mysteries until the right research happens.


The complexities of wine

After 10 years of working in wine, studying through the WSET levels and now making my way through the MW, I would be the first to admit that wine is a complex subject and can be very confusing to many people. But, I do believe that no matter how complicated the subject is we the wine trade have a duty of care when talking to consumers and that bullshitting them is just wrong.

Take this example from a restaurant I was in just the other night:

Customer: “I’d like a glass of white wine, but I don’t like Sauvignon Blanc”

Waitress: “Well, we don’t serve New World wines here.”

The customer here clearly likes wine, knows what they do and do not like and wants some help from the person serving the wine. Great, this should be an easy request to deal with. But the response from the waitress is both confused and confusing. Does she assume the customer specifically doesn’t like Sauvignon Blanc from the New World? Perhaps she doesn’t know that France, about as Old World as it gets, is the home of Sauvignon Blanc? Perhaps that is just a line she trots out on the assumption that her customers would rather drink Old World wine anyway.

Regardless of the reason, I can’t but help think she has failed the customer. Even if she didn’t know that Sauvignon is grown in the Old World (which would surprise me, given her position in the restaurant and clear knowledge of Old vs New world) she is still not giving the customer any real help or guidance on what to order. In fact, her response can’t have done anything other than confuse the customer – it certainly confused me. The restaurant had a short wine list, but everything was listed by the glass and the customer just wanted to be recommended something to enjoy.

When I’ve mentioned this incident since then there have been two types of response. The first berated me for ‘publicly bashing’ customers and service staff who didn’t know much about wine. I hope this makes it clear that wasn’t my intention. This really isn’t about how much wine knowledge you have, but rather how you use what knowledge you have – and more importantly, how you help the customer with what they want.

The second type of response illustrates that sometimes we in the trade do like to have a joke at consumers’ expense, making it perhaps unsurprising the first response came up. These comments asked if perhaps the customer would have liked a glass of Sancerre. For anyone confused at this point, Sancerre is a region in France where white wines are made from Sauvignon Blanc. Whilst I freely admit to making this exact ‘joke’ myself in the past (using the ‘I don’t like Chardonnay but I love Chablis’ example) – with this type of response it is quite clear why the general public like to label us in the wine trade as snobs.

So, please if you’re in the industry – be careful with how you use your wine knowledge with customers. Don’t fob them off with a half-truth or bullshit them because it’s easier. But equally, know that wine is confusing and if you can shine even the smallest light on one aspect you will be doing both your customer and yourself a favour. And let’s stop mocking consumers because they don’t know as much as we do. That’s ok. Maybe they just want a nice glass of wine.


Tasmania – a sparkling gem

When you think of Australia you probably think of sun, beaches, kangaroos and barbies. Mountains, cold rivers, wind and rain aren’t the things that immediately come to mind.

Welcome to Tasmania. Australia, but not as you know it.

In fact, having lived in New Zealand I can tell you Tasmania has more in common with the land of the kiwi than the land of the kangaroo. Both occupy similar latitudes around 42 degrees south and the mountainous landscape riven with winding rivers, green fields and spectacular coastline is a feature of both. Add to this a climate dominated by the cold surrounding oceans and roaring forties trade winds and you begin to paint a very similar picture.


The similarities exist in wine terms too. New Zealand produces world class Pinot Noir. So does Tassie. Chardonnay and Riesling are equally at home in both and you can even find Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon from the two. The difference exists in where New Zealand and Tasmania having chosen to hang their hat – which wine has become their calling card to the world. For New Zealand this is of course Sauvignon Blanc. You can’t walk into a shop, bar or restaurant these days without being offered a Kiwi Sauvignon and their distinctive, pungent aromas and crisp styles are hugely popular. A brand in its own right, for better or worse Sauvignon blanc is what New Zealand is best known for.

Tasmania has chosen a different route and opted not for still table wine but for sparkling wine as its USP. Or as one winemaker wittily refers to it – Methode Tasmanoise.

In Australia any decent bar or restaurant lists at least one Tasmanian sparkling and these wines are very popular. Australians as a rule seem to be very proud of these wines, perceiving them as a high quality domestic product that can be compared with anything else in the world – and they are willing to spend a decent amount of money on them.

Sadly for those of us who don’t live in Australia this means we don’t see so many of these wines on our shelves. A high domestic demand means that not very much is exported and this coupled with the premium pricing (the strong Aussie dollar not helping either) means that it can be a hard sell. For consumers over here why buy a Tassie sparkling when you can buy Champagne for around the same price? Champagne has all of the attached prestige, a name everyone knows and recognises. Tasmanian sparkling, much less. Methode Tasmanoise, forget it.

And yet, and yet. Having undergone a lengthy masterclass on sparkling wine in Tasmania I can tell you that there are truly great wines being made over there and frankly they can beat the pants off basic Champagne. The non-vintage styles offer seriously good value for money combining fresh apple and citrus fruit character with bright cool-climate acidity along with those lovely yeasty, biscuity notes. Far more complexity than you would expect in most NV Champagne. The rose styles had delicate perfume, creamy texture and a beautiful pale salmon pink hue. LP rose eat your heart out. The vintage styles were serious, concentrated and intense with savoury complexity and long, long finishes. Of course there were some wines that didn’t quite reach these heights but overall the tasting showed the huge quality of Tasmanian sparkling and it was a fantastic experience.


The good news is that you can track down some producers over here without too much trouble. The better news is that most of the producers I talked to are interested in exporting more wine and telling the world about Tasmanian sparkling. So whilst it is unlikely Tasmanian sparkling will be as readily available as New Zealand Sauvignon anytime soon, hopefully it will become better known and appreciated.

If you fancy tasting some Tassie sparkling for yourself, the following producers are distributed in the UK: Jansz, Josef Chromy, Pirie, Clover Hill. Search for local stockists on http://www.winesearcher.com


some unexpected Dagueneau loving…

There is a quirk to my personality that glories in the underdog (there has to be a reason I am a Quin’s supporter) and relishes the fall of Goliath.  So when a good friend produced a bottle of the infamous Didier Dagueneau Silex 2008 on Saturday night, there was a momentary flicker of malicious excitement as I prepared to be delightfully underwhelmed in the face of such an awesome reputation.

Well, I am glad that I wasn’t wearing a hat, as it would have taken some chewing.  Despite being a hardened Sauvignon Blanc sceptic, the wine could only be described as sublime.   Three days later, shunted around on an over-crowded, sweaty, rush hour tube; squeezed between garlic breath on my left and BO armpits on my right; I could withdraw into the sanctuary of the memory that is the Silex.

It was quite a line up we had on Saturday night, but the Silex stood out from the crowd, glowing with an ethereal elegance, the like of which hasn’t been seen since Ingrid Bergman graced our screens in Casablanca.  What I prize in a wine is understated power and grace and this, the Silex has in spades.  It wasn’t all bulging muscle and posturing, that was more the remit of the Pur Sang, but it had the incredible concentration, the effortless fluidity of mineral weight, spiced lemon grass, dried herbs and sun-baked stone as the flavours ebbed and flowed against your consciousness.  The great wines don’t require words.  The quiet smiles and unanimous silence around the table spoke volumes.

Suffice to say the 2011’s have just arrived in the Bancroft warehouses and my name is now on a case.


Savvy? No, thanks.

17th May marks the international Sauvignon Blanc day. The bleedin’ what, you ask? Precisely my point. Whoever decided that there should be such a thing must have been flying on something. I blame the Kiwis, really. They do, after all, have bucket loads of that stuff to sell. Now, let’s be clear on one point – I intensely dislike Sauvignon Blanc. I hesitate to use the word ‘hate’ as hate leads to the dark side……oh what the hell, I joined the dark side a long time ago. I hate Sauvignon Blanc. There.

A glass of Savvy-B (its street name). Smells oh so wonderful, doesn’t it? Like vegetable soup that you left out of the fridge and the cat found it. She didn’t want it, either, so she peed into it. Nice. Sure, not all Savvy-B is quite so pungent and there are ‘better’ examples that go more into the mineral, flinty or tropical spectrum. Unfortunately the world seems to be enamoured with Marlborough Sauvignon. I don’t get it. I’ve never liked Sauvignon. It’s not just because it’s oh so popular and I am a party pooper who instantly dislikes anything that may currently be trendy. (Though I have been known to do that – there was once a shameful time in my past (when I was less of an ‘expert’) when I wouldn’t touch Chardy coz the mere world Chardonnay always pronounced itself with an Essex accent in my head. Of course I was totally missing the point there and have since seen the light. )
I just cannot see myself coming round to it, ever. Part of it is that it lacks a certain amount of sophistication. Naught wrong with a simple drink here and there, I hear you scream. But if I want simple and fresh, I will reach for an Albarino. It is peachy and smiley and slips down easily. It’s the vegetal character of Savvy-B that I cannot stand. Who wants to drink a wine that tastes like canned peas? As much as I like fresh green asparagus, I don’t want it in my drink. Similarly, I like nettles in a cup of herbal tea….not in wine, thanks. I think the only styles of Sauvignon I can bear to drink are the ones that contain Semillon….and heaps of oak. Ironic. Gimme a Graves or a Pessac and we’ve got a bit more to play with. No asparagus there, all lovely lemon curd, passion fruit, wet wool and a touch of vanilla. More like it.
The Loire seems to have seen the light and has turned away from ‘vegetality’ (I officially decree it a word), some Argentine producers are producing riper styles but geez, everyone else is making aforementioned veggie soup.
Last year I tried possibly the most terrible red wine I ever put in my mouth, a super expensive silly pseudo-natural blend of Pinot/Syrah and…..Sauvignon Blanc. The label didn’t say stupid but it shoulda. I am sure it was an awful wine to begin with but the addition of Sauvignon turned it into an indigestible nonsense, again reminiscent of vegetable soup.

In light of all aforementioned crimes against good taste, I decree that on this fine World Sauvignon Blanc day, we should all celebrate with a glass of Riesling. You know it’s the right thing to do.

Lenka (Evil Monkey)