Benjamin Mitrofan-Norris on March 19, 2017 1 Comment Now, we’re all wine lovers here. We all love this beautiful drink, and take pleasure in navigating our way through its many wonders, its eccentricities, quirks and oddities. However, I’ve recently found myself speaking to members of my family who don’t share my enthusiasm for fine vino, and I was a little saddened (although not really surprised) to find that one of the main factors which puts them off is the language of wine. Why would this be the case? Well, for some reason, wine is unlike almost anything else in the world of food and drink, and comes with vast quantities of jargon, terminology and linguistic complications — which seem to be continually topped up with new buzzwords, trends and soundbites – enough to make even fans like myself feel frustrated and bewildered. Why is this the case? Partly, I’d argue, because there is still plenty of elitism hanging around the wine aisles and bars, no matter how hard the wineries themselves stress that their produce is very much for everybody of every background. The impenetrable language used in wine columns and on certain labels (which suggests you cannot enjoy a drink which has been around and drank by the common man for thousands of years) is, unfortunately, merely a symptom of an ingrained snobbishness, which is quite hard to shift. Perhaps the most off-putting aspect of wine language comes about when we hear critics and wine-tasters such as myself start to describe the wines they’re drinking. This would be fine, if such people stuck to familiar nouns and adjectives which everybody could relate to, and had some experience of. Fruit and spices are fine, abstract concepts and inedible substances, perhaps less so. What many don’t realize is that certain words, phrases, ideas and ways of talking and writing about wine are actually subject to fashion, and come and go much like anything else. Let’s take a little look at some of the language of wine, and one particular word which has been ‘buzzing’ unstoppably for the past couple of years. Endless Flavors, Endless Adjectives While some of the terminology which wine tasters use can veer towards silliness, there is no doubting the fact that wine is a massively varied and endlessly fascinating drink. Flavors and aromas cover vast ranges, from the bombastic and powerful to the gentle, delicate and subtle. It is perhaps because of this range that it can seem to the uninitiated or cynical that sommeliers etc seem to be making it all up as they describe what they’re encountering, but anybody who has taken the time and put in the effort to train and expand their palate will tell you this generally isn’t the case. Good wine, interesting wine, wine made with love and attention really does bring an enormous array of interesting notes to the nose and tongue. These can be fruit flavors of all manner and description — plums and apples are common enough, as are citrus fruits like grapefruits and lemons, and hedgerow berries, lychees, mango, melon… the list goes on and on. It doesn’t stop there; explore a little further, and wines bring forward hints of spice and vanilla — something easily detectable with a little practice — and initially unexpected aromas such as tobacco and leather can leap from the glass once you start looking. Of course, the really fascinating thing about all of this is that none of these ‘things’ are really present in the bottle at all. The flavors and aromas develop from the strange alchemy that takes place in every stage of the winemaking process — they come from the soil the vines are planted in, from the juice of the grapes themselves, from the wood they are matured in and the cellar where they are kept. Tasting the Land The fruit and spice and wood flavors are all reasonably commonplace, though, and have been talked about in much the same way for centuries in every country where wine has been produced. One term which has been inescapable recently, however, is ‘terroir’. A French term which has some genuine history behind it, it’s used in regards to several food and drink production practices, and refers to the conditions and elements in which wine grapes (or other similar raw materials) are grown. Terroir takes into account the soil type, the precise microclimatic conditions the grapes are subjected to, even the gradient of the hillside the vines are planted on. While most wine tasters, experts and producers agree that changes in terroir produce subtle differences in the character of the wine — meaning that the same grape varietal grown on opposite ends of the same village can potentially yield slightly different results — it takes a very well developed palate to be able to ascertain such differences, if indeed they are truly there at all. Nonetheless, vintners around the world have been gripped in the past fifteen years or so by the idea of making their wines ‘expressive’ — that is, expressive of the unique terroir they have been grown upon. This trend has led to some interesting changes in the way that wines are currently made and regarded, with winemakers keen to share their patch of land with the world, and also links us to our final bit of dubious wine lingo. Minerality While the term terroir has been around for ages, it’s only recently been bandied about liberally by winemakers and enthusiasts alike. Minerality, on the other hand, really is a newcomer. The word doesn’t seem to have any historical usage at all when it comes to describing wine, and written usage of it only seems to stretch back thirty years or so. Despite this, it’s become one of the most prevalent bits of wine terminology of the twenty-first century, with every winery website and a vast number of wine labels bragging about the presence of minerality in their bottles. It seems, therefore, to mean many things to many people, with surprisingly little consensus on a genuine definition. Essentially, minerality is a profile of aromas and flavors which is quite separate from the more familiar territory of herbs, spices and fruits. Minerality is different, it stands alone, and it is increasingly sought after and fashionable, particularly when it comes to millennial drinkers looking for more interesting characteristics in their vino. The problem many people have with the term (without starting on the fact that nobody can seem to agree on really what it means) is that it is a little deceptive. We would be excused for assuming that it refers to the taste of minerals, taken from the soil, but in much the same way that there definitely isn’t any crushed lychee in your favorite bottle of Gewurztraminer or pipe tobacco in your Bordeaux, there aren’t any identifiable, detectable minerals in your Riesling, etc. There are minerals in the — calcium and potassium, for example, are often transferred through the soil into the wine, as is sulfur — but they are in such minuscule quantities, not even the most expert of tongues would be able to pick them up. So what are people actually talking about when they refer to the wine’s minerality and mineral character? The general sorts of flavors which get lumped under the minerality umbrella tend to be those which are reminiscent of metal and stone. Capture in your mind the metallic, salty tang of a fresh oyster, for example, or the scent of gravel after a thunderstorm. Remember when you were at school, sitting next to the blackboard? That taste of chalk you’d get in the back of your throat at the end of a lengthy lesson — this is the sort of thing we’re getting at. Somewhere in the world of smoke and steel, flint and rock, we find this supposed realm of minerality in wine. No wonder it’s a little difficult to reach a conclusion on just what is being referred to! While you wouldn’t really want any of these examples as primary flavors in wine, they mainly serve to add a bit of fascination, complexity and a touch of ‘the other’ to a good wine — especially the very dry, very acidic white wines which are en vogue at present. If minerality doesn’t really come from minerals, then where does it come from? The truth is, nobody really knows. There’s a lengthy debate going on at the moment in the nerdier corners of the wine world regarding what’s actually going in with these mineral flavors — some claim they’re coming from acids and tannins, others insist they must be purely imaginary — but at the end of the day, flavor is so subjective and ephemeral, it’s both a difficult thing to test scientifically, and also rather pointless to look at in too much detail. Do we really need to know where a particular flavor comes from? Would this knowledge, or further use of buzzwords and terminology further our enjoyment of the wine? Probably not — let’s embrace the flavors and aromas as they are, and keep the concept of minerality as a bit of a mystery. Wine is to be enjoyed first, talked about second. Let’s keep it that way.