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Neuroscience Series, Part 3

by | Mar 22, 2023

   The Mysteries of Minerality

In this third part of our series inspired by a masterclass conducted by Professor Gabriel Lepousez, we talk about the perception of minerality in wine. Gabriel holds a PhD in Neuroscience from the Sorbonne University and is an expert on sensory perception and brain plasticity. He is also a wine aficionado.

We often talk about ‘minerality’; what does it mean? Minerality is a multi-sensory descriptor which encompasses olfactory, gustatory and tactile sensations. A wine may be mineral because of the presence of some smells of wet stone, gun flint, matches or graphite. A wine may also be mineral because of the presence of a saline taste, reminiscent of the taste of mineral salts. A wine can also be mineral because of its sharp, bright, taut, crispy mouthfeel and acidity, reminiscent of the shape of crystals. It is interesting to note that the Latin root of acidity is acere, which means sharp, pointed or harsh. Thus, the use of the word minerality is an invitation to better understand which sensory dimension hides behind this descriptor. But it’s also an invitation not to be seduced by the simple metaphoric idea that a mineral sensation —a flint odour or a saline taste— necessarily comes directly from the soil.

Wine is much more than just a mere soil juice, as exemplified by the study of ‘salinity’. In his masterclass, Prof Lepousez explained that the salinity may come from different origins. Our tastebuds can detect the ‘salty’ character of sodium chloride and sea salt, thanks to a given taste receptor. But our tongue is also equipped with a dedicated receptor to detect the presence of calcium/magnesium, which can also contribute to a saline character. Apart from these two mineral salts, the presence of umami compounds may also trigger a saline sensation on our palate. But these umami compounds —such as glutamate, nucleotides, succinic acid and polyphenols— are all organic molecules, released mostly during fermentation and ageing. How to identify this organic salinity driven by umami? Contrary to sea salt and calcium/magnesium, umami taste is characterised by a persistent and long-lasting salty/savoury taste, associated with a progressive salivation resulting in a mouthcoating effect, which creates a pleasant mouthfeel together with a delicate saline finish.

Here in the Hemel-en-Aarde you seldom hear wine descriptions such as ‘ripe’, ‘sweet’, ‘luscious’ or ‘round’, but rather ‘energetic’, ‘vibrant’, or ‘crystalline’. Our region’s tasting notes may include citrus characters in white wines (e.g. Chardonnay) and red fruit in red wines (e.g. Pinot Noir). There may also be reference to acidity, freshness, minerality, saltiness, elegance and intensity. The mineral content of wine can affect flavour for example, high or low levels of calcium create impressions of tartness or sweetness and magnesium may impart nutty or earthy flavours.  The mineral content of a wine, apart from affecting taste, also influences texture and mouthfeel. This is often an indicator of a fine wine.  While the proximity to the Atlantic Ocean contributes to our cool climate, the soil biome affects the vines’ growth patterns. These elements influence the outcomes in our wines, creating positive descriptors such as ‘minerality’.

Since not much information is available in WSET about the wines from the Hemel-en-Aarde, I think it is essential to discuss this controversial term which describes our wines so well among wine experts and scientists. The description is most often used in white wines such as Chardonnay. The role of minerals in imparting distinctive flavours, aromas and textures to wine adds to the uniqueness of the wine. Distinctive site expression, of which minerality is a part, is a descriptor of fine wines. Minerality certainly makes a wine more interesting and complex; it is part of the multi-sensory experience afforded by a glass of fine wine.

People do not all have the same sensory receptors; we do not smell and taste the same way. It is therefore important to trust your own palate and enjoy what you appreciate in a wine.

Carolyn Martin – Co-owner and Creative Director, Creation Wines

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