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Culture: Don’t Say ‘Minerality’—These Wine Pros Prefer ‘Electricity’

Culture: Don’t Say ‘Minerality’—These Wine Pros Prefer ‘Electricity’

It may surprise some to hear that the stony, flinty or oyster shell-like flavor sometimes found in wines can stir up rabid debate. Although scientists can’t agree if it’s even possible for rocks and soil to transmit flavor or aroma into wine, that hasn’t stopped many in the wine world from rallying to the call of minerality.  

But those firmly on the “we can taste it” side are often unable to agree on the term’s definition. So why are we still using it?  

“Instead of the problematic word ‘minerality,’ I use the word ‘electricity,’” writes Rajat Parr in 2018’s The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste, which he co-authored with writer Jordan Mackay. Parr is the James Beard Foundation Award-winning sommelier-turned-winemaker at Phelan Farm, Sandhi wines and others.

“[Parr] refers to it as a physical sensation and says it can manifest in wine in numerous ways,” the book continues. “He equates it to an electric sensation that produces tension in the wine. It arises, most of the time, from vines planted in intensely rocky sites.” 

Here’s everything to know about the debate—and the case for dropping the term entirely. 

What Is Minerality, Exactly? 

“There is no accepted definition of minerality in wine, no complete consensus on the characteristics that are associated with it, nor even whether it is perceived primarily as a smell, a taste or a mouthfeel sensation,” says Evan Goldstein, a master sommelier and president of wine education and public relations firm Full Circle Wine Solutions.  

Enrico Viglierchio, general manager at importer Banfi Wines, also emphasizes how divisive the word “minerality” can be.  

“This is a term used very frequently in wine descriptions to indicate a wine with certain sensory characteristics,” Viglierchio says. “[They] express a synthesis of a complex acidity profile, and notes of elements such as chalk, flint and graphite—it is not a single, standalone element.”

Other factors also contribute to a wine’s mineral characteristics, he continues. For instance, two wines can come from the same rocky soil, but only one may exhibit minerality. What’s behind the difference? Varying microclimates and vinification practices.  

Why Do We Need a New Term? 

“Minerality” is certainly in vogue as a term these days. In 2006, when wine guru Jancis Robinson edited the third edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine, there was no mention of the term. But by the time the fourth edition rolled out in 2015, “it was too prevalent to ignore,” writes Robinson. 

Famed Australian viticulturist Dr. Richard Smart, meanwhile, refers to it as “an invented term that has become very popular.” But like many other terms that have recently become widespread in the wine world—see “crushable”—it might be time to drop it. It may soon become a moot point, anyway: Fruit aromas have the potential to mask minerality, and climate change is pushing wine in the fruitier direction. 

“Minerality is a tricky and controversial word for various reasons,” continues Mackay in The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste. “More vexingly, however, is its slippery usage. Much like terroir, it means different things to different people, and is thus hard to define and [is] perhaps of questionable value.” Minerality’s value, he continues, is not as a scientific term, but as a metaphor.  

“We don’t speak of literal minerals in wine; we speak of a poetic characteristic that reminds us in some ways of stones, rocks, metals and minerals.” 

The Case for Using “Electricity” Instead of “Minerality

Today, Parr continues to see “electricity” as a viable replacement for “minerality.”  

“I think words like ‘minerality,’ ‘electricity,’ ‘tension,’ etc. are ways to explain the taught texture of wine,” Parr says. “It is hard to explain a sensation our palate has. I think minerality is often misinterpreted as the same flavor as the soil it is grown on. Few can tell the difference, but there clearly is a difference. [Mackay] and I wanted to change the narrative a little. That’s why, we used [electric].” 

Mikey Giugni of Scar of the Sea Wines in San Luis Obispo—whose Chardonnay Parr describes as particularly “electric”—agrees. “I also prefer terms such as ‘energy,’ ‘crunchy,’ ‘electric,’ ‘loud’ [and] ‘quiet,’” he says. “These terms are easier to understand and are the feeling the wine is giving at that moment.” 

Giugni admits that the wines he enjoys most he describes as electric. “Honestly, to me, it is a quite literal definition meaning the wine is full of energy. The word ‘electric’ is dynamic, it gives colors and feelings with it.” 

“When a wine is electric, it also gives me energy,” he continues. “You can tell the wine is living.” 

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