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The New Minerality: An Evolution in California Wine

Minerality is not a hallmark of California wines, nor New World wines in general. When expert tasters find overt minerality in a wine they are trying to identify blind, they narrow their focus to Europe. But, more and more, I’m perceiving minerality in California wines. Why is that?

First, here’s what I mean by “minerality.” It’s a flavor decidedly unlike fruit, spice or wood. The taste may be of salt water, chalk, gravel or metal. It can be a little bitter. It might smell like chalk dust, wet rocks, etc. Minerality of this nature is more common in white wines than red.

Where does minerality in wine come from? That’s a hotly debated topic. Though some people believe it to be true, we can be quite certain wine does not taste chalky because a whole bunch of chalky soil is dissolved, sucked up through vines’ roots and captured in the grapes. The mineral content of a soil does impact a wine’s flavors, but that’s because differing levels of potassium, magnesium, sulfur, calcium, iron and other minerals effect the way a vine grows and how the berries ripen. Grapes do contain trace amounts of various minerals but not enough iron, for example, to make a wine taste ferrous. If chalky soil ever makes its wine taste like chalk, it’s because dust stirred up in the vineyard by vehicles and wind can settle on the grapes and find its way into the fermentation tank.

Why do European wines generally taste more like mineral? Europe has limestone and slate, but so do we. France has Chardonnay, we have Chardonnay. Italian tractors probably don’t kick up any more dust than ours do.

I suspect the molecules that create a sense of minerality exist in many wines from both regions, but their aromas and flavors are subtle, easily overwhelmed by stronger ones. Ripe fruit, sweetness, high alcohol, strong spice, oak and oak-derived flavors can be much more potent. Relative strength aside, sweetness and fruit also work to balance bitter flavors. It’s also possible that a few of the flavors call mineral are actually signatures of a certain state of ripeness that disappear when grapes hang longer or get more sun.

White wines tend to have less strongly flavored fruit and oak than reds, hence minerality is more often detected in white wine. European vineyards usually don’t ripen as fully as those here and their table wines usually have less decadent fruit, residual sugar, alcohol and oak than their Californian counterparts.

But California wineries are increasingly producing lean, site-driven wines. Winemakers seek out interesting cool-climate vineyards or simply pick at lower brix because the riper fruit gets the less distinctive it is. Heavy use of new oak, especially in white wines, is declining too. That’s partly because oak masks terroir but also because French oak barrels have gotten extremely expensive.

Neutral oak and concrete tanks are fashionable now. Both expose more minerality than stainless steel. Oak and concrete allow some oxygen transfer thus preserving less dynamic, fresh fruit than air-tight stainless tanks.

The relative lack of minerality in Californian wine used to be ascribed to a variety of factors that didn’t make a lot of sense but, barring evidence to the contrary, were hard to dismiss: general superiority of European vines and vineyards, deeper roots, lack of irrigation (even if their sites get more rain than ours), more characterful earth, etc. Now it appears we’ve had minerality all along. It was just hidden beneath layers of more obvious flavors.

Here’s a handful of the California wines I’ve tasted recently that clearly express minerality.


2012 Jolie Laide Pinot Gris
Aromas of flowers, pear and subtle nectarine. Medium-plus body and lightly textured in the mouth. Flavors of lime, mineral, pear and green apple. Highly Recommended

2012 La Montagne Pinot Blanc Sierra Madre Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley
Lemon-lime, mineral, green apple, delicate flowers and a hint of white grapes on the nose and palate. Medium-bodied, lightly textured and slightly mouthwatering. Highly Recommended.

2011 Goodland Happy Canyon White (Sauvignon Blanc)
Aromas of lime, grapefruit, mineral and spice carrying through to the palate which also includes tart stonefruit and green apple. Medium-bodied with fine-grained texture and a lengthy finish of citrusy minerality. Highly Recommended.

2010 Thomas Fogarty Estate Chardonnay Langley Hill Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains
Flavors and aromas of smokey mineral, yellow apple, pear, cinnamon and other brown spices. Medium+ body and plenty of acidity. Somewhat savory and salty on the palate, especially throughout the long finish. Very Highly Recommended.

2012 Two Shepherds Grenache Blanc Saarloos Vineyard, Santa Ynez
Focused notes of white flowers, tangy stonefruit and spice lead into a juicy palate with medium-plus body. There’s a light texture, fine and powdery, plus persistent saline minerality. Highly Recommended.

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