The Question of Minerality: Art or Science?
Recently a group of geologists at an Oregon wine tasting made the claim that any taste of minerals in a wine does not come from the minerals in the soil. Given many individuals’ obssession with soil types and mineral levels when thinking about flavours in wine, this comes as a controversial assault.
As reported by the Associated Press:
The geologists say wines may vary in levels of dissolved minerals, but those variations aren’t related to the levels in vineyard soil.
And they say the concentration of minerals in wine is below the threshold of human taste and smell.
(you can read the full article here).
Cherries and Clay, another Vancouver wine and food blog, suggested that “there must be some connection there [between soil minerals and flavour] which isn’t fully understood.” And, while commenting on that post I realized that I had a fair amount to say about this topic.
Generally, I trust the scientists when it comes to answering scientific questions. However, what is more interesting to me is how we use metaphor to think about sensual experiences. As much as wine is a pleasure-based commodity, it also seems to have a unique ability to conjure up in many the desire to be metaphorical and to experience the aesthetic beyond just deciding what is ‘good’.
Thinking about the relation of the taste of minerals to the content of the soil to me is more about how we use wine as a vessel through which to explore our relation to the objects around us. This can be based on many philosophies. For example, the biodynamic philosophy has a very particular sense of a human’s relationship to external objects, and tends to prioritize a certain concept of the ‘natural’ above others. This, to me, is one approach that gives rise to the desire to express the nature of the soil and its mineral content in one’s thoughts about a wine.
We all know the hedonist philosophy that drives many of the big publications. This approach cares less about idolizing a certain concept of nature and more about a certain notion of pleasure. The metaphors such people use to describe wine thus move more towards the opulent and towards excessive use of flavour descriptors and superlatives.
Some others (including, I’m sure, many scientists) may see wine as an enigmatic expression of natural processes. Such a philosophy might see the ‘minerality’ question somewhat like a fascinating puzzle about how complex natural processes are.
Others might care more about the human capacity for technology, for augmenting natural processes and creating products that derive from that interaction. Such people may care more about ‘minerality’ as an end-point in a process of augmentation and manipulation.
The question of ‘minerality’ is really a smaller version of larger questions about expressing the experience of wine drinking. Wine drinkers aren’t drawn to wine for scientific reasons, and scientific explanations of flavour (which in wine drinking has become almost entirely metaphorical) are an insufficient means for understanding the basis of so many people’s interest in fermented grapes. Rather, the whole ‘minerality’ debate hinges more on philosophy and aesthetics than on science because they better reflect the basic starting point for most people’s wine experiences. Keeping this in mind will help to focus the discussion on how people are actually talking about and therefore experiencing wine.