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Does Your Wine Really Taste Like Rocks?

My father used to own a small vineyard on a Hungarian volcano in the Balaton Uplands, where vines have grown since Roman times. Starting in the late nineties, he spent most weekends there, writing essays about politics and making white wine with Olaszrizling grapes. The wine tasted like lemony mineral water. He loved it, even if his early efforts qualified as guggolós bor (or “crouching-style wine”), an expression used to describe wine so awful that visitors crouch down when passing by its maker’s home to avoid being spotted and invited in for a drink.

The labels on my father’s bottles bore a quote from the Hungarian writer Béla Hamvas, describing the region’s vineyards: “The kind of places where you can stop, sit down, settle in, and say: I am staying here. And perhaps without even realizing it, this is where death might find you.” Hamvas, who was banned from publishing during the Communist regime and subsequently had to work as a laborer at remote power plants, died in 1968. But, in 1945, three years before his banishment, he wrote “The Philosophy of Wine,” a treatise that adopted wine’s mysteries as an exercise in accepting the unprovable, meant to reconcile atheists and materialists with the divine. In the book, he asserted that wines from specific landscapes have an “inimitable mineral bouquet.” Ones from sandy soils, for instance, fill our veins “with very small star-like grains, and these grains dance in our blood like the animated Milky Way.”

In 2010, because of changes in the political landscape, my father sold his vineyard and moved home to Montreal, where I live. He has not been back since. Two years ago, as I planned a trip to Hungary, he asked me to return to his old estate to collect a bottle from his cellar. He explained, with enthusiasm, that he wanted our family to uncork it at his funeral—an archetypal Magyar-émigré request. That summer, after a few days in Budapest, I drove two hours to the volcano, Mt. Szent György, to retrieve some of my father’s 1997 vintage. The vineyard’s new owner, a retiree named Attila, who summers on the volcano, had torn out most of the vines, considering them incapable of yielding anything decent. But our old cellar still stood there, beneath an immense walnut tree, and my dad’s green bottles lay just where he’d said they’d be, in a corner, sinking into the dirt. They were encrusted with mold, dead wasps, beetle husks, and furry cobwebs. Attila suggested that I take two, in case one was corked, though when I did, he scoffed that both would be bad. “I don’t know why your apa could possibly want those,” he muttered, as we hosed them down.

On my way back, I stopped at Mt. Somló, a volcano not far from Mt. Szent György, whose “fiery” white wines Hamvas described in rapturous terms. While there, I visited a friend, Éva Cartwright, at her store, the Somló Wine Shop, which occupies a small stone cave built into the hillside beneath her family’s home. When I learned that she’d never tried a Hungarian white this old, we decided to open one of the two bottles I’d picked up. Neither of us held out much hope. My father had warned me that the wine would probably be “broken,” a Hungarianism for wine that falls somewhere between vinegar and sherry. But his Olaszrizling was more than fine. It had transformed into something else, smoky and crystalline, with beguiling undertones that tasted, I was sure, like ash.

Winemaking can be a precise science, but it also relies on mysteries, accidents, and artistry. How certain elements—barrel choice, fermentation, and the ripeness of grapes when they are picked, among other things—produce particular effects is fairly well understood, but, sometimes, characteristics still emerge without clear antecedents. Hamvas’s contention that different physical landscapes produce distinctive tastes speaks to one of the most intriguing qualities that has come to be associated with wine: “minerality,” a nebulous concept that usually refers to a kind of chiselled stoniness. Many minerally wines are high in acidity, with a sharp, savory presence that verges on saltiness. Some have a powdery texture, as though saturated with pulverized quartz dust or pencil lead. These sensations evoke earthen matter, like iron, slate, or gemstones. The taste and aroma can trigger associations of the seashore, or freshly fallen rain.

Although the word “minerality” seems to have first crept into winespeak in the seventies and eighties, it wasn’t until the early two-thousands that it took off. In the past two decades, it has become one of the most common descriptors in the wine world. Lately, you can find a wine characterized, in all seriousness, as having “mineral flavors sexed up by a flinty nuance on the end,” offering “a granite quarry’s worth of minerality,” or compared to “sucking on a pebble.” The term’s popularity has likely been aided by its ambiguity. In 2013, French researchers found that wine professionals who were asked to define minerality often provided contradictory definitions. When it first appeared in “The Oxford Companion to Wine,” a cherished encyclopedia of the wine world, in 2015, its editor, Jancis Robinson, wrote that the word was “too prevalent to ignore—even if impossible to define.”

The term likely benefits, too, from the assumption, fed largely by advertising, that liquid that has run through rocks is healthier, more “pure,” or otherwise improved. Bottled-water companies have long alluded to the association of mineral springs—bodies of water that contain dissolved geological minerals in the form of elements, like sodium or magnesium, and salts like sulfate—with healthfulness, and have highlighted how their subtle variations in flavor result from the presence of these supposedly therapeutic minerals. There is, of course, an important distinction—spring water has been in direct contact with rocks, whereas crushed grapes have not—but the ubiquity of imagery suggesting that rocks can be absorbed by water has likely helped prime people to believe that the same can be true of other liquids.

The popular account of minerality’s origins holds that the taste is the result of trace elements from the soil being absorbed by the plant’s roots, transported into the grapes through the trunk and stems, and then persisting in the finished wine itself. It’s a charming notion, but it violates some essential tenets of soil science. Because rocks, such as limestone and schist (to take two examples frequently cited as sources of minerality) are solids, their being taken up directly by a vine’s roots is a physical impossibility. Though grapevines, like all plants, absorb mineral nutrients, in the form of ions, from the water they draw from soil, these nutrients come from a range of sources, including humus, the broken-down remnants of organic matter; any chemical additives, like fertilizers; and parent geological minerals that have dissolved through weathering. Trace amounts of these mineral nutrients do ultimately make their way into wines, but it’s not clear that they are present in sufficient quantities to be perceptible to the human palate.

Alex Maltman, a professor emeritus of earth sciences at the University of Aberystwyth, in Wales, is a vociferous critic of the notion that rocks are somehow a source of minerality. In 2012, he published an article in the Journal of Wine Research that cited studies about the presence of minerals in wine and water going back to 1955 and concluded that “whatever minerality is, it cannot literally be the taste of minerals in the vineyard rocks and soils.” Although his academic writings tend to be measured—in that paper, he acknowledges that further studies might show soil to have a minor, indirect, complex, distant effect on flavor—his informal statements can seem more combative. In the course of our interviews, Maltman called minerality “a mental construct,” and compared the notion that it is derived from the soil to a belief that is “rather like a religious faith.”

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