The Enigma

Petrichor is a word for wine Geeks - this is a word to use when you are vying with the enologic “know -it-all”

Petrichor noun: The pleasant smell that accompanies the first rain after a dry spell; derived from a blend of ”petro” relating to rocks and “ichor” the fluid that mythologically flowed in the veins of the Greek gods. The smell-of- the-smell is believed to be caused by a liquid mixture of organic compounds that collect in the ground.

The Geekier you are the more you can qualify “petrichor” as I have heard or read “the smell of fresh rain on gravel in the Langhe” (Italian Wine Scholar) but joking apart this is a word that is used, typically when tasting Rieslings when we are using vocabulary that relates to what all of us glibly refer to as “minerality”. Elusive as it is “minerality” means different things to different people and I came up against the term when I visited the unspoiled viticultural wonderland that is the Jura on the eastern- most borders of France where France abuts Switzerland. Petrichor is a word that goes with “wet stone” and indeed ”petrol”a classic aroma of Riesling that is lumped in with the term “minerality” I still do not understand why the word ”petrol” is used as a descriptor seeing as petrol is a particularly English term for what the rest of the world calls “gasoline” Someone please help me on this point.

This is what I wrote in 2016 when I got back from the Jura to try to comprehend the most mineral wines I have ever had the joy to taste.

Minerality is a function of the soil terroir, whether it is Jurassic or Kimmeridgian. But the more one looks into descriptive wine terms, including minerality, the less one knows. There is a scientific term for this: it is the Cheshire cat phenomenon, as in Alice and Wonderland – the more one looks into a subject the more it disappears leaving just the grin. Relating characteristics like minerality in wine to the elements in the soil is particularly disappointing.

Mark Matthews effectively debunks the idea that soil is the crucial factor in determining wine flavor components in his book, Terroir and the other Myths of Wine Growing – a myth that for me, and I think for most of the wine growers I know, is still a core belief. 

 I reached out to Bruce Zoecklein and he was as equally demurring. The best I got from Bruce was that minerality was a function of redox potentials in the wine.

Desperate for further understanding, I searched for a descriptive definition of minerality from a tasting standpoint. There was no consensus; minerality means different things to different people.

The best I could come up with was an article by Sarah Jane Evans MW in the December issue of Decanter. She ended her excellent discussion with words to the effect that: if you are drinking a fresh white wine that you know comes from a cool climate with stony soils; that has marked acidity, is not overly fruity, and is not oxidized, then there is a good chance that the wine has minerality! Almost tongue in cheek she creates a scientific formula:

(SS+CC+A) –(E+T)-O2 = Minerality  

where SS is stony soils, A is acidity, CC is cool climate, E +T are the fruity aspects of wine in Esters and Thiols, and O2 is oxygen. I am left with the feeling that minerality defies both scientific definition and experiential description but you know that is the intellectual excuse for continuing the quest for knowledge and of course drinking more wine.
What do you understand by”minerality”? I’d love to hear.

Andrew HodsonComment