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Inherit the Wind: The Trial of Olivier Cousin

In 1925 a teacher named John Thomas Scopes, a substitute teacher working in Dayton, Tennessee, found himself to be the centre of attention when he stood in the dock accused of violating the Butler Act, which outlawed the teaching of human evolution in any state-funded Tennessee school. The act had been introduced that very year, and written by a farmer named John Washington Butler, who had decided upon reading works by Darwin and others that the teaching of evolution was “dangerous”. Scopes – a man to whom I would gladly tip my hat – was not a renowned teacher of evolution, but subsequently purposefully incriminated himself so that a test case could be brought to challenge the law. Scopes was convicted, although the judgement was subsequently overturned, and the story inspired a play and then a film, both entitled Inherit the Wind. Looking back, nearly 90 years on, I still shake my head with incredulity that such a case should ever have to be brought before a judge.

Olivier Cousin

This week, in the Tribunal d’Angers, the trial of Olivier Cousin (pictured above) will begin. The labeling law he is alleged to have broken is perhaps not so fundamentally obscene as a law against teaching the evolution of man, but that the case has been brought is probably no less ridiculous, the potential penalty no less real. The ‘crime’, if you don’t already know it, is the appearance of “AOC” on the cartons in which he packs his bottles; purportedly this stands for Anjou Olivier Cousin but the INAO obviously see instead the initials of their beloved appellation d’origine contrôlée. I suspect this, for the INAO, was the straw that broke the camel’s back, the members of the organisation having already spent too much time wringing their hands over Cousin’s other cheekily labelled Anjou Pur Breton, which not only illegally gives an origin for the wine (Anjou) but a grape variety too (as Breton is a synonym for Cabernet Franc, although only vine scientists and Loire geeks are likely to know this).

Such ‘crimes’ seem like rather mischievous acts designed to poke fun at the INAO, and for that perhaps Olivier is about indeed to inherit the wind. But this should surely not be so. The INAO’s response is immediately heavy-handed, an over-reaction to the actions of a lone vigneron. The potential penalty for Olivier is a two-year jail term, or a €40,000 fine; both are grossly excessive in view of the rather minor and technical nature of the misdemeanour. By all means make a reprimand, but bear in mind what happened to Scopes, the teacher in the famous trial cited above; a $100 dollar fine was the result of his contravening the laws of Tennessee.

I trust and hope that common sense will prevail in the case, and we see a similar token penalty for Cousin, although I confess I am not 100% confident that this will be the outcome. The judgement begins at 2pm this Wednesday, October 2nd. Those in the area wishing to show support for Oliver can, if they wish, turn up to a picnic hosted by him in the Place du Maréchal-Leclerc, in front of the Palais de Justice d’Angers. Olivier will be there from midday, with his horses and a barrel of red wine, and the judgement will commence at 2pm. For more information, see the post on Jim Budd’s blog.

Minerality. A Reductive Phenomenon?

Looking back over my previous posts on minerality, it seems as though this wine-tasting phenomenon isn’t related to the uptake of minerals (chemical or geological) from the soil, as described here and here. Nor, it seems, is it likely that it is due to petrichor, as described here. It seems increasingly likely, re-reading these posts, that what we call ‘minerality’ no more reflects the presence of minerals in the wine, than describing a wine as ‘floral’ implies there are flowers in it, or describing it as ‘rich’ implies it has somehow accrued some wealth.

‘Minerality’ seems to be a somewhat metaphorical term; what we sense in the wine is reminscent of minerals, but it is not really mineral. If we can accept this then we can call this hopeless search for minerals to a halt, and look for other more original explanations for what we call ‘minerality’ in wine. And on doing this up pops a rather strong candidate: reduction. To get to grips with this possible explanation, though, I think we first need to reconsider what we mean by reduction. As with minerality, ‘reduction’ is not what it at first seems to be.

When it comes to winemaking and oxygen, there are two extreme schools of thought. First, at the oxidative end, the wine is allowed increased contact with oxygen during the winemaking process; this might involve fermentation in an open environment, using more porous materials (i.e. wood), racking more frequently to allow contact with the air, and not adding an antioxidant such as sulphur dioxide. At the other end of the spectrum is reductive winemaking, avoiding contact between the must and the air, working in closed vessels, using carbon dioxide or other gases to prevent such contact, not racking and so on. [NB. As an aside, the processes of oxidation and reduction are more correctly described as transfer of electrons; oxidation is the loss of an electron often to oxygen (but also other molecules, often oxygen-derived, can take the electron) and reduction is the gain of an electron. In addition, the actions of sulphur dioxide are not accurately described when we refer to it simply as an ‘anti-oxidant’. But I don’t want to get sidetracked; for the moment let’s just stick with the man-in-the-street definitions of oxidation, reduction and sulphur dioxide.]

Gravel in Bordeaux

During fermentation, yeasts produce many substances other than alcohol and carbon dioxide. In particular, when fermentations are carried out under nutrient-poor conditions, yeasts become stressed. Yeasts require nutrients – such as nitrogen – to thrive and multiply, and carry out the fermentation, and this nitrogen is usually obtained from ammonia or common nitrogen-containing amino acids (the building blocks from which proteins are made). In the absence of these yeasts look around for more esoteric nitrogen sources, including less common amino acids such as cysteine, which contains nitrogen but also sulphur. As a consequence, the yeast now starts pumping out sulphur-containing waste products, starting with hydrogen sulphide. This gives the wine a rotten egg smell, and it is fortunate that hydrogen sulphide doesn’t hang around for long. Other sulphur-containing waste products, including mercaptans (also called thiols) and other more complex sulphides, do hang around though. And the array of different aromas these complex molecules produce can be very broad; there’s everything from the less pleasant scents of cabbage, garlic and rubber, through to more (or less!) appealing aromas of passion fruit and cat’s urine (mercaptans/thiols are important determinants of the characteristic aromas of Sauvignon Blanc), and then there are also the very suggestive aromas of flint, struck match, smoke and gunflint. This latter group look like very good candidates for ‘minerality’, don’t they?

So what we call ‘reduction’ is really the presence of mercaptans and other aromas. Once present their existence can be assured by nursing the wine using a ‘reductive’ philosophy like that described above, but they originate from stressed nitrogen-poor fermentations. So from this comes a theory, and several questions.

1. Could it be that the most nutrient/nitrogen-poor fermentations originate from the most nutrient/nitrogen-poor soils? If the vines have struggled to find what they need from the soil, and produce nitrogen-poor fruit, is it not logical that the must will be nitrogen-poor?

2. If so, very stony, nutrient-poor sites might produce the wines most prone to mercaptan and complex sulphide production. Is it not possible that we could interpret some of these substances as minerality, and then in a typical wine-writing leap of faith ascribe this sensation to the stony vineyard soils? Could minerality be mercaptan-related and dependent upon a paucity of vineyard nutrients not the stones themselves?

3. If this is the case, how ‘minerally’ a wine is could depend on work in the vineyard, and how easy or difficult a life the vines have. This seems to fit with the view of some – including Olivier Humbrecht of Zind Humbrecht – that ‘minerality’ doesn’t come without careful viticulture.

4. Likewise, it seems that work in the cellars could enhance or inhibit the generation of ‘minerally’ characteristics, and there is some evidence that this is also true, for example the new wave of more minerally white wines coming out of Australia (I’m on shaky ground talking about Australian wines, but I hope you get the point).

5. Personally, this would explain why I find the characteristics of ‘minerality’ in some wines – especially the flinty-smoky-gunflinty character of Pouilly-Fumé – to be remarkably similar to ‘reduction’ (in other words mercaptans and other sulphides) that I find in other wines.

There are problems with this theory, admittedly, not least the fact that although there are correlations between minerality and reductive winemaking, and the lack of minerality and oxidative winemaking, it isn’t a pure or strong correlation. At the extreme end it seems clear (i.e. I don’t recall finding a minerally but oxidised wine) but in the middle ground wines can be made in a manner more oxidative (oak fermentation vats and racking for example) and still be minerally, whereas more reductive winemaking can still produce wines stubbornly free of minerally character. Of course, it might well depend on the soils (as indicated above) or other factors (such as variety, or climate) and maybe the reductive character is merely part of the story. Nevertheless, I feel it is probably a large part of the story. I would be fascinated to hear comments on this, especially from readers with more knowledge of winemaking than I have.

Minerality is . . . . Petrichor?

In the most recent instalment of this mini-series examining minerality I took a look at what we actually mean when we (you and me) use the term minerality. I’m not sure if I drew that post to a close with a definitive statement of how I use the term minerality, so here are the salient points with regard to my use of the word.

1. ‘Minerality’ best describes a ‘taste sensation’ that is perhaps best likened to sucking pebbles, or licking a stone. It may relate to the ‘structure’ of the wine as much as flavour.

2. However, because it seems ‘minerality’ is not really due to the presence of geological or chemical minerals in the wine, the term does not need to be bound by the physical properties of such minerals. Minerality may also therefore be used to describe a sensed aroma or flavour, in other words it may be that the wine smells or tastes like a stone, rock or other mineral.

One point I did stress, however, is that minerals themselves cannot be smelt, or tasted, because the molecules are not volatile and not water soluble. But this is at odds with my experiences of minerals; pebbles freshly plucked from a stream do smell of something, as do other rocks. And it is smells and tastes in the wine resembling these aromas that cause us to describe a wine as ‘minerally’. But if minerals can’t be smelt, what are the aromas we sense on pebbles, stones and rocks? It has to be something else. What is it on, or in, the rocks that smells?

This is a difficult question to answer, although there are clues in a parallel question on the smell of soil. Anybody who has had the occasion to pick up a garden fork and turn over a little soil knows that soil has a particular damp, earthy (sorry, I know that is a tautology) smell. Soil is a complex substance though, rich in minerals, organic matter, bacteria, yeasts, fungi and more, and the characteristic smell of soil is down to just one component called geosmin, a substance synthesised by bacteria in the soil. It also contributes to the earthy smell of beetroots, and it crops up in wine when rot-tainted fruit has been included in the fermentation.

Thus the smell that is ascribed to soil is in fact down to one specific volatile compound associated with soil. Likewise, it has been postulated that the small of minerals – stones, rocks, etc. – might also be down to associated volatile organic compounds present on the surface of the material. A fine example of this was the first description of an argillaceous (meaning from clay) odour by Bear and Thomas, two mineral geologists who published their findings in Nature in 1964. Bear and Thomas identified that this odour could be yielded by many different minerals, not just clay, provided they were treated in the right manner, namely left to bake dry in warm heat, and then exposed to water. They were obviously classicists as they christened the odour petrichor, a synthesis of petros, Greek for stone, and ichor, the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology.

Unlike geosmin, petrichor is not a specific chemical compound, but an odour that occurs when the rocks dried in warm weather for several months are exposed to rain; when these rocks are subjected to steam distillation a golden-yellow oil is obtained. Although in their initial studies Bear and Thomas did not suggest a biological origin for the substance, further work suggested it was indeed produced by plants, and was a germination retardant released during warm dry weather. The advent of rains washes the retardant away (as well as aerosolising it so we can smell it) thus encouraging germination. Petrichor, then, is the oil responsible for that “just rained” smell that lingers in the air when rains arrive after a dry spell. It may also be a mechanism for how animals sense a coming storm, if petrichor is blown towards them from an advancing weather front.

Even so, the idea that volatile oils are associated with rocks, and have an appealing smell, has naturally led some to postulate that these oils are responsible for the wine characteristic(s) we call ‘minerality’. I see some problems with this though:

1. Petrichor is an aroma which is irrespective of source, in other words the same smell comes whether the geological source material is clay, slate, or otherwise. Does this fit with our impression that different minerals (slate, flint, etc.) can impart different characteristics to the wine?

2. If petrichor is released by plants stressed by warm growing seasons, to discourage germination by seeds until more beneficial rains arrive, does this fit in with our impression of when ‘minerality’ is sensed? If so, should we not see high levels in warmer vintages, like 2003 Bordeaux, the most un-minerally vintage ever? And levels would be highest in warm zones, such as the Languedoc, Italy, certain Australian regions and so on. Does this fit with the experience that it is cool-climate acidic wines that tend to show most minerality?

3. Petrichor is said to have a delightful, sweet, fresh, (“just-rained”) smell. Is this what we experience when we talk of minerality?

None of the answers to these questions see to suggest petrichor is the answer to minerality. Attractive as the idea might be, not least because of that funky name, petrichor just doesn’t tick enough boxes for me. I think I need to continue my search for likely causes of minerality.

1. Bear IJ, Thomas RG. Nature of Argillaceous Odour. Nature, 201, 993 (1964)
2. Bear IJ, Thomas RG. Petrichor and Plant Growth. Nature 207, 1415 (1965)

A Few from the 1980s

After my recent review of the wines of the ever-popular Barsac estate Château Climens, featuring vintages back to 1981 and 1979, I was reminded that one of the aims of buying and cellaring wine was that, eventually, you’re supposed to retrieve the bottles from those dark and dingy corners of the cellar where they slumber, and drink them. With that in mind I pulled a few more bottles from the 1980s (I’m a bit short on representation from the 1970s, to be honest) in the past few weeks.

Two red wines first, beginning with an old favourite from my early days of wine exploration when I think I probably knew a lot more about the Rhône Valley than I do now. I’ve enjoyed a few bottles of this vintage of Vieux Télégraphe over the years, and happily I have one or two bottles still remaining. This one showed very well, on a par with the very appealing 1989 Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial from Marqués de Murrieta. Having said that, I think I would choose the latter over the former on most occasions; there’s just something very special about older Rioja. As for the 1989 Chasse-Spleen, I approached this with caution, as my last bottle had been rather off. This one, however, was just singing.

Three sweet wines follow, again from the 1988 and 1989 vintages. The 1989 Coutet has to be my favourite of the three, although I was very impressed by the 1989 Coteaux du Layon Les Coteaux from Domaine de la Roulerie. The wine over-performed for the appellation I think, even if the style was quite tertiary and unusual. I asked modern-day proprietor Philippe Germain about Les Coteaux and he didn’t have a clue which part of the vineyard it came from. The property was in the hands of the previous owner in 1989, and it doesn’t seem that very good records were kept. The 1988 Quarts de Chaume from Château Bellerive was also showing well, although perhaps not at the level I have experienced with other bottles. Perhaps this vintage is just tiring a little now. Perhaps, being honest, I have changed my expectation of what Quarts de Chaume can and should be. I have a few left; they should perhaps be drunk up, but I think I will keep them for some time yet, as an academic investigation into the plateau and decline of aged Quarts de Chaume if nothing else.

The final wine, from Warre, is still going strong even at over 30 years. It is a long way from the most highly regarded of vintages, but these bottles prove a consistent source of pleasure.

Tasting Notes

Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe Châteauneuf du Pape 1988: For the appellation this has a surprisingly pale hue, showing moderate depth at its core, but fading out to an orange-tawny rim. The nose is evolved and expressive, and more interesting than I recall from previous tastings, with rich black truffle aromas, and sweet leather notes on top. There are faint tinges of game as well, but it is somewhat brighter than this description suggests, as there is also bay leaf and juniper berry to be found here. This is fleshy on the palate, so there is no suggestion that this might be drying out, and there is still quite some grip and spice to it; there is quite some energy here in fact. Long and savoury. Showing a slightly more convincing character than my poor memory tells me it has done before, although looking back at previous notes I said very similar things. A good wine indeed, and clearly very long lived. 17.5/20 (September 2013)

Marqués de Murrieta Rioja Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial 1989: My last bottle of this, unless I am mistaken. Still plenty of colour in the decanter and glass, and as we would expect after prolonged wood-aging very little sediment too. The nose is really quite bright and feels a little lean at first, and it takes a couple of hours to really open up. Nice charcoal-tinged and cranberry-cherry fruit character on the nose, with the sweetness of fresh leather, scented with notes of sage, rosemary and black olive. Dark and slightly introverted, and yet defined and bright, like a slightly sour black cherry, to be more precise. Certainly an interesting nose here, captivating now, but with potential still. Some of these elements come through on the palate, with piles of fresh acids, gentle and rather reserved substance and a firm, bright, acid-bound character. A middle-weight wine, still with a savoury extract and substance, and plenty of fresh structure though. Still very good indeed. And very long too. 18/20 (September 2013)

Château Chasse-Spleen (Moulis) 1989: The last bottle I had of this, probably about three years ago now (where does the time go?) was obviously not showing well; this wine is absolutely singing on this occasion. The colour in the decanter and glass is confidently dark, with a nicely pigmented although certainly maturing rim. But it is in the nose that the wine truly reassures, with perfumed black fruits laced with hints of violets, and as it evolves in the glass also black tea leaves, bloody iron filings and even a hint of game. The palate shows a lovely harmony, and gentle sweetness, some really appealing grip and substance, and in the finish tangible extract and fresh structure. There’s a little length to it. Hugely convincing despite the wine’s age, with complex tertiary nuances of citrus alongside the more classically evolved character. On the whole, this is quite lovely. 17.5/20 (September 2013)

Château de la Roulerie Coteaux du Layon Les Coteaux 1989: This wine has a gentle, burnished gold. The nose is intriguing, opening out slowly over the course of an hour or so, showing scents of coffee and orange cake, with crunchy fruit. Overall it is fairly intense, with tertiary nuances of baked ham and cigar smoke. Despite this overly evolved character on the nose there is no suggestion that this wine is at the end of its life on the palate. There is still a glorious substance to it, a gently fleshy character with subtle hints of Demerara sugar, coffee, roasted plantain, baked corn and even a touch of sage. This is certainly complex and multi-faceted, although to be fair as the wine is given more time it does seem to tighten down into a lightly chewy, tangerine and peach sweetness, with a gently mellifluous texture. Overall, a lovely wine. 17/20 (September 2013)

Château Bellerive Quarts de Chaume 1988: A moderately rich orange-gold hue. The fruit on the nose is rich although certainly tempered by an organic and savoury edge to it. There is a seam of straw, desiccated fruit, dried apricot and lightly baked oranges. Does this latter element suggest a little oxidation on this particular bottle? The palate has a beautifully polished character, still showing a rich and deep sweetness despite the wine’s age, Very harmonious, with gentle acidity. Certainly no oxidation here, the fruit rich and concentrated, with a firm phenolic substance to the wine giving it a really appealing pithy grip towards the end, finishing up with some spice and a really fine length. Still showing the straw and sweetness of previous bottles, but not the caramel tinges I have noted. Overall, still delicious, but perhaps not at the level I have scored some bottles previously. 17/20 (September 2013)

Château Coutet (Sauternes) 1989: In the glass this has a rich, really quite fabulous orange-golden hue. The aromatics are no less remarkable than its rather radiant appearance, the fruit character redolent of bitter oranges, but this is more than matched by the scents of almonds, hazelnuts and praline also in evidence. It feels very lightly high-toned as well though, a sensation swirled with touches of quince and more of that bitter orange. The palate shows all of these flavours, with roasted botrytis character, carried along by a fabulously sweet, polished texture. There is also a layer of caramel underpinning it all, a great texture and obvious residual sugar. This is still going strong; no rush here. 18/20 (September 2013)

Warre’s Vintage Port 1980: A very fine, pure hue here, still with plenty of pigment and life to it. A very fine, savoury but pure and rather fragrant fruit on the nose, with some slightly sooty notes under the violets, but it is the fragrancy that dominates. This sense of purity comes through on the palate, which is very harmonious at the start and it maintains this character through the middle, and although it has grip and spirit to show here it remains appealing, composed and fresh. A wine of substance and light structure, more perhaps the texture and approachable sweetness is more prominent. There are figs, a fine macerated fruit character, and a firm, spicy backbone. The vintage is not regarded as a great one, but this is still a very fine and approachable wine. 17.5/20 (September 2013)

Harvest Reports: Useful or Useless?

There’s some interesting chat on Twitter today about reporting on a vintage before, during or after harvest time, and whether such early reports have any validity. Some say it’s too soon to make any meaningful comment on the vintage, and that journalists lacking in viticultural qualifications and winemaking experience are not in a position to comment anyway. Others, you will perhaps not be surprised to learn, feel different.

Any tasting report has to have some context; there are issues with primeurs samples, just-bottled wines and even older samples that have to be taken into consideration. The further in advance the report is of the moment when we will eventually want to drink the wine, the more caveats there should be. Harvest reports are really an extreme version of this; they have validity, and provide information, but the caveats are huge, and any ideas we might develop on the wine’s future would have to be very broad. Nobody, for instance, would start scoring at the point of the grapes having just been pressed (I can hear it now, “I give this fantastic Merlot juice a hundred points”).

Although the ideas formed may be broad, they are at least evidence-based. Here is a list of some useful information that can be gleaned from a harvest-time visit.

1. The growing season. A report on the weather during the season and through harvest can give a strong indication as to whether or not there is any hope for good quality.

2. Technical analyses of ripeness can be made, even out among the vines. Knowledge of sugar concentrations and potential alcohol can be informative; my Pithon-Paillé report coming tomorrow provides a good example.

3. Yields. Tying in with the weather report, information can be gained on the yields, and whether this reflects the growing season, or the wishes of the vigneron.

4. The condition of the grapes; are they clean and healthy, or are they peppered with rot? And if so, what’s the discard? What are the mechanisms for examining the grapes and excluding rot?

5. Otherwise, what is the fruit like; small hard berries with thick skins, or larger berries, with a higher juice-to-solids ratio?

Sorting at Sociando-Mallet, October 2012

6. Has the decision to pick been made on the basis of the fruit having reached optimal technical and physiological ripeness, or has it been rushed on by the threat of rain or some other problem?

7. Are the harvest dates relevant? Is it an early harvest, or a very late one? Either can have some influence on the style and quality of the eventual wines.

8. What’s the juice like, is it tasting fresh, rich and clean? Is it a bit green (like some I tasted in Bordeaux in the 2012 vintage)?

9. Visitors also see for themselves what’s going on in terms of selection in the vineyard, method of picking (machine or hand), sorting by hand, table de triage, machine-sorting (such as a Tri-Baie machine) or digital-optical sorting.

10. Finally, it’s also a good chance to connect with the vignerons. They may be busy, but it is one time of the year that you are guaranteed that they will be there, and not on holiday, or off showing their wines at one of the many Salons.

In short, no harvest report is a cast-iron guarantee of the quality of the wines that will result. It’s a first glance at the potential for the vintage. Reports should in my opinion be delivered in that context, expressing hope or concern for the quality of the wine, but no more than that. Harvest reports that declare “this is the vintage of the millennium” or indeed “this vintage is a wash out” are unwise and ultimately probably misleading.

Minerality Is . . . . Confusing

So far in this personal exploration of minerality (by personal, I mean I’m trying to understand this wine-tasting phenomenon as much as you are) I have discovered that there are no easy answers to the issue of minerality in wine. It doesn’t reflect the magical absorption of rocky minerals (feldspar, quartz and the like) from the soils. Nor does it reflect the absorption of chemical minerals (ions of calcium, manganese and so on) from those same soils. Whatever the answer to the minerality question, it is clearly going to need some protracted thought and head-scratching. With that in mind, perhaps we had better decide exactly what we are talking about when we refer to ‘minerality’ within a wine.

Unfortunately, not even this is without controversy.

First, let’s turn to the palate. Is minerality a flavour – the essence of wet stone, rain-splattered slate, hot schist and so on drifting across the palate – or is it more of a “taste sensation”, an extra structural component of the wine to be listed alongside tannin, acidity and residual sugar? The truth is, the term seems to be used in both ways.

First, I have seen the term ‘minerality’ used where the author is clearly communicating a well-known flavour of the wine of the wine in question. Long before I first read the word minerality within in a tasting note, I was aware that Mosel Riesling often had a slatey flavour to it. Likewise, Chablis was also recognised to have stony edge, said by many to reflect the classic Kimmeridgian limestone of the premier and grand cru vineyards.

Second, and this is perhaps a more precise meaning, when the term crops up in a tasting note the author is I think often referring to what I call a “taste sensation”; not a flavour as such, but a structural element of the palate. It is difficult to describe, but the best analogy (and I accept that this stretching the definition of an analogy a little) is that it is like the dry, tingling-puckering sensation that you might get from sucking on a pebble. It is not so much the flavour of the pebble (this is a flawed statement by the way – I’ll come back to why this is so in a minute) but more the effect it has on the ‘shape’ or ‘feel’ of the wine.

This “taste sensation” leads to an almost inevitable confusion between minerality and acidity, one that is confounded by the fact that minerality tends to be a feature of cool climate, high-acid white wines – think Chablis, Sancerre and Muscadet, for example. But whatever the cause of this ‘minerally’ sensation, I think we can be clear that it is not the same as acidity. The two feel very different on the palate, and our persistent inability to identify an explanation for this minerally sensation should not lead us to draw overly simplistic conclusions regarding a potential role for acidity. Indeed, some wines may be acidic but not minerally. And probably (although I’m struggling to think of one off the top of my head) vice versa.

Is minerality merely flavour or “taste sensation” though? I would contend it is not, as in many minerally wines I sense this minerality in the aromatic profile. This is a statement that is likely to incite some debate, because I have noted some wine professionals state with certainty that minerality cannot be smelt. This to me seems to be patently incorrect, however, for three reasons:

(a) a major rationale for the statement is that minerals such as feldspar are not volatile, and therefore can not be smelt. But we have already agreed (I hope!) that what we call “minerality” is not the presence of actual “minerals” in the wine. In the same vein, old Rioja does not really contain strips of leather and roasted game, and maturing left bank Bordeaux does not really contain cigar boxes, pencil shavings and the inside of a dusty old cabinet. I realise these analogies are a little flippant, because minerality as a structural element is perhaps more complex than these ‘mere’ aromas and flavours, but you get the point I hope. Minerality isn’t minerals, so let’s stop fencing in ‘minerally’ characteristics according to the physical properties of minerals.

(b) there seems to me to be a significant cross-over between minerality and what we call reduction. The issue of reduction in wine is another can of worms, as like minerality what we call ‘reduction’ probably isn’t true full-on reduction but something else, namely the presence of volatile mercaptans and complex sulphide molecules. This is something I will explore in more detail in the future, so for the moment suffice to say that “reduction” is very aromatic, as are “minerally” aromas in wine, and in some wines – especially Pouilly-Fumé I have found – I can experience some difficulty teasing them apart. That wouldn’t be the case if ‘minerality’ weren’t aromatic.

(c) in my experience, time and time again I come across wines which display aromatic minerally elements. The classic cool-climate white wines that display minerality I have already mentioned, but it can be found in red wines too. A recent memorable example was when tasting with Jonathon Maltus at Château Teyssier earlier this year; he likes to compare and contrast Le Carré (clay over ‘ordinary’ limestone) with Les Astéries (clay over calcaire à asteries, the classic hard, fossil-encrusted limestone of St Emilion). Just nosing the wines, it was as clear as day that the latter had a much more minerally aromatic profile than the former, and it wasn’t necessary to taste them to tell which was which. Some aromatic distinction – which I found worthy of description as ‘minerally’ – allowed me to distinguish between the two wines.

Before I finish I just want to return to the statement I made – regarding the ‘flavour’ of a pebble – which I wrote was flawed. To understand the problem with describing the flavour of a pebble we must return to the my first minerality post when I laid out some minerally chemical formulae for a small selection of minerals including feldspar, muscovite and biotite. These are large, inorganic molecules that are insoluble in water and, as discussed in (a) above, are non-volatile. As such, these substance cannot be ‘tasted’. That doesn’t upset our notion of what might cause minerality, because we have already discounted any thought that these giant mineral molecules are somehow absorbed by the roots and deposited in the grapes ready for the fermentation vat. But it does beg the question – pebbles smell and taste of something, so if it isn’t ‘pebble’ just what is it? Is it the cause of minerality? Or is ‘reduction’ more important? Or is ‘minerality’ something else altogether, some aspect of winemaking not yet covered? These are questions I will have to come back to on another day.

Bordeaux Harvests: Quality vs. Quantity

I really should be returning to my posts on minerality today, but first up something of a plea for distinguishing between quantity and quality. They are different, and it is misleading to use qualitative terms to describe quantitative problems.

A recent release from the Le Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux (CIVB) on the forthcoming harvest for 2013, as distributed by the Associated Free Press (AFP), a not-for-profit news organisation based in New York, is the story I have in mind when I write this. The AFP release has been re-run on a number of websites, such as this Wine Searcher article.

The headline declares that the 2013 Bordeaux harvest will be the “Worst Harvest Since 1991“, which is an impressive piece of future-gazing as nobody yet knows the quality of the 2013 harvest. The fruit has yet to ripen, it’s only early September, picking probably won’t begin until October at the earliest, and if the weather holds I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Bordelais picking into late-October. So, the Bordeaux 2013 harvest does not exist, and quality cannot therefore be assessed. It’s not like to be very high, with a late harvest projected, but late harvests (such as was seen in 2000) don’t always immediately equate with disaster.

Read the article though and a new meaning emerges; as it turns out Bernard Farges, appointed president of the CIVB in July this year, actually said “In terms of volume, the 2013 harvest is going to be the worst since 1991“. This is of course a very different matter. There is no doubt quantities will be reduced this year; this much can be predicted, with some degree of accuracy, from looking at the crop being carried by the vines. It’s a matter of extrapolation of course, but at least the statement is based on something. Nasty weather during flowering caused a lot of coulure, like that pictured above (in 2012 rather than 2013 to be honest) in a Margaux vineyard. The bunch has both coulure (the stems where the berries are missing), as well as millerandage (the hen-and-chicken appearance of the fruit).

So let’s please get it straight. The Bordeaux 2013 harvest will be small volume, the smallest since 1991. This will be bad for the bank balances in Bordeaux perhaps, because fewer grapes means less wine to sell, but as for quality, only time will tell. It could be dreadful. It could be very good indeed. I will go out to Bordeaux in late October to try and get a handle on it for myself, first hand.