Minerality : the enigmatic symbol of Chablis
The word “Chablis” has become inexorably linked the idea of “minerality,” a concept that evokes images of the chalky, mineral-rich clays that lay underfoot the region’s most coveted vineyards. Purity, expressiveness and transparency embody a glass of Chablis.
This is a wine that reflects its environment like nowhere else on earth. Chardonnay does not merely tell the story of its origins, Chardonnay becomes Chablis. Yet when we refer to “minerality” in wine, its origins are mysterious. We know that minerality is not a simple transference from place to taste, a much more complex and holistic transformation takes place. There is no direct correlation from rock to glass, yet soils are the foundation of all great wine regions. Flavours such as granite, slate, limestone or flint in wine are not a product of the uptake by vines of their weathered, elemental selves. Instead, we must look at these soils as the birthplace of the process that transforms fruit into an image of its substratum.
Terroir and Winemaking
Even though Chardonnay is made all over the world, when it is grown in Chablis, that spark of minerality is uniquely potent. In Chablis, the remarkably chalky soils and the scent of wet organic matter seem very much in line with what can be sensed in the glass. Soils are distinctive in their varying abilities to retain humidity, in allowing roots to penetrate in their depths and in their propensity for nutrient extraction. The nutrient poor soils of Chablis are one of many properties that play an indirect role in creating the characteristic impression of minerality.
In Chablis, two distinctive soil types influence the wine’s foundational elements: those of Kimmeridgian and Portlandian origin. The older soils are Kimmeridgian and they contain the highest degree of mineral-rich clay along with marine fossils resulting in high chalky content. The “minerality” of Chablis, Chablis Premier Cru and Chablis Grand Cru has traditionally been linked to Kimmeridgian soils. Most of Chablis’ growers would agree that the “mineral” component of their resulting wine is related to the Kimmeridgian soils and its interaction with the Chardonnay grown. The imprint of this terroir is notably apparent in their Chardonnay of distinctive purity. It is commonly understood in Chablis that the type of minerality apparent is as variegated as the multitude of nuanced “Climats”.
It is Chablis’ naturally cool climate that allows the expression of minerality. The purity of the resulting wine is uncompromised by overly mature grape flavours. In order to show this particularity of terroir, new wood is sparingly used. Winemakers in Chablis have long expressed that this “minerality” begins to show itself during vinification and subsequent maturity dependent on the methods of elaboration used. Research has shown that malolactic fermentation plays an important role in that expression of minerality. In particular, fine lees during maturation, regardless of in barrel or vat, are responsible for the progressive “mineralization” of the wine. There is thus an important focus on following that genesis of minerality through the élevage.
Understanding this enigma has researchers fascinated and although mapping the full picture of minerality has yet to be accomplished and may never be, studies continue to give us new leads. Research on many aromatic compounds such as benzenemethanethiol, contributing an expression of flint and gunsmoke when present in white wines, may be yet another piece of the puzzle. Glutamic acid present in Chardonnay may also play a role in our sensory perception of minerality in Chablis. Successive studies have shown that this perception of “minerality” is more dominant in wines with high levels of acidity such as those that come from this northern Burgundian climate. Due to this cooler climate foundation, a lack both ripe fruity components and terpenes tends to enhance an impression of minerality. Reductive winemaking is also likely to play a role in mineral flavours due to the formation of volatile sulphur compounds. Regardless of how that minerality takes hold or what mysteries we have yet to solve, there is no doubt that the wine of Chablis provokes a range of mineral taste sensations.
What then is this mysterious “mineral” taste that only recently appeared in the context of wine? Wine critics didn’t use the term “minerality” much before the 2000s but now tend to use the term with regularity when describing high acid, unoaked whites and most notably with the wines of Chablis. Go back a few decades, and the term does not appear in the significant cannons of wine tasting such as Emile Peynaud’s “The Taste of Wine” (1983), or the Oxford Companion to Wine (until 2015), or even in Ann Noble’s Aroma Wheel of 1984. André Jullien’s 1836 guide “Manuel du Sommelier” makes mention of “flint” in the wines of Chablis”, something we would now think of as a mineral descriptor, but that might well be a reflection of the 19th century predilection for hitting silica-based stones together to light the spark of can non powder.
- Minerality can be described in many ways using culturally-derived terms from around the globe. As varied as they may be, people tend to use both textural and aromatic descriptors when explaining “minerality”. Personal perceptions also play a key role. Thresholds for individual detection of minerality vary and so do the adjectives used. In terms of Chablis, we can identify three categories of sensations, those derived from the earth, the sea and those that are smoky.
Intriguingly, the mouth-watering aspect of acidity seems to be at odds with descriptors of minerality that are mouth-drying sensations such as “salty” or “chalky”. Yet acidity seems to be the constant descriptor present when wines are described as “mineral”. From a textural perspective, acidity trills while salinity tickles and teases the tongue, resulting in a frenzy of nervy tension. In this sense, acidity and minerality intensify each other’s influence. This notable textural sensation dominates the wines of Chablis.