Mmm, Mmm Minerality: Santa Cruz Mountains Pinots Have It in Spades

Put some rocks in a glass of water and let the glass sit overnight. When you check it the next day, what do you smell? Or, stick your tongue on a slab of slate. What do you taste? Minerals perhaps? I love drinking wines that express minerality. But, just what is minerality?

Minerality is a word often used to describe high-acid wines such as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Chablis, and Sancerre. In the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, which is known for growing Pinot in the western part of the region, there is much talk about minerality in wine: what it is, how it is perceived by the senses, how it is described, and so on.

I have worked in this region for quite some time. However, just like the experts—chemists, winemakers, geologists, and even sophisticated wine drinkers—I too am challenged with describing minerality. Some call it aroma or taste; others call it mouthfeel. Perhaps it is all three. Nathan Kandler, associate winemaker at Thomas Fogarty, uses a great analogy to define minerality: “Faith and spirituality are how people think about minerality: You can’t really see it or define it but you know that it’s there.”

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(from left to right) Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard 2009 Branciforte Creek Vineyard Pinot and 2003 Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard Estate Pinot

I agree wholeheartedly with Kandler: I do know minerality when it’s in a wine. However, when working behind the tasting bar, I often find myself in the position of having to describe minerality to my customers. Thank god for adjectives: there’s flinty, chalky, stony, and gravelly to name some. Not quite as enticing as hearing the words “jammy,” “fruity,” or “floral”? There’s definitely fruit and floral characteristics in minerally wines; they may be more subtle, that’s all. Understanding minerality and learning to enjoy such wines requires a patient, non-judgmental palate—these wines are not jammy or high in alcohol.
 
Since I work in an appellation known not only for growing Pinot, but also producing it, I figured that it was time to further my knowledge. In an effort to wrap my head (not just my palate) around the subject of minerality, I attended a recent technical session a as part of Pinot Paradise, the annual celebration of Pinot Noirs from the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, at The Mountain Winery in Saratoga, California. Keynote speaker, Dr. James Kennedy, chair and director of the Department of Viticulture and Enology, University of California at Fresno, shed some much needed light on the subject. In paraphrasing Jacques Lardière, one of Burgundy’s greatest winemakers, Kennedy likens minerality to soil and to the impact the soil has on the wine. A more precise description is the quote from Lardière himself: “All of our wines carry minerality,” he told Decanter in 2008, adding that microorganisms in the soil cause minerals in the bedrock to dissolve in the water in the soil, which the vines then absorb. “This minerality applies to both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir because their fruit depends on the same bedrock.”
 
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(from left to right) Heart O’ The Mountain 2008 Estate Pinot, “Six Sixty Seven”; and Soquel Vineyards 2008 Partner’s Reserve Pinot, Lester Family Vineyard

“Bedrock,” says a lot. Think of it this way, suggests Kennedy: “The perception of geology in wine doesn’t come from the fruit or the oak; it comes from the vineyards where the grapes are grown. And, vines grown in rocky soils have a greater presence of minerality.”

In general, minerality has to do with grapes grown in cooler climates, low-nutrition soils, well-drained rocky soils, and areas impacted by water availability. Such grapes result in wines that show a percentage of less fruit and a certain amount of “green” character.

I’m no geologist, but it is fairly common knowledge that the Santa Cruz Mountains (which span both the western and eastern sides of the region) are rich in granite, limestone, and sandstone. These elements transfer to the fruit. According to Kennedy, once the vines absorb nutrients from the soil, these nutrients are turned into minerals.

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(from left to right) Vino Tabi 2009 Pinot, Lester Family Vineyard; and Muccigrosso Vineyards 2007 Pinot, Santa Cruz Mountains

A vineyard site has volatile aspects (compounds) that contribute to the makeup of a wine’s aroma. Flavors perceived in wine such as fruit, earth, floral, herbal, woodsy—and yes, mineral—are derived from aroma notes interpreted by the olfactory bulb. Kennedy says that many smells are related to improbable states of matter and thus the smell of metal and wet rocks can be used as an aroma standard for minerality.

Fruit development further helps define minerality: When berries are two to three months along, the clusters begin to absorb volatile compounds that are being released from the site’s ecosystem (ground). These compounds are then transferred to the wine. In other words, explains Kennedy, “Volatile chemistry is associated with a site, and the terrior determines the composition of the fruit at harvest and the minerality associated with the chemistry of that specific fruit.”

After Kennedy’s discussion came a sampling of Pinots produced by local winemakers who as part of a panel discussion talked about minerality and their approach to winemaking. Common threads among these wines—not to mention other Pinots produced in this region—include higher acid, moderate oak, less alcohol due to the grapes being harvested earlier, and, in some cases, the use of native yeasts. Because of this, you get higher-acid, subtle wines that reflect the terrior and express more minerality. And in my humble opinion, wine should be an expression of the terrior where the grapes are grown, not a manipulation of the viticulture practice or winemaking process.

To learn more about future Pinot Paradise events, contact the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association.

Wineries mentioned in this story: Thomas Fogarty Winery & Vineyards, Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, Heart O’ The Mountain, Soquel Vineyards, Vino Tabi Winery, Muccigrosso Vineyards

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