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Descriptors such as flinty, chalky and stony have long been used as wine tasting terms.Handout

The 13th International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration is taking place at various locations in Niagara wine country this week. Thirty-eight Canadian wineries will be joined by 11 visiting producers from Chile, Germany, France, Italy and New Zealand for the four-day celebration of all things chardonnay, which starts tomorrow and runs through Sunday. Each participant will pour chardonnays they made at various tasting events, which will underscore how compelling differences between wines exist, even wines made from grapes grown in vineyards that are located within close proximity to each other.

You can bet that minerality will be one of the words used to define those differences. As tasters look to understand what is contributing the drive, finesse or focus to the wine that they are tasting, they will look to connect that character to the ground in which the vines are rooted. Depending on who you’re listening to, minerality could be used to describe a wine’s aroma, taste or texture — or all three attributes.

Unfortunately, the belief that minerals are somehow transmitted through the vine, all the way through vinification and come to be tasted in the wine glass is an overly romantic view of things, according to Alex Maltman, emeritus professor of Earth sciences at Aberystwyth University, in Wales, UK, and the author of Vineyards, Rocks and Soils: A Wine Lover’s Guide to Geology.

The belief that we are tasting the geology of the vineyard directly is a lovely idea, Maltman explained during talk at the 2015 edition of Niagara’s chardonnay celebration. “Journalists love it. It offers all sorts of good marketing opportunities, but I am afraid from a scientific point of view, it doesn’t really hold up. Vines don’t work like that.”

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The wine industry started to seriously embrace organic, biodynamic and sustainable farming practices in the late 1990s.Handout

Maltman was quick to add how “mineral” has many different meanings according to context, even within the world of wine. Large distinctions exist between geologic minerals (analytically present in rocks and soils) and nutrient minerals (those which are actually bioavailable to vines and other plants).

Nevertheless, descriptors such as flinty, chalky, and stony have long been used as wine tasting terms. They may be useful metaphors or poetic imagery to convey the aroma and flavours of a specific wine, but they are not signs of a literal translation of the flavour of rocks.

“Whatever minerality is, it is not a taste of the minerals in the vineyard rocks and soils,” Maltman concluded.

Talk of minerality in wine first surfaced in the late 1990s as the wine industry started to seriously embrace organic, biodynamic and sustainable farming practices. As interest in chardonnay and pinot noir grew, the quality standards shifted. It was no longer enough that a well-made chardonnay smelled and tasted like chardonnay (known as typicity in wine terminology). A top-quality example offered a sense of place, with site-specific flavours believed to come from the ground.

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There is a relationship between healthy vineyards and quality wines.steven_Elphick/Handout

This move from typicity to minerality showed winemakers were becoming increasingly focused on the vineyard rather than the winery. More attention was being paid to farming ripe healthy grapes to increase wine quality as opposed to investing in more specialized equipment to fix problems from underripe or inferior grapes. These were important advancements.

Scientific research continues to aid our comprehension of vines and wines and leads to an ongoing improvement in wine production standards. Events like Niagara’s Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration contribute to that as well as the assembled winemakers who will share their successes and challenges, which will give greater understanding and different approaches to winemakers to draw upon as they continue to hone their craft.

Science may yet crack the code connecting soil and the finished wine. In the meantime, it’s important to note that there is a relationship between healthy vineyards and quality wines even if it’s far from a simple equation. An appreciation of wine should start from the ground up.

For more information about the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration, visit www.coolchardonnay.org.

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