Is minerality the key to ageworthiness in wine?

Our scientific knowledge about what makes wine ageworthy is currently limited.

I know the rules: the things that should make wines capable of ageing. There’s low pH (high acidity), the presence of adequate free sulfur dioxide, and the presence of phenolic compounds.

Increasingly, though, I come across wines that break these rules, and yet age well.

I don’t have an explanation.

In particular, there are two classes of wine that occasionally surprise me with their resistance to oxidation. First, there are some white wines, which you might expect to fall over after a few years in bottle but which just keep on going. Second, some natural wines made without the addition of any sulfur dioxide.

Another observation: this is a generalization, but new world wines tend to age faster than you’d expect, and generally faster than old world equivalents, and this isn’t easily explainable by their chemical composition.

One explanation I have heard suggested is that minerality is the key to positive development with age.

Now I find this explanation very attractive, although it is hard to frame in scientific terms. We don’t have a scientific description for ‘mineral’ in wine.

Could there be some as yet unidentified component of wine that is helping confer ageworthiness on wine, apart from the usual suspects?

Or is it something to do with elevage, the way that a wine is raised in the cellar. In particular, the oxygen regime in the cellar could be key. The presence or absence of sulfur dioxide, the presence or absence of the lees, the way the yeasts grow – these could all be helping to shape the wine in such a way that positive development could take place after bottling.

What do you think?

19 comments to Is minerality the key to ageworthiness in wine?

  • Glutathione is a bit of a buzz word nowadays. The OIV is according to hearsay looking into legalising its addition to wine. It is naturally found in wine anyway but just in very low concentrations. It definitely helps with longevity in terms of protecting aromas and delaying typical ageing characters. There is some evidence of mannoproteins also protecting some aromas.

  • Hi! Interesting question here. Thanks for posting it! In Colli Orientali the wine makers showcased for us their very good aging wines–most impressively the whites. We tasted a 1983 Verduzzo from Ronchi di Cialla(but that grape has high tannin, so it might not be the best test case), but also a brilliant Chardonnay from the early 90’s made by Specogna, among more than a handful of other older whites. The wine makers there say that they are certain it is the quality of the ground that contributes to their wines’ ability to age–they believe it is the ground in general, but also the high calcium level that plays an important role. Also, the ground of champagne and burgundy in many places is known to have a high calcium level, and much of the white wine from that area ages well as well. I’ve written up an account of how the calcium of their marl would seem to play at least a significant role, along with other elements. That write up can be found here, if you’re interested: http://wp.me/p1XlmA-wc . If you want to hear more about some of the older whites we drank here is a consideration of those: http://wp.me/p1XlmA-tr . Thanks again, I enjoy keeping up with your blog.

  • Could it be that the new world has markedly less tolerence of any degree of reduction, and so wines are more likely to get a bit of extra oxygen prior to bottling to ensure that they are “clean” and approachable as soon as they hit the market?

    As I’ve gone from drinking mostly Spanish, to quite a lot of Italian wines, I increasingly feel that it’s acidity that is a prime driver in longevity, and some manifestations of that can come across as “mineral” (as can a hint of reduction in whites). I think we need a good definition of what “minerality” is, and what causes us to identify it in a wine before we can attribute it special powers. And going back to your post last week, I don’t think that better scientific knowledge of this phenomenon would kill the magic – it would probably lead to more interesting wines all round.

  • Tom

    I think that question is too complicated to answer! But it will certainly be a combination of numerous factors no doubt.

  • The Burgundians are undergoing a crisis of ageability for their whites yet the notion that all new World whites mature faster than those from the old world persists. Ditto reds.

    I don’t think the laws of chemistry change with the hemisphere.

    SO2 and pH are still key. O2 pickup at bottling (and at other times) is also crucial.

    Years ago I did a tasting in London of chardonnays from California. The chardonnays made from cooler climates, with plenty of SO2….aged well. Those made for current consumption etc….not so well.

    Will today’s clarets age as well as yesteryear’s?? Everyone is making wine for current drinking.

  • Since we are still struggling with even the most basic scientific definition of minerality, for now it seems a reach to ascribe to it some relationship to ageability. I think oxygen regime in the cellar is a promising avenue of inquiry, if as you say certain low/no SO2 wines are aging very well. It’s not an experience I have shared myself, but my sample size is very small in that regard. I have noticed that a lot of the “natural” wines I have tried in their youth seem reduced and/or anaerobic.

  • Pat

    “Minerality’ as yet undefined, seems to be expressed in wines made from grapes planted in appropriate soils, with conservative crop loads. Over cropping can spread the subtle character of minerality too far, beyond the limits of perception. Such wines will usually be balanced, having manageable pH and the ability for the elements of balance; acidity, alcohol and phenolic structure to age gracefully in harmony with each other.pH may be the most important individual “gas pedal” influencing aging, but balance of all elements is the over reaching goal in creating ageable wines. Growing the right grapes is the first step towards that end, and expression of minerality may just be a delightful indicator of achieving that goal.

  • Tim Carlisle

    I reckon that a lot of the new world / old world debate actually centers around the closure – or rather the seal – ageworthy wines in Europe often get a longer cork than a cork sealed new world wine would – but that isn’t it in total – there is also the parafin or whatever the bottler is using to lubricate the cork to ease it in – does that differ?

    Or does the sponginess of the cork differ – with the ‘best’ corks sent to France where shipping is lower and the cork is held in prestige so a higher price is obtainable. What about bottling temperature – does that make a difference to both the cork and the wine and how maturation in bottle occurs.

    I tasted a 1999 Vinho Verde (Ameal) recently – and you’re right – that is a wine that just shouldn’t age – according to the law of things – but then I also had a Julienas of unknown age (but the latest vintage it could have been was 1983) that was singing – these are wines that prove that the ‘rules’ are not the rules across the land.
    What do those two things have in common, well they were both cork sealed, both had relatively high acidity (but not searing) both would have been bottles in relatively cool times, yields on the vines was lowish.

    South African (new world) wines don’t seem to age that much faster – I had a 1983 Meerlust Cabinet that was still on the upward curve (IMHO) and that makes me wonder whether the level of ripeness in the grapes has some sort of impact?

    Apart from acid to sugar what other compounds are we losing with ripeness. After all – yes we know that Chardonnay can age – but Champagne is capable of extraordinary ageing and can be incredibly slow – and that too is made from unripe grapes. Perhaps its the type of acids in the grape as they change?

    I also wonder whether natural yeasts – which tend to be less efficient at sugar to alcohol, produce some other compounds what aid ageing – certainly the true wild ferments seem to have extra potential. What is produced there?

    stuff like how SO2 is used will play a part – a colleague visited Donhoff recently and came back with a different view on SO2. The ‘normal’ view is that if you want it to work you stick a great big dose in one go, Donhoff adds a little at a time, until he has enough- this he says integrates it into the wine more – and also allows him to not add more than he needs to. What I wonder from that is whether SO2 produced naturally is somehow interwoven into the very fabric of the wine giving it the capability to mature slowly over long periods – rather than our current understading of free sulphur – after all most of what we know is based on chemical analysis at different times rather than looking at what is happening physically at a molecular level.

    I think that says – dunno – but lots of questions need answering before we can give generalised questions.

  • Dr. Andy Waterhouse’s lab at UC-Davis (http://waterhouse.ucdavis.edu/) has been taking a good look at the role of metals in oxidation for a long time now. Very interesting results showing that iron and copper both play an important catalyzing role in wine oxidation reactions. Iron, at least, is abundant in stainless steel tanks. I don’t have any data, but I imagine that stainless steel tanks remain less common in Europe than in the US. Also, many white wines (including in the US) are fermented in wood. These two facts (if they are) might explain why the author finds European wines to age better and that some whites age surprisingly well.

    As for “minerality,” we are so far from a definition of what this might be that it is all but pointless to discuss.

  • Brian Fletcher

    In whites there is about a R=0.9 correlation between wine yellowing and total phenolics. In Australia ,low Baume rieslings, Semillon picked on the verge of green to avoid rot, or even juices with no sulphur = oxidised as juice. You can achieve the same thing in red-to-white carbon fined juice, there’s nothing left to oxidise.Probably sparkling wines as well, for the secondary reason that they are under positive pressure – I’ve never seen a bottle aged sparkling that wasn’t oxidised as well as flat.

  • Patrick Matthews

    Oxidative rather than reductive must handling ? — that’s certainly one frequent difference between old world vs new world white wines ..

  • As a winemaker, I can’t define our measure “minerality.”
    How do you?

  • So a 1999 Vinho Verde is holding up nicely whereas many much younger white Burgundies are falling apart?? One would expect the opposite. My guess is that the VV was bottled with a boatload of SO2. By definition the grapes were picked slightly underripe.

    When considering closures one should also consider the bore entry of the bottle. If you put a good cork into a ‘bad’ bottle it won’t seal right.
    Having seen so my crappy corks in European wines, I have always felt the best corks were coming here. Many people blamed premox on the corks.

  • I’m with Matt Reid on this one. The variation in trace amounts of Fe++ needs to be investigated further.

  • Ageworthiness is a very complex topic, and I think we are far away from understanding what it means, even what we want to achieve aging wine. In 2007 I have been in Moldavia, and had white wines that shattered my understanding of ageworthiness. These wine were 20 – 40 years old from Aligote, Feteasca alba, and other varieties, low in alcohol (9 – 11%), dry, not especially high concerning acidity and sulfur, and they were mildly oxidized. They were significantly matured, but transparent, light, still fresh, unusual, but excellent! The state domains Cricova, Hinceşti, and especially Mileşti Mici have large stocks of these old wines. They keep them in very large wooden casks, and they are bottled only before use.
    Concerning minerality you might find my article about terroir interesting, if you are able to read German: http://vinositas.com/terroir/

  • Kiley Evans

    Seems to me that several factors play a role in ageability. Certainly pH/acid is critical, as most old world wines with ageable pedigrees seem to have generous and balanced acidity. In fact, IMHO the most ageworthy old world wines, Sauternes and Port, are likely some of the most acidic. Reductive production methods are a contributing factor, or perhaps they should be viewed as non-oxidative methods. Matt’s right on, too, with Andy’s lab and their investigation of the role Iron and other metals play in catalyzing oxidative reactions in wine. Check out the latest AJEV for a great paper outlining some of those reactions and how SO2 is involved. Of course, the quality of the fruit is paramount, but what role does total extract play for reds and how close are we to defining, much less agreeing on, the chemical composition of minerality?

  • I’ve written extensively on this subject at http://www.winesandvines.com/template.cfm?section=columns_article&content=80430. No question in my mind that what I call minerality – that buzz in the finish so similar to acidity, but often present in wines of low TA – aids aging just as you describe.

    Lees contact does as well, but I believe that’s another story. We can look at lean, low tannin, low TA wines like Hermitage Blanc, Corton and Verdicchio and that age very well.

    I find this trait associated with either particular soils such as limestone, slate, schist or decomposed granite, or on more simple soils like sandy loams when organic principles have been applied to the development of a living soil with a healthy earthworm population and mycorrizhal fungi.

    When we speak of the New World, too often we mean the very dry, irrigated areas such as California and South Australia where such soils must be carefully nurtured and seldom are. Look to rainier areas East of the Rockies — New York, Virginia, Iowa, Alabama – and you’ll see plenty of minerality.

  • DM

    Very good comments on this topic.
    My humble opinion.
    I do often think there may be anything related between wines that apparently show mineral characters for some taster with wines that have less fruit character or none (specially whites). On my own research these wines are mostly low pH, high acidity and sufficient SO2. Is these a casualty or a fact?
    Could then be mineral character virtue of lacking fruit???
    Thanks for those who express their feedback in advance.

  • John Casey

    I still don’t know what people mean by the use of the term “minerality”.

    In the distant past it was used to describe the combined taste of the inorganic cations and their salts, i.e., the salts of potassium, magnesium, sodium and calcium which, at the same concentrations in aqueous solution, taste somewhat like mineral water. The concentration of these salts in wine is the major controlling factor in determining the pH of a wine.

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