minerality

The written form of this word presents to the eyes an asymmetry, with ascenders and descenders clustered on the right side, though the dots on the i’s are more balanced. It starts with more rounded letters and ends with greater linearity and angularity.

In saying it, you start soft with the two nasals, and then roll through two liquids before tapping on the crisper stop at the end – a stop that may be a clean break, or may be a mere flick of the tongue-tip, depending on who is saying it and when and where. The words starts on the lips and then remains on the tongue tip thereafter, and all the vowels are in the front half of the mouth.

Its overtones are of a few familiar words such as miner and inner and reality, and some less common words such as chirality and minatory. Its sources are all Latin, and have gone through shortening and concatenation through the usual process of refinement: minera meant “mineral” and alis was an adjectiving suffix; together they made mineralis, whence mineral, now also once again a noun. To that is added ity from Latin itas, a nominalizing suffix to add to the adjectival stem, for the meaning “mineral quality” or “extent to which something is like a mineral”.

There: all the aspects, in order of perception. Just like a wine tasting. Which is where you will most typically see this word. For the most part, in the rest of the world, something is or is not a mineral, and one seldom needs to speak of its minerality. But when you taste wines – in particular riesling, pinot gris, and unoaked chardonnay, but also sometimes some others – you want to speak of the relative intensity of a taste that is reminiscent of minerals.

By the way, do you wonder just how the heck we know what minerals taste like? Generally people who are not in the habit of licking rocks still understand what minerality means. Why? Well, many of us have drunk “hard” water from mountain streams and so forth and know what the presence of all those dissolved minerals does to the flavour. But also, most if not all of us were children at one time, and kids stick rocks into their mouths all the time. Oh, and one more thing: we know it from the smell of petrichor.

Now, tell me: does minerality strike you as an odd word, an uncommon word, a word that you have any trouble understanding, perhaps not a word at all? I’ve never thought so, but I read the following in a column by Beppi Crosariol, a wine expert (with a very distinctive northern Italian name) who writes for the Globe and Mail:

Chalky flavour is part of a spectrum that aficionados typically call “minerality.” I put that in quotation marks because it’s not a word recognized by most dictionaries. (Wine experts love to make stuff up.)

Most dictionaries don’t recognize it? Really? Actually, he’s right. And the Oxford English Dictionary marks it as “rare”. But it gives two citations, neither of which from a wine writer, and the first of which from 1891, with a citation of minéralité from French in 1874.

Which doesn’t mean that it wasn’t made up independently by a wine writer at some time too. It’s an obvious word. It’s made from a well-known noun and a productive suffix (meaning it’s still used in new formations). Its meaning is, I would expect, pretty obvious; ity belongs to the same family as itude and ness, and if you just start taking nouns and adjectives and adding those endings to them, you will find you are producing words the sense of which is quite transparent even if you have never seen them before. You may, for instance, talk of the iPhonity or iPhonitude or iPhoneness of some Android knockoff. (All three of those words are already in use in many places – Google them and see.) Does it matter whether those are in the dictionary? Of course not. I used them and you understood them. That’s all it takes.

By the way, Crosariol points out another useful fact: “the mineral content in wine is well below the threshold of human taste and smell.” Yes indeedy. You’re not smelling actual minerals. You’re smelling things that smell like minerals.

And? That’s the point of tasting notes, after all: to tell you what something tastes like, not just what it tastes of. It would be boring just to say “this wine tastes of fermented grapes” every time. Wines made with merlot do not as a rule contain blackberries; wines made with gewürztraminer are not normally made with actual lychees. So what. They still taste like those things. When you see a green that is actually made with blue and yellow inks, you are still seeing green. The point is what you are experiencing; the question of where it comes from is a separate point – also a very interesting point, but separate.

And so the inner reality of minerality is not simply some lapidary statement of its denotation and etymology; it is enhanced by mining it for all the aesthetic interfaces available between it and you. You need not be a Merlin to find in its entrail tastes and connections that are purely adventitious and yet present for those who look – just open the tiny mailer of its form and spill the contents out. If you want it, it can be there.

One response to “minerality

  1. You put me in a mind of childhood summers spent outdoors with refreshment coming from the water hose. The first gush of water from the hose was a rush of the taste and smell of hot plastic, iron, calcium, sulfur and who knows what all heavy and aromatic molecules until the cool water finally made its way from the tap to the water fountain end of the hose. I remember laughing in science class when the teacher told us that water was a tasteless, odorless, colorless substance – not in my town! Especially not at the first of the month when the city flushed the water lines – vile smelling orange stuff with a taste that would set your teeth on edge. Yet it still took some of the heat out of a summer’s day running through the sprinkler, dive bombing the Slip n Slide and drinking water straight from the water hose. Delicious minerality.

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