What IS Minerality, Anyway?: An Evaluation of Consumer Understanding of Minerality Using Analysis of Language

As most of you reading this blog are already aware, the term “minerality” is a tricky little thing. It’s a term that is common in wine tasting notes these days, though its origins and causes remain uncertain and, at times, contentious. In terms of scientific evidence, consensus regarding the source or even existence of minerality is lacking, and there doesn’t seem to be much (if any) peer-reviewed science supporting a chemical or physical mechanism.

The term “minerality” itself is relatively new, with most of the references to the term

Photo courtesy Flickr user Jason Weaver

occurring only in the past 20 years or so. One study examining the evolution of the word “minerality” in French literature found associations between the word “minéralité” (minerality) and “vin” (wine) had increased significantly after 1985, which according to the researchers was the start of the terms’ popularity growth.

Despite the lack of consensus as to what minerality actually is, there are several trains of thought that recur in both consumer lexicon as well as the scientific literature.  For the most part, “minerality” is used to describe aromatic characteristics of a wine.  Common terms that appear in consumer and scientific literature include flint, chalk, wet stone, graphite, or smoky.

Other camps associate minerality with “saltiness” or acidity in wine, though this association between minerality and mineral salts or ions is not a common one, and some have argued that this association is more of “mistaken identity” with other aromatic characteristics or faults.

Another common association for minerality and wine relates to the soil or terroir where the grapes were grown. Soil is known to influence wine composition, though this influence is often indirect and thereby very difficult to form any scientific links.  Soil type can significantly influence how well a grapevine grows, and therefore how the grapes on those vines develop, though pinpointing direct mechanisms between something in the soil and a compound in the finished wine that can be tied to minerality has been unsuccessful thus far.

A new study, published in December 2016 in the journal Food Research International, aimed to evaluate how consumers (specifically, French consumers) define or understand the concept of minerality, and how these concepts to relate how wine professionals and those in the scientific community understand it.

Brief Methods

This study employed the use of an online survey, containing 2 parts:  a section with open-ended questions allowing participants to freely define the concept of minerality as it relates to wine, and a section with closed-ended questions that included those related to sociodemographics, wine knowledge, and wine purchase behaviors.

The online surveys were circulated to potential participants in France and the French-speaking region of Switzerland between 2011 and 2012.  From there, participants were asked to forward the survey onto their friends, family, and other contacts, in order to reach as many potential participants as possible (FUN FACT:  this practice is called the “snowball method”). When all surveys were completed, there ended up being a total of 1697 participants, with 1344 from France and 353 from the French-speaking region of Switzerland.

To analyze the data, a software program called “TreeTagger” was used to evaluate the wordy open-ended questions, the results of which were then compared with the answers from the closed-ended questions to determine specific groups or clusters of consumers with unique understanding of the concept of minerality.

Photo courtesy Flickr user atl10trader

Selected Results

  • In general, minerality was often associated with terroir and specific terms like “soil”, “stone”, and “ground”, as well as terms like “aroma” and “taste”.
  • Terms such as “as”, “like”, “think”, and “evoke” were used frequently, indicating a sense of uncertainty on the part of participants regarding an exact definition of the term “minerality”
  • 10 separate groups of consumers were identified based on the analysis, which are referred to as G1 through G10 and will be described presently:
    • G1: 173 participants;
      • 24.3% self-reported as wine beginners (compared with 17.51% of the total pool).
      • The terms “earth” and “earthy taste” were the most commonly used terms for this group.
    • G2: “Soil and Terroir Group 1”; 210 participants.
      • Minerality was often associated with the concept of “terroir” for this group.
      • “Taste” was a common term used, specifically when coupled with terroir (“taste of terroir”).
      • Sensory terms like “aroma”, “taste”, “stone”, “pebble”, “rock”, and “earth” were often used in this group.
      • 45.71% were between the ages of 50 and 70 (compared to 27.38% of the total participant pool).
      • Participants in this group frequently purchased wine directly from the winery.
      • 29.5% claimed growing region was the primary driver of purchase.
      • 36.2% claimed to be “wine lovers” (compared with 30.8% of the total participant pool).
    • G3: “Soil and Terroir Group 2”; 133 participants.
      • Minerality was often associated with “the place where vines grow” for this group.
      • “Soil” was a frequently used term for this group, particularly when the terms “vine”, “grow”, “wine”, and “be” were also used.
      • There were no significant sociodemographic or purchase behavior characteristics that could be identified for this group.
    • G4: 106 participants.
      • This group associated minerality with general “aroma”, and not any particular kind of aroma.
      • 57.5% self-reported as wine amateurs (compared with 49.8% of the total pool).
      • G4, G5, and G8 were very close together in cluster analysis.
    • G5: 126 participants.
      • Participants in this group gave the longest responses to the open-ended questions.
      • The verb “to be” was the most important term for this group, particularly with coupled with terms like “notion”, “sensation”, “characteristic”, and “impression”.
      • Terms used in all the other groups were also used frequently in this group (like “soil”, “aroma”, “taste”, and other sensory characteristics already mentioned above and below).
      • Minerality appeared to be a multi-dimensional concept for this group based on their elaborate responses to the open-ended questions.
      • The majority of participants in this group were men.
      • 49.2% purchased wine directly from the winery (compared with 15.46% of the total pool).
      • 5.6% self-reported as wine experts (compared with 1.9% of the total pool).
      • G4, G5, and G8 were very close together in cluster analysis.
    • G6: “The Olfactory Group”; 199 participants.
      • Specific aromas were often cited by this group, including “stone”, “gun”, and “flint”, with “stone” being the most commonly used.
      • Other aromatic and sensory characteristics often cited by this group included “earth”, “pebble”, “granite”, “soil”, “rock”, “limestone”, “taste”, “aroma”, “dry”, “acidity”, “odor”, “mouth”, and “freshness”.
      • 51.76% self-reported as “wine lovers” (compared with 30.81% of the total pool).
      • 52.76% purchased their wines directly from the winery (compared with 15.46% of the total pool).
      • 19.1% never purchased wine in the supermarket.
    • G7: “The Uniformed Group”; 244 participants.
      • This group appeared to not have much understanding of what minerality in wine meant.
      • 28.28% considered themselves wine beginners (compared with 17.51% of the total pool).
      • Price of wine was the main factor for purchase decisions for this group, with 27.87% choosing it as the primary factor (compared with 16.49% of the total pool).
      • 27.05% never purchased wine directly from the winery (compared with 15.46% of the total pool).
      • 23.77% have purchased wine directly from the winery (compared with 37.24% of the total pool).
    • G8: 217 participants.
      • This group emphasized “dry white wine” when defining minerality.
      • 38.7% self-reported as “wine lovers” (compared with 30.8% of the total pool).
      • G4, G5, and G8 were very close together in cluster analysis.
    • G9: “The Mineral Ions Group”; 130 participants.
      • Frequently used the verb “to contain” as well as the term “mineral ions”.
      • Minerals and ions were associated together two ways for this group: 1st in reference to a comparison with mineral water (i.e. mineral water has ions, so minerality therefore must mean there are ions present) and the 2nd in reference to ions found in the soil.
      • 67.7% were women (compared with 52.3% of the total pool).
      • 46.15% were between the ages of 20 and 30 (compared with 25.21% of the total pool).
      • 30.77% never purchased wine directly from the winery (compared with 15.46% of the total pool).
      • 41.54% often purchased wine from the supermarket (compared with 27.14% of the total pool).
    • G10: 124 participants.
      • Participants in this group seemed to only have a vague understanding of the concept of minerality, with the phrase “it reminds me of” used frequently.
      • 41.9% were between the ages of 20 and 30 (compared with 25.21% of the total pool).

Conclusions

Overall, this study highlighted how consumers, specifically French consumers, understand the concept of minerality; a relatively new concept when considering the entire history of

Photo courtesy Flickr user H. Michael Miley

wine and wine tasting descriptors.

According to the researchers, 5 main themes or takeaways arose from this study:

  • Even though minerality is a term that is often used by professionals in the wine business, 1/5 of the consumers participating in this study didn’t seem to have an understanding of the concept. These consumers would most often associate other things like specific sensory characteristics or the concept of terroir when describing what they thought minerality was.
  • It was clear to participants that minerality was a sensory characteristic that is used often when describing the aromas of a given wine. Specifically, participants often linked minerality to aromatic characteristics like “flint”, “chalk”, or “stone”, as well as organoleptic characteristics like “acidity” and “freshness”.
  • The results indicated differences in the terms used depending upon level of reported wine expertise. Those with more wine knowledge tended to use a lot more specific terms when describing minerality, while those with less wine knowledge tended to be more vague.
  • For 1/5 of participants in this study, minerality was linked to the relationship between the soil and the grapevine, or terroir specifically for 13% of the participants. These participants tended to be older and possessed a great deal of wine knowledge (self-reported as “wine lovers”).

One interesting aside the researchers found in regards to this topic is that when the term “minerality” first peaked in French wine literature in 1994, the term “terroir” began its decline in the same literature. The researchers speculated that the “minerality” may be a sort of replacement for the term “terroir”, since “minerality” appears to be unique to wine while “terroir” has become a concept adopted by many other agricultural products.

  • Finally, minerality was linked to mineral ions for some of the participants in this study. These participants tended to be younger women with little wine knowledge, so this association might be a sort of confusion on their part with ions in mineral water, simply due to the similarity of the terms, since they might be more familiar with the former.

This study confirmed what we already know in that there seems to be some confusion as to what minerality in wine actually is, and that depending upon one’s level of expertise, that understanding will vary. It is important to remember that the sample in this study was relatively specific, using French or Swiss French-speaking participants, therefore the results may not be applicable to other cultures.  It would be interesting to see the study repeated on a larger scale in many different regions.

So while this study basically confirmed something we already know (read:  minerality is confusing), it does start to get at how minerality is perceived by more specific groups based on various sociodemographic characteristics.

Source:

Deneulin, P., Le Fur, Y., Bavaud, F. 2016. Study of the polysemic term of minerality in wine: Segmentation of consumers based on their textual responses to an open-ended survey. Food Research International 90: 288-297.

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2 comments for “What IS Minerality, Anyway?: An Evaluation of Consumer Understanding of Minerality Using Analysis of Language

  1. January 12, 2017 at 8:14 pm

    Really interesting article. There are so many terms that are interchangeable in the wine world, or simply don’t mean what people think they do. Great!

  2. jimmy leo
    February 7, 2017 at 6:17 am

    Great write-up. Need to read few time before really understand the concept of this testing method.

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