Sometimes when the best-laid plans go awry, they do so in delightful ways. At the fish shop the morning of New Year’s Eve, my idea of sea bass disappeared when I saw that they had fillets of John Dory, a noble and irresistible fish, expensive but worth it. Back home, I presented my lovely wife with this surprise, and she reciprocated: Instead of the Macon we’ve been drinking this month,
she brought out a bottle of Francois Mikulski’s 2007 Mersault—quite noble and irresistible. Happy New Year indeed!
It was the best wine I’ve had all year, by a long shot, and certainly one of the best of the decade. It had remarkable character; it didn’t taste like Chardonnay, it tasted like Mersault, and that specific, splendid flavor never flagged. (For the record, it was aged in only about 15 percent new oak, and weighed in at 12.8 percent alcohol.) My first thought was “purity,” my second was “minerality.” My third was “Humpty Dumpty,” who told Alice (in Wonderland), “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
Years ago, an extensive research project showed that people tend to assign their own connotations to words, even the simplest ones. It was wine-specific, and an eye-opener: Common words, even some that are perceived as neutral, were interpreted quite differently; to some, words like “robust” or “full-bodied” or “acidity” were virtues, to others they were negatives. Even adding descriptive modifiers didn’t always help, and often the same words would be used by people with very different ideas about the wines being tasted. Humpty Dumpty, it turned out, is us.
And there I was, with purity and minerality, which quickly emerged as the leading buzzwords for wine in the last two years, without, as far as I could tell, ever being defined. So here I go, semiotic or idiotic, you decide: To me, purity is varietal character in a regional context; if it doesn’t have a regional context, i.e., 90 percent of the world’s Chardonnay, no purity. It may taste good, but that’s different. Minerality? I grew up in Massachusetts, and the woods outside my small town were full of streams you could drink out of, and we all knew you could forestall thirst on a long summer walk by putting a pebble under your tongue, and those streams were full of them too. We became connoisseurs of pebbles, mica-flecked sharp granite, smooth flat sandstone, gray limestone. Fresh out of the stream, cool and washed clean: Minerality.
If we could all taste Francois’ Mersault, we would all be singing from the same hymnal of minerality. But that sets up another conundrum—might not some other winemaker’s definition of minerality (or whatever else) also be intriguing? Of course it would. And so it goes. Not so bad.