Next time you are in a restaurant where the wine list is taken a bit seriously, eavesdrop on what the sommelier has to say as she moves from table to table. The word you'll hear over and over is "minerality'' - or one of its numerous equivalents: granite, limestone, tufa, slate, shale, schist. It's as if American taste and sophistication grew up overnight. It's not just about fruit anymore.
This is wonderful news for diners, because fruit-driven wines, though often gratifying sipped on their own, have always been problematic to pair with food, and it is a grand turn of events for the wine enthusiast who struggles to find things consonant with adult taste when he spreads a white linen napkin across his lap. Soon every establishment worth its wine will have a consulting geologist roaming the floor, rock samples in hand, tiny silver hammer tucked where a pocket square used to be.
It may be premature to announce the dawn of a new geological era, but there's no question that a backlash against fruit-driven wines is gathering force. A cadre of young sommeliers infatuated with minerally sips are cajoling diners to take them for a spin. Wines with advanced degrees in earth science are winning shelf space in edgier retail shops, too.
Minerality is used to describe a broad range of perceptions, from forest floor, loam, and humus, to alluvium, gravel, slate, flint, wet stones, chalk, even basalt, and coal (no joke). Minerals can be perceived as solid and hard like granite, or powdery like stone dust or gypsum. It's true that few of us have actually tasted any of these materials (we are not recommending it), but the associations, however fanciful, are too compelling to lightly dismiss.
Andrew Bishop, owner of Oz Wine Company, a specialty importer, says he believes stones have a smell all their own.
"Growing up fly fishing in Quebec, I remember smelling rocks all day,'' he says.
Felisha Foster, wine buyer at Dave's Fresh Pasta in Somerville, says she associates earthiness with reds, minerality with whites. The latter may remind her of "wet stones after a heavy rain and the taste of pebbles in your mouth.''
Upstairs on the Square sommelier Matt Reiser says he personally favors mineral-tinged wines for pairing with New England seafood. He has noticed that writing up a tasting note takes longer for wines with a significant mineral component.
"The complexity,'' he says, "is thought-provoking.''
For the more science-oriented crowd, however, the picture looks much different. Research has yet to discover a link between the geology of a vineyard and the taste or smell of wine made from it. Bill Nesto, a master of wine who teaches at Boston University's Elizabeth Bishop Wine Resource Center, asserts that inorganic mineral compounds appear in wine solely in the form of mineral salts of which only sodium chloride (ordinary table salt) can be detected by tasting. Food chemistry expert Harold McGee suggests that the flavors associated with stone and soil descriptors may actually originate in yeasts.
Rocks and gravel may not speak through wine, but something that resembles them does. Care to listen?
Domaine de l'Ecu "Expression de Granite'' Muscadet de Sevre et Maine 2009 Powdery mineral aromas (we would call it gypsum) over some attractively crisp apple-pear fruit. Around $24. At Central Bottle Wine + Provisions, Cambridge, 617-225-0040.
Domaine Richou "Chauvigne'' Anjou Blanc 2010 Emphatic smoke and stone aromas; mouth nicely firm with good acid structure and firm, stony underlay. A lively, satisfying versatile sip and big value. Around $19. At Harvard General Store, Harvard, 978-430-0062; Foodie's Urban Market, South End, 617-266-9911.
Donnhoff Nahe Riesling Trocken 2010 High-pitched pine and resin aromas; citrus-tinged fruit is fully dry throwing mineral aspects - and they are considerable - into high relief. Around $21. At Dave's Fresh Pasta, Somerville, 617-623-0867; Marty's Big Buys, 617-782-3250, Allston.
Lageder Romigberg Kalterersee Classico Alto Adige 2010 Pale ruby hue with orange tints; light, high-toned cherry shows herbal and loamy elements. Fine alternative to rose when the occasion calls for something heftier. Around $20. At Brookline Liquor Mart, 617-734-7700; Central Bottle Wine + Provisions, Cambridge, 617-225-0040
Perticaia Montefalco Rosso 2008 Dusty, dry black fruits here play second violin to some deep rich, loamy earth. Bit of astringency; plays in a low register. Around $22. At The Urban Grape, Chestnut Hill, 617-232-4831; Martignetti Liquors, Brighton, 617-782-3700.
Tajinaste Valle de la Orotava (Canary Islands) Tinto 2010 Scents of cedar and spruce forest, note of clove, some significantly raspy tannins here; lots of chewiness and texture. Around $27. At City Feed and Supply, Jamaica Plain, 617-524-1700; Berman's Wine & Spirits, Lexington, 781-862-0515.
Stephen Meuse can be reached at email@example.com