Tim James: Is wine getting saltier?

By , 23 November 2020



This was a question I posed at the end of the short article on some trends in South African wine in the about-to-be-published 2021 Platter” South African Wine Guide. The words “salty” and (a touch more evasively) “saline” and “salinity” have been cropping up more and more in descriptions of wine – and not just in Platter’s, and not just locally.

By way of rough analysis, I made some counts in Platter’s over the last fifteen years. In the 2020 edition, variations of ‘salt’ or ‘saline’ were used to describe 110 wines (and I’d bet it’s more for the coming edition). Five years ago only 48 wines were, apparently, salty. And in 2005 – just the one (Allesverloren Port, of all highly unlikely possibilities).

I would imagine that this development is to the confusion of more than a few readers (especially those who don’t take wine descriptions without a pinch of, er, salt). It’s a descriptor I use rarely. The only time I can recall doing so recently was for Badenhorst’s delicious Sout van die Aarde, made from palomino grown close to the Atlantic coast in the northern Swartland. I can easily believe that sea-spray might even be the source of what seems to me to be undeniable justification for the wine’s name. Adi Badenhorst, as generally sceptical as I am about tasting saltiness in wine, says that he can lick actual salt off the leaves of these palomino vines at harvest time. But marine-side vineyards are clearly not necessary to evoke the description from less cautious (or more salt-sensitive) palates than mine. Increasingly so, as the tendency in Platter’s over the last 15 years reveals.

Disconcertingly, one must realise that it’s less likely to be the wines that have changed to that extent than fashions in writing tasting notes. Arguably, however, though no less disconcertingly, if there is something valid to the description, the proliferation of references to it might be accounted for by tasters becoming alerted to the possible quality of saltiness in wine… and then finding it all over the place.

Saltiness might even be used slightly metaphorically, I suppose (or am I clutching at straws?), like that other fashionable term that’s so difficult to pin down and seems to mean something rather different for most people – minerality. In fact, the two seem to often be connected and both are more often than not used in descriptions of dry, fairly acidic, non-oaky white wines with a good degree of finesse. There certainly are lots more Cape wines like that now than there were in 2005, I’m glad to say. Platter’s uses some version of “mineral” over 250 times in 2020, compared to 175 times in 2015 and a few over 80 times in 2005. So that trend is still on the rise.

If I tend to avoid “salinity” in my perceptions and my notes, and even seldom reach for “minerality”, that’s less true of another word that’s linked at least to the latter. When I trawl through Platter’s 2020 for “stony”, I find around 35 examples, and a disproportionate number of these notes were written by me (including mention of “stony minerality”, which tries to explain, I suppose, something of what I might try to convey by “minerality”).

There have always been fashions in wine notes, of course. Sometimes they tend to the national, like the long lists of often recherché aromatic and taste descriptors that form the larger part of most American notes – and are increasingly found elsewhere, too, including this website. Sometimes they’re quirkily individual. I’ve instanced my own penchant for “stony”, and I can remember one year – 2004 it was – when Michael Fridjhon described half a dozen red wines for Platter’s with comparisons to “prunelle” (a French liqueur distilled from plums), which must have left readers less experienced than Michael scratching their heads.

Tasting notes are notoriously problematical, frequently less useful than we writers of them like to think, as they tend to reflect our own idiosyncrasies as much as those of the wines. Today I’ve been tentatively exploring the possibility of using verse forms. The Japanese haiku might work for those with a taste for the abstruse. Something like this perhaps:

Saline minerality
Spicy depth to graphite core
Ping! the spittoon

Or, at a less rarefied level, a good old crude Anglo-Saxon limerick might be useful:

There are mineral tannins it’s hard to resist
And spices galore and weird fruits on the list.
You could tune up your noses
To find stones, salt or roses –
But ignore the above if you’re just getting pissed.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013

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16 comment(s)

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    Tim James | 24 November 2020

    Thanks to everyone for their comments, making the article much more interesting and useful than it was. A propos a recent one -Jono, if you look again you’ll see that I specifically referred to the “minerality” question, pointing our that there’s no obvious decline in its use (latter’s uses some version of “mineral” over 250 times in 2020, compared to 175 times in 2015 and a few over 80 times in 2005). And I don’t think SA commentary is any different from anywhere else’s in either of these cases. The growth in usage of “saline” is international. Google “salty wine” and you quickly get to a 2016 Decanter note from Stephen Brook saying that “saline has been creeping into tasting notes”. (He concludes that “it’s not entirely without meaning”.)

    Sam Venter | 24 November 2020

    Guilty as charged on the use of salinity, minerality, savouriness, and leatheriness! I know minerality is hard to define because it’s not like we all go around licking rocks and comparing their flavours, but it’s something that’s definitely there in some wines – that sense of cold steel or gritty stone or chalkiness. So perhaps “minerality” is a lazy, imprecise description.
    As for salinity, I’ve definitely experienced it in wines – not sure if it is more pronounced lately or if my palate has become more trained in picking up subtler flavours. Like Angela, I do wonder if it is something more specific to 2019 whites, and especially those with west coast maritime influence?

    Jono Le Feuvre | 24 November 2020

    Trends in wine writing will definitely play a role, but so will backlashes to those trends. I think part of the reason that salinity is on the rise is because “minerality” is waning. There have been such withering critiques of the word “minerality” in wine reviews that writers have been scrounging around for more specific descriptors. A better study would have been to count the total number of times the word “minerality” was used over the last decade, and then compared that to the combined number of times words like “salinity”, “terracotta”, “chalk” and “gravel” were used.

    Angela Lloyd | 24 November 2020

    Independently of Tim, but later corroborated by him, I found saltiness in some wines I tasted for Platter this year. Kruger Family Wines new Palomino 2019 and Sadie Family Wines Skerpioen 2019, a 50/50 chenin/palomino from a single vineyard, both finished with a distinct, but not overbearing salty flavour.

    I am familiar with Skerpioen, having tasted it over many years at the Sadie’s annual release tasting; I’ve never noticed such marked saltiness as this year. It adds to the wine’s distinction, something I liked so much, I bought a case. Monitoring how it ages will be of great interest.

    Both these wines come from the West Coast and soils containing limestone; Eben suggests this may account for the saltiness.

    Subsequently, I tried Pieter Walser’s L’Estrange 2019, also a palomino from the West Coast; it too displays a salty conclusion.

    On mentioning this phenomenon to Tim, he gave me Adi Badenhorst’s Sout van die Aarde 2019 WO to try; again, there’s a noticeable saltiness.

    Could the vintage also play a role; all are from 2019.? What factors that year could have influenced the unusually prominent flavour?

    AB | 23 November 2020

    All the above is valid, but the single main factor may simply be the overall reduction of ‘sweetness’ , real or perceived, and the increase of acidity and ‘dry-ness’. The latter character often being described (whether real or perceived) as saltiness, I believe, purely by merit of being the antithesis of sweetness.

    As usual with wine, lack of imagination with descriptors is contagious and runs rampant.

    Matt | 23 November 2020

    This article missed an opportunity to address the issue of how many undisclosed additives, including salt, can be added to wines. Some of these are legally allowed without any required labelling depending on regulations. Last I heard the number of different additives was ~70 in the US for example, the only one of which has to be disclosed is sulfite. ++tokolosh

      Jono | 24 November 2020

      Having asked this question explicitly of winemakers over the last two years, all seem to agree that adding salt to a wine is incredibly risky because of its ability to raise the pH.
      But I guess, to your point, just because something is risky, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.
      BUT I would also hazard a guess that the prevalence of the word salinity is skewed towards to higher quality bottlings, and this alone would make it seem less likely to be as simple as tossing the shaker into the vat.

    David Clarke | 23 November 2020

    There is a reluctance to use “savoury” as a descriptor for reds as it can be interpreted (incorrectly and otherwise) as being an indicator of Brettanomyces. Thus “salty” often gets a run as an imperfect synonym.

    Kwispedoor | 23 November 2020

    Hi, Tim.

    I’m not convinced at all that fashion alone is the cause of the increase in saline/salty references in tasting notes. I could be wrong in terms of Platter’s, but I’m sure these types of descriptions are mostly used for white wies, not true? If it was mainly due to fashion, surely they would have been used in equal measure for both white and red wines, right?

    Can the increased eschewing of cultured yeasts in the making of many of our top wines be a contributing factor? I certainly haven’t picked up this trait in big-volume commercial wines yet. And I definitely pick up a saline/salty vibe on most white wines that had skin contact.

    I finally came round to reading ‘Taste’ by Roald Dahl this Friday and it included this nugget about gourmet Richard Pratt: “He refused to smoke for fear of harming his palate, and when discussing a wine, he had a curious, rather droll habit of referring to it as though it were a living being. ‘A prudent wine,’ he would say, ‘rather diffident and evasive, but quite prudent.’ Or, ‘A good-humoured wine, benevolent and cheerful – slightly obscene, perhaps, but none the less good-humoured.'”

    Peter de Wet | 23 November 2020

    I farm in the Robertson area where the soils are actually very saline (brak). With irrigation the soil get flushed, but after severe rains the salts do move back into the rootzone. In January 2014 we received over 150mm of rain in 2 days. The following vintage (2015) we noticed certain areas of some vineyards turning yellow at veriason. I suspected this could be due to salinity. So i harvested these areas before the main pick so that i would not contaminate the rest. It was a mixture of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine turned out magnificent but tasted very salty. I had it analysed and the salt content was over 150mg/l. The legal maximum for salt in wine is 50mg/l. It made a great blending component and it was interesting to see how the salt flavour impacted the other tastes (acid, sweet, bitter). So yes wines do pick up salts from the soils.

      Wessel du Toit | 23 November 2020

      Hi Peter

      Very interesting. I assume when you refer to salt it entails the sodium content? One of my colleugues did some research on this topic at Stellenbosch University.

        Peter de Wet | 24 November 2020

        Hi Wessel
        NaCl. I would imagine many wines grown on shale soils in SA would have some levels of salts. Shale soils have a strong bond to all particles in the soils, so they hold onto water and minerals. They are not easily leached of salts.

      Cliff Eliason | 23 November 2020

      Hi Peter. I am a huge fan of Life from Stone from your area. I have noticed however that recent vintages show a marked increase in actual saltiness that is starting to affect my enjoyment of this Sav Blanc. I wonder if Springfield is testing the salinity in its soil….

        Peter de Wet | 24 November 2020

        I cannot comment on the Life from Stone salinity.

        What I can say is that I have also been picking up the character in many wines from different regions as well. My reasoning behind this was the drought that we experienced from 2015 to 2108. Without adequate rain, salts do not get flushed from the soils. The bit of moisture via irrigation or rainfall then dissolve these salts and they can be taken up by the plant. My theory, but I could be wrong.

        The former Vinpro soil scientist said to be me probably 5 years ago that one particular region was regularly producing wines that were over the legal limit of salt content for wine. This was due to the saline soils in their region. They had not yet had issues with the authorities but could possibly in future. It begs the question, why have limits. Its a natural element from the soil, it cannot pose a health risk in these amounts, and if the wine tastes good so be it. Is that not the heart of terroir?

    tokolosh | 23 November 2020

    For years winemakers have added salt to wine , especially red wines meant for barrel

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