Salt: salty wines or wines with hints of saltiness…
Did you ever taste a wine that had a slight touch of saltiness or iodine, sea breeze aromas? If not, well, you surely will. If yes, then you may have been surprised by this rather unusual marine scent and may have wondered where it could come from. Most of us associate this salty touch with the fact that the wine may have been produced in close proximity to an ocean or a sea, like a "Muscadet de Sevre et Maine" (Loire Valley, France) or a "Rias Baixas" (Galicia, Spain), but is it really always the case?
Some of these wines which present some saltiness or hints of sea breeze on the nose may actually come from an area near salty waters. Yet, for some of them, strangely enough, the proximity of a salty body of water has nothing to do with it.
For example, I just tasted a wine from Austria, (a country that has no coasts, only mountains, and lakes), which, in my opinion, presented this unusual particularity on the nose, but also on the palate. I could literally taste a touch of saltiness.
At first, I thought that I was wrong, so I asked two of my colleagues to taste it without letting them know what I was really looking for in this wine. And, strangely enough, they tasted it too, and more especially for one of them who voiced it as his first comment: "There is some kind of saltiness in this wine!"
And here I was, perplexed and intrigued, tasting an Austrian wine with salty notes, on both the nose and palate, and was unable to answer any of the questions suddenly popping into my mind. Austria isn't that close to the Golf of Trieste in the Adriatic sea and mountain chains separate it from the closest seawater.
So, I decided to research it on the net and in books, and eventually also asked a few questions here and there to different producers and winemakers. All the answers and conversations indicated and pointed to the importance of sodium chloride or "Salt" naturally contained in the ground, which could somewhat impart the taste of some wines.
Everybody is acquainted with “Salt”. One way or another, it is impossible to avoid it. Salt is one of the most prominent elements that you can find on earth. It is everywhere and most beings consume a good dose of it every day (knowingly or unknowingly). One can naturally find it in his or her drinks (water, soda, beer, cocktails, and many other beverages including wine) and all sorts of food from meat and fish, to vegetables and fruit, and so much more. Our body contains salt (iodine), you can taste it when you sweat or when you cry. It is in our blood and one of the most important and essential "oligo-éléments" (or trace elements).
Salt or iodine is a part of what is called "the essential trace elements", a class of pure mineral nutrients necessary for the life of an organism but in very small quantities. The essential trace elements of the human body include zinc (Zn), copper (Cu), selenium (Se), chromium (Cr), cobalt (Co), iodine (I), manganese (Mn), and molybdenum (Mo).
Trace elements can also be toxic to the body when present at levels that are too high. The effect of a trace element depends on the dose intake. When the element is said to be essential, the absence, as an excessive intake, is lethal. The fact that Salt is a mineral nutrient necessary for the life of our organism is often left out of the picture and rarely discussed, even by doctors. It is surely because, in our everyday life, we already consume "tones of salt" that are mostly used for food seasoning, but also for curing meat (and fish) as a preservative. Salt in its many forms and shapes is pretty much everywhere.
In fact, salt is surely one of the oldest, most ubiquitous food seasonings and, somehow, humans couldn't have barely lived so long without it. Historically, salting is an important method of seasoning and food preservation that has always been part of human culture and tradition for at least the last 6000 years. In fact, human beings have used canning and artificial refrigeration (also involving the indispensable omnipresence of salt) for the preservation of food for approximately the last two thousand years. And in the millennia before then, while salt was considered a luxury item, mostly accessible by the rich and those on the coasts, salt already provided the best-known food preservative back then, especially for meat and fish. It has also been widely used in cosmetics for centuries.
Salt for human consumption is produced in different forms: unrefined salt (such as sea salt), refined salt (table salt), and iodized salt (multiple purposes). Salt is a crystalline solid, white, pale pink, or light gray in color, normally obtained from seawater or rock deposits on the ground, that can be found pretty much everywhere around the world. Edible rock salts may be slightly grayish in color because of their high mineral content. Natural, and non-iodized, organic sea salt is usually preferred by world-class chefs, restaurants, cooks, and even you and me at home.
My best (personal) experience with salt has always been beef steaks cooked on the grill over embers of "Sarments" (dried vine shoots collected during winter), seasoned with a touch of butter, finely diced shallots, fresh ground pepper, and more importantly, "Mountain salt" from Argentina. It is delightful, and the Argentinian salt seems to taste sweet rather than salty. You ought to try it, or you’ll be missing something.
Salt is one of the earth's most common minerals composed primarily of sodium chloride which is essential for human and animal life. But, and, once again, it is important to remind you that it can also be toxic if used in excess and even destructive to many land plants, and corrosive for many objects.
Scientifically speaking, chloride and sodium ions, the two major components of salt, are necessary for the survival of all known living creatures. Salt is involved in regulating the water content (fluid balance) of the body.
Yet, and once again, over-consumption of salt increases the risk of health problems, including high blood pressure and accentuation of bone/cartilage problems. Carefully read the Nutrient facts on the back label of any food packaging to evaluate the Sodium content, and always choose the product with the lowest amount. Also, usually if organic or biodynamic, Sodium should be lower too. Preserve your body and your health, pay attention to these little details.
Gustatory palette and presence in the ground
Let’s leave the medical side of it and let’s go back to its taste, or should I say its “palette gustative”, flavors, and origin.
To start with, and most importantly for today’s post, I need to acknowledge that "Salty" is one of the 5 basic tastes (see my illustration above), along with “Sweet/Sugar” (sweet flavors on the front tip of the tongue), “Sour” (sour flavors on the side of the tongue), “Bitter” (bitter flavors on the back of the tongue), and "Umami" (savory flavors in the middle of the tongue). Saltiness is detected by two areas located on either side of the tongue’s tip (between sweet and sour).
In short, the way your taste buds are distributed on the surface of your tongue is the reason why, when you taste wine (or food or anything else), you usually first detect the Sweet taste (fruitiness, ripeness, or residual sugar), then Salt (although rarely occurring in most wines, it is far from being uncommon, more especially in wines from certain regions for obvious reasons, where it is often due to salt/iodine in the air and ground, generally expressed as a touch of salinity, yet some people may mistake if for minerality), Sour (if too much acidity or unripe fruit), and finally Bitter (especially when/if the wine is too tannic, green or presents unripe tannins, or if the alcohol is too present and non-integrated).
I can already see your bewildered faces…thinking what does “Salt” has to do with wine? Vines and wines are grown on land and no addition of salt is involved in the vinification process? Yet, we just said earlier: “Salt is a crystalline solid, white, pale pink or light gray in color, normally obtained from seawater or rock deposits, that can be found pretty much everywhere on earth.” Still don’t get my point?
Well, it is quite simple. Salt is found abundantly in seawater, that is a given! Yet, it is also very much present in the ground mainly because it is a natural mineral, but most importantly because seawater used to cover a good part of the actual land (all around the globe), millions of years ago (more especially after the break-up of the continents and the melting of the glaciers).
Consequently, Sodium chloride (or salt if you prefer), gradually and slowly deposited over many thousands of years with the lowering of the water levels, in diverse types of grounds anciently covered by oceans and seawater; which explains why this natural mineral can also be found in different types of soils and at different levels (even at high altitude), where it abounds in certain areas, forming layers and patches of salt that can be found both above and underground.
For roughly the past 6,000 years, humans have found and learned how to extract and use these remnants of salt deposits from the ancient oceans and seas, that now can be found pretty much everywhere, from the hot sandy, flat desert regions to the high-altitude mountain chains around the world.
Ground layers of the ancient sea beds and ocean levels found in the mountains and underground still offer archeological mines of seawater fossilized treasures: shells, stones, fish fossils, and more... and obviously salt too.
Multiple examples of salty areas and bodies of water, with high salinity, from oceans, seas, and lakes to plains, deserts, and mountains, can be found in many countries: Great Salt Lake (Utah, UT); Salton Sea (California, CA); The Dead Sea (between Israel and Jordan); etc… just to name a few.
All that said, we now know that Sodium Chloride (or Salt) is a natural mineral element that is contained, not only in the ocean and sea waters, but also everywhere in the ground, soil, sand, dirt, rocks, etc…, and that it can also be found in high quantities on land, in various places with different climates, temperatures, and altitudes.
However, it seems that Salt can be found in higher quantity in regions with hot weather, and therefore moderate to poor rainfalls. In areas where consequently, water evaporation from the ground is higher due to higher temperature (or other specific climatic conditions), and minimal rain, resulting in the impossibility for salt to be naturally filtered, diluted, and/or wash out from the upper and underground levels, thus forming layers above and underground, that may somewhat affect and/or impart the taste of the wine from vines planted in these types of soils, due to the salty components absorbed by the vines and surrounding plants.
Therefore, like anything contained in the vineyard's soil and subsoil, salt may affect the wine and its components, and can even somewhat, slightly impart its taste, in some cases (like it can also impart the taste of meat from cows, cheeps, and any other animal which pasture near oceans and seas, or high salinity ground areas).
From various conversations, I can conclude that some producers and winemakers are aware of it, but are not necessarily concerned about it, either because their wines are not showing any trace of it, or simply because they do not mind the saltiness or savoriness that may be found in their wines. Or, they realized it, but are not fully aware of it or acquainted with it, as they have not considered it could be a problem and/or because any soil composition study or research has not been made yet (not every property has the means nor the will to hire geologists and topographers to better know the various soils and soils components of their property).
However, some producers and winemakers already acknowledge the fact that excess Sodium Chloride (salt) in the soil could create a warm sensation on the palate when tasting a wine affected by it. More studies on certain effects imparted by sodium chloride in wine could be the next thing to come, especially with global warming and the rise in temperatures.
When researching this subject to write this post, I realized that large-scale uprooting of plants in general, in addition to deforestation, without necessarily having a plowing and replanting programs could lead to more desert and arid areas, with poor soils, barely no plants or animals, and a higher density of sodium chloride in the soil and subsoil (yet, I will stop here, as this is another fascinating and vast subject that should deserve an entire post to itself, to be continued... one day... you never know).
With all the cited above factors and reasons, we can now assess that by tasting certain wines produced near the seas or oceans, some people may discover (to their surprise or not, as it might be obvious due to the presence of salt in the air and on the ground) a touch of sea breeze, or iodine aromas in the wine (and also in the meat of the animals grazing the lands by the ocean or the sea - sheep, cow, etc...).
However, these particularities seem to mostly appear on the nose, and rarely on the palate (except for meat...). That said, it is very possible sometimes to taste the saltiness in wine too, and despite the fact that most people believe that is due to sea wind and seawater in the air or airborne salt with evaporation, that slight saltiness mostly originates from the soil and sub-soil, not necessarily from the nearby salty water.
This might explain the possibility and high probability for the following Austrian wine from a mountainous region far from the sea to present slight hints of saltiness.
After all that, still skeptical about saltiness in wine? Well, let me share with you my experience of last week when I tasted 3 to 4 completely different white wines that had very distinct and characteristic sea breeze, briny, almost slightly salty aromas, and flavors. You should definitely try them. First, because they are fresh and delicious, bright and springy-summery. Yet, also because that “je-ne-sais-quoi” of saltiness makes them intriguing and savory, and delightfully pleasant (in my opinion).
Here is one of these slightly "salty" wines I have tasted, probably the most obvious of them, and I loved it.
Weingut Neumeister Süd-Oststeiermark Straden Austria
Weingut Neumeister is a small innovative winery/restaurant/relaxation center located in Straden, a small municipality in the district of Radkersburg in Styria, Austria. This province represents the southeastern part of Austria, called Süd-Oststeiermark, bordering the north of Slovenia and the west of Hungary.
Albert and Anna Neumeister, with Christoph Neumeister as the winemaker and Mathias as the Sommelier in charge of the restaurant, own this family-run winery. They possess about 24 hectares (60 acres) plus 16 hectares (40 acres) of vineyards under contract, for an annual production of roughly 210,000 bottles.
They produce their wines from mainly 4 single vineyards: Saziani, Moafeiti, Klausen, and Steinthal, which are quite distinct by their soil characteristics, conferring great earthiness, texture, and complexity to their wines. The vineyards are planted with 25% Sauvignon Blanc, 18% Welschriesling, 10% Morillon (Chardonnay), 10% Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), 7% Muskateller, 7% Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris), 5% Traminer; 12% Zweigelt and 6% Pinot Noir.
The family Neumeister is in debt to this unique environment. The delicate relationship between the landscape and nature goes without saying. Every variety is handled in the individual manner demanded by and required for it. They adopt a close to nature cultivation and organic vineyard management, refraining from herbicides and chemical fertilizers. Natural pesticide methods are employed and the risk of fungi is minimized through vigorous foliage work. Every vine is maintained and trained with careful handwork.
They produce what is locally called “Steirische Klassik”; meaning typical “Styrian” wines fermented in stainless steel tanks, which are bright, clean and Terroir oriented: Sauvignon Blanc from ‘Moarfeitl’ and ‘Klausen’, Morillon from ‘Moarfeitl’, Grauburgunder from ‘Saziani’, Roter Traminer from ‘Steintal’, and Weissburgunder from ‘Klausen’.
That day, the wine that I like the most was their "Morillon", the local and traditional name given to Chardonnay, in Austrian Styria.
2006 Weingut Neumeister Morillon Moarfeitl Süd-Oststeiermark Straden Austria
Suggested retail price is about $18-21
Although still in a mountainous region, Straden is located in one of the flattest parts of Austria, and far from the Mediterranean Sea, about 270 kilometers from Trieste in Italy (one of the closest beach towns). Therefore, it might appear a bit difficult, at first, to explain that slight saltiness found in this wine. Yet, as explained above, we may find an explanation in the ground.
Never heard of “Morillon”, well it is not a commonly used name, that's why. Yet, it is just another name for Chardonnay in the region of Styria, in Austria.
This wine was produced from hand-harvested vines planted on gently rolling hills culminating at about 300 meters above sea level. The soil of the 3 ha (7,5 acres) “Moarfeitl” vineyard is mainly composed of lime, sandy loam with gravel of schist, quartz, and gneiss, which somewhat explains the freshness, minerality, and slight salty touch of this wine (due to the soil high content of sand and minerals).
Behind its pale straw yellow color with green reflects, this wine offers a fresh nose, with floral and mineral notes, and fresh almond hints. The palate is fairly rich, fresh and balanced, elegant and mineral with zesty citrus and stone fruits, hints of blossoms, and nuts. The finish is lingering with white fruit and mineral. The saltiness is mainly appearing in the attack and mid-palate and integrates fairly quickly.
At first, I thought that I was maybe mistaken that touch of saltiness for something else, but 2 of my colleagues concurred, and we arrived at the same conclusion: "Great white wine with a slight perceptible saltiness!" Definitely, a food wine to pair with fish and shellfish, but also white meat, poultry, and cheese.
Try it for yourself and let me know. As always, I'm open to any comments and suggestions.
LeDomduVin a.k.a. Dominique Noel
Sources: Winery info partly taken and edited from the winery website at www.neumeister.cc and from an importer website at www.mcselections.com
To be continued ....with more Salty wines... like Amayna Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay from Chile; and Caruso Inzolia Terre di Giumara Sicilia; and more...
Step into the Green! Drink more Biodynamic and Organic wines (and food) from sustainable culture and respect the environment! Support the right causes for the Planet and all the people suffering all around the globe!
- Original article written April 25th, 2010
- Illustration as a header added, text edited and corrected April 19th, 2022
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Picture of Salt in the Spoon and bowl sourced from and courtesy of https://www.pngall.com/salt-png/download/26400
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