The question: Why do some wines taste like chewing on a piece of chalk? I find those wines also have very little flavour. This happens even with very expensive wines. What gives?
The answer: Given your aversion, you may be surprised to learn that many people love chalk in their wine glasses. …
There are two main ways in which a wine can taste chalky. The first has to do with flavour, the second with texture (though there's often a good deal of overlap). Chalky flavour is part of a spectrum that aficionados typically call "minerality." I put that in quotation marks because it's not a word recognized by most dictionaries. (Wine experts love to make stuff up.) Other words in the spectrum include flint, slate, granite and wet stone.
Those ingredients are not noticeably found in wine despite what many wine geeks insist. In fact, at a Geological Society of America conference a few years ago, scientists declared that the mineral content in wine is well below the threshold of human taste and smell. Still, a wine can impart flavours that give the impression of licking a rock or piece of chalk, something you may have done as a child.
It's most likely those flavours are produced by yeast in the fermenting tank rather than transmitted by the soil to the fruit. Think of the sour tingle you get from a piece of sourdough bread and you get a sense of what "minerality" is in wine. Many whites in particular taste that way, notably Sancerre, Chablis, riesling and, most chalky of all, champagne. True, there's plenty of chalky soil in the Champagne region of France, but I stand by my contention that you're not literally tasting chalk in a glass of bubbly. Some of the best champagnes are in fact grown on soils that are mostly clay, not chalk.
Because you speak of "chewing" on a piece of chalk, I'm guessing your aversion has more to do with texture. Tannins, the dry, gritty compounds present in red wines, have that texture. They leave your mouth dry, as though you'd had some strong black tea or walnuts, and many people dislike that sensation. Tannins also can mute a wine's fruitiness, particularly in a young wine made from grapes that haven't reached full ripeness. Experts refer to such unripe tannins as "green." A good way to tame those harsh tannins and improve the wine's flavour is to serve it with something fatty, such as a piece of cheese. So, there you go: Chalk and cheese – they go together after all.
E-mail your wine and spirits questions to Beppi Crosariol. Look for answers to select questions to appear on The Globe and Mail website.