High-acid wines like Assyrtiko, Vermentino and Muscadet offer an impression of salinity, which suggests “the kind of piercing acidity that a spritz of lemon would have, and a hint of brine or salinity that a squeeze of lime and pinch of salt would give a dish,” says Nils Bernstein, contributing food editor at Wine Enthusiast.
“[Saline-forward wines] are such good pairing partners across the board because they almost season the food in a sense,” he says.
Salinity is a tasting descriptor and a frequent extension of the term “minerality.” Both can refer to how our palate perceives the pH of the wine.
“Minerality is where we are talking about chalk and stone and graphite,” says Bernstein. “And salinity falls into that realm very easily, if you extend minerality to seashell, and extend seashell to salinity.”
Seashell is a mineral composed of calcium carbonate. In wine, like other minerals, it registers as an aroma, not a taste.
“With seashell, it’s about the smell of the beach: saltwater, wet sand, seaweed and everything that exists alongside seashells, which only have a smell when fresh,” he says.
This aroma helps saline-forward wines emphasize flavors with a bit more tang and brightness.
Often, in wines with abundant saline characteristics, salivary glands might gently activate in the corners of the cheeks, similar to when a squeeze of fresh lemon hits the tongue.
Salinity in a wine is often associated with the proximity of vineyards to sea, sand and salt air. Many such wines originate from grapes grown near or within coastal regions.
But salinity doesn’t necessarily rely upon exposure to sea breezes or reflect the presence of salt in the wine or soil.
“The saline taste in wines has to do with how the grapes ripen, how they are fermented and the intricate play between acidity, pH, and yeast and lees,” says Roman Roth, winemaker at Wölffer Estate in Sagaponack, New York.
While some soils affect how grapes ripen, Roth believes that the most important element for evoking salinity is a balanced vineyard with good sun exposure on the fruit.
According to Roth, if fruit is picked too green, there is only acidity. If they’re picked too ripe, tropical, richer and fattier flavors develop, he says. When wine is made with ripe fruit and its mouthfeel is fresh and offers a softer finish, the wine shows salinity.
Production processes can also play a role in salinity.
For example, in a light, dry Manzanilla Sherry, flor, a yeast cap, forms during fermentation. The end result expresses salinity.
In addition to Manzanilla Sherry, which must be from vineyards near the coastal city of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Vermentino also expresses salinity alongside notes of citrus. It grows in Provence (known locally as Rolle), as well as in Liguria and Piedmont in northwest Italy and Sardinia.
Muscadet, a Loire Valley white made from the Melon de Bourgogne grape in Pays Nantais, is a perfect oyster pairing, refreshing and acid-forward.
The most mineral-driven and saline-expressive Assyrtikos originate in Santorini, Greece. For another aroma of sea breeze and salt air, look for Albariño from Rías Baixas in northwest Spain.
Roth says that a good wine should always have “a number of things competing for your attention. Is it acidity? Is it minerality? Is it tannins, or creamy yeast characters? Is it salinity? Nothing should stand out. They should all be in a harmonious balance, making the wine interesting and giving it finesse.”