When a wine is salty, and why it shouldn’t be

Salty is not a common wine descriptor. That it’s also not a positive one probably goes without saying. As a consumer, it’s also not a fault you’re likely to fret over (I don’t think I can recall ever hearing anyone say something like “Hey, Sarah, does this wine taste salty to you?”) But the fact that wine-producing countries have (widely varying) legal maximums for sodium chloride in wine should tell you something. Salinity is a concern in dry locations when frequent irrigation increases soil salinity, which increases wine salinity, which may add one more to the list of western American winemakers’ concerns. Soil composition often doesn’t translate in the way you’d expect into grape composition; salt is, unfortunately, an exception.

An article in the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture last year mentions Australian growers’ and winemakers’ experience that grapes that taste salty may clock in under the legal sodium chloride limit and vice-versa. Law or no law, obviously no one wants “salty” to show up in their product’s tasting notes. The article reported on an effort to quantify when wine saltiness kicked in and how best to measure it. Most of the non-sodium chloride salts that show up in wine – potassium chloride is notable – register as bitter more than salty. Sodium chloride registers as salty, obviously, but also appears to convey soapy sensations. They were interested, then, both in how much salt it took for a taster to call a wine salty and in the negative impacts of defined amounts of salt on wine flavor.

Their cadre of tasters – enology students at the University of Adelaide with some specialized tasting experience – were able to first identify saltiness in Australian Shiraz and unoaked Chardonnay at .36 to 1.76 g/L with a median of .8 g/L and a lot of individual variation (values were lower for the white wine, higher for the red). The Australian legal maximum of .606 g/L, then, means that some of these folk may sometimes encounter a salty wine; the Swiss limit of .06 g/L, on the converse, seems unwarranted at least in terms of sensory concerns. The researchers also spiked the Chardonnay with several concentrations of NaCl and asked a smaller group of specially trained students to rate their sensory qualities. Those experiments confirmed that at .5 and 1 g/L, added salt dampened perceptions of fruit and added a salty flavor and soapy mouthfeel.

To the Australian researchers, the utility of their findings was in recommending that Australian growers could probably rely on their (quite possibly a bit more sensitive than average) taste perceptions to gauge grape saltiness in the field, in terms of acceptability for the Australian market, but not for meeting more stringent international guidelines. They didn’t comment on the implications of their findings for the reasonableness of those guidelines, though perhaps they go without saying. It does seem plausible that saltiness perception thresholds might vary among people of different nations accustomed to different diets, though this study’s Australian-based results were about on par with previous studies including a few conducted in Japan.

One other interesting implication, for household use. Obsessive molecular gastronomist Nathan Myrhvold has recommended that people try salting their wine as they would salt any other food. This is the same gentleman who suggests that a blender is an efficient tool for oxygenating wine, a more aggressive version of “letting it breathe” in a decanter. Myrhvold suggests a tiny pinch per glass. If one teaspoon of salt weighs about six grams, then 1/10th teaspoon per liter of wine amounts to the Australian limit of .6 g/L. A standard glass of wine is about 150mL. In other words, any realistic pinch will send your glass over the technically established edge. But it’s worth noting that Myrhvold is recommending this as a tactic to make a wine taste more savory.

I tried this with an exceptionally ordinary glass of Australian shiraz. The salt did, indeed, make the wine taste more savory. Frankly, that was neither difficult nor especially unwelcome for something that started off as a bit of a fruit bomb. But – and keep in mind that I was not tasting blind – the potential for that to be a benefit was outweighed by the kind of soapiness you get from having added a bit too much baking soda to your biscuits. In this wine, where the fruit was pretty much what it had going for it, I wouldn’t do it again, but I’m interested to see what happens with the next glass of reasonably lively Chardonnay I come across.

For producers in California, Washington, and other devastatingly dry locales, unfortunately, adding salt isn’t going to be that kind of easy option.

21 thoughts on “When a wine is salty, and why it shouldn’t be

  1. I have wondered many times who the idiot was that started, openly, recommending using a blender to open up a wine.
    The aerators used to pour wine through, I thought were just a fad, gimmick, that would just go away. But no.
    I was in an Italian restaurant recently and ordered a bottle of young Brunello. Something I normally wouldn’t do but the price was so cheap I had to. The som shows up with the wine and this very strange looking decanter with an odd looking contraption on top. I was distracted for a moment then heard a high pitch gurgling sound, looked back and saw my wine bottle sitting on top of the decanter upside down, wine being sort of sucked into the decanter. The som noticed my horror and quickly removed the wine bottle from the decanter..
    To make this short. I asked the som to bring us each 2 glasses and we compare the wine from the decanter and wine poured straight from the bottle. He was quite surprised at how much of the fruit flavor was stripped away by the aerator. Yes, it made the wine softer. The tannin was subdued but was also turned a touch bitter.
    Perhaps these instruments have a use somewhere in the world where wine is just for wetting your whistle. I don’t know.

    sorry

    • Nothing to apologize for, John. You like what you like, and you don’t what you don’t, and there’s nothing wrong with not liking physical jargon interposed between you and your wine. A bit shocking when the somm didn’t even ask first, I expect!

        • Ooof! Certainly didn’t mean to come down on you hard, John, and my apologies if I did. It’s funny. On the one hand, I do think that Old/New world palate differences are a real thing, though not so pronounced perhaps as they once were and are sometimes made out to be. On the other, I’ll admit that my hackles raise a bit when someone starts talking about them. Looks as though I have some critical self-examination to do there. Regardless, thanks very much for the comment.

          • No apology please. I really meant it when I said “Thanks for putting me in my place”.
            Though, what I was remarking about didn’t have as much to do with what I like versus what other people like. when it comes to wine, I deal very little with the public. Over the many years of selling wine to 100s of restaurant and shop owners and all those different palates, I learned to approach selling from a wine correctness stand point.
            did i make any sense?
            My issue is with the people using gimmickry to play off of peoples ignorance about wine and making money at it. Not that the guy that started the tiny immersion blender fade to make your wine better is making alot of money but he wasn’t doing anything to further any ones understanding about wine with his suggestion.

  2. Gosh, this sounds like a classic New World/Old World esthetic preference issue.

    I taste and review lots of wines — almost all from France, Germany, and Italy — and I frequently refer to saltiness or salinity in wines. I do so in a positive sense, considering it to be a desirable aspect.

    I’m not a wine chemist, but I don’t see salinity or saltiness coming from sodium chloride, but rather from acidity.

    • Claude, I don’t think this is a New/Old World palate difference at all. You’ll note that Switzerland’s legal limit for sodium chloride is an entire order of magnitude lower than Australia’s. I enjoy “briney” or “oceany” wines very much. That quality, which I very much associate with minerality, is an entirely separate quality than outright saltiness. The former has an aromatic component; the latter doesn’t. I don’t know what your “salinity” describes precisely, but I’d imagine that we might both be talking about the positive briney-ness rather than saltiness.

  3. Attended a tasting of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs from the Marlborough region last evening and there was one in the lineup (there were around 12 labels and honestly I can’t remember the name) that tasted so salty, I couldn’t drink it. Others in the tasting noticed it as well. What do you think?

    • Regina, that’s interesting. I think the wine must have been salty! More seriously, I wonder whether what you all picked up on was the result of a winemaking process rather than vineyard soil salinity, since sauvignon blanc vineyards are rarely, rarely irrigated here and I’ve not heard it discussed as an issue. Perhaps some kind of ion exchange procedure gone wrong? You’ve given me an interesting line of thinking to chase down.

      • Marlborough Vineyards are situated very close to the sea. Standing on the hills, one can see the sea spray going from Cloudy Bay about a kilometre inland. So I do not think it is a vineyard irrigation issue, but a terroir effect. NZ Sauvignon blanc is often paired with Fresh sea food to bring out the flavours.

        Incidently, the saltiest vineyards in Marlborough do not get irrigation as they are the lowest in elevation and closest to the water table.

        • Again, Martin, I was only saying that irrigation is a major influence on soil salinity, not the only one. It would be interesting to know whether ocean salt spray had anything to do with the overt saltiness the previous commenter Regina noted in a Marlborough sauv blanc tasting.

          • I would say that 99/100ths of the issue is the fact the vineyards are on the sea shore in Marlborough. The grapes are literally covered in salt. The sea spray runs up both the Wairau and Awatere Valleys, and in tastings this can be shown as the saltiness decreases the further up the valley the grapes are. This means the wines are not faulted, as your article suggest, but it is part of the Terroir.

            Not many companies use ion exchange in NZ, and the vineyards worst affected by salinity do not usually irrigate. Also, while Regina above (perfectly reasonably, mind. It is her personal preference) did not enjoy the Marlborough Sauvignon blanc, I love the minerality and saltiness that this terroir brings, especially with fresh sea food.

  4. Salinity surely doesn’t depend on whether a vineyard is irrigated or otherwise. I know dry grown vineyards which have unusual salt structures in isolated sections and yeap, the wines are more salty from those patches. To add to the discussion, the thing no one talks about in Australia is the impact of stands of Eucalypts near vines. Same again, that menthol nose. I wonder if it is the bloom on grapes and thats how it gets into the wine??

    • Chris, you’re right, of course: salinity doesn’t depend on irrigation. But, irrigation tends to increase soil salinity in vineyards that didn’t start off that way because salts in the irrigation water build up in the soil. As for the eucalyptus, I’ve heard plenty about various environmental scents permeating grapes and ending up in wine. Bloom on grapes is something very different: what you’re seeing is epicuticular wax, something of a protective coating that occurs on grapes and a number of other fruits (plums are usually a good example). However, we have good evidence that smoke taint from nearby wildfires can show up in wine because phenylpropanoids (I believe; this is off the top of my head) can permeate the grape skin, for example. That said, eucalyptol is found in Australian shiraz, so you may simply be picking up on eucalyptol-containing grapes that happen to be near eucalyptol-containing plants.

      • Martin, I’m not trying to suggest that Marlborough sauv blancs are faulty because they’re salty. Countries set legal limits, consumers can detect salt in some wines in ways they find objectionable, and I’m describing research addressing those concerns. Whether something is a “terroir effect” is an entirely separate question from whether it falls within established legal limits and whether consumers like it.

        • The title of your report is “When a wine is salty, and why it shouldn’t be”, so you are saying exactly that all wines with a saltiness are faulted. Saltiness as a vineyard fault (as opposed to a winery based fault, such as POF or bacterial taint), taking into account where the wine was sourced from, might well be an issue. But really it is probably only indicative to an on-to-it winemaker to report back to the viticulturist that there is a serious issue with that vineyard. Then plans can be put into place to ensure these faults are corrected and the wine blended away. Healthy vine = healthy wine. However, putting a broad blanket over saltiness and why it should not be in wine is not helpful, especially to people trying to learn about the joys of wine. There are a lot of wines that are grown near the sea and have a salty character to them that are lovely. Some people may not like these wines for that reason, however that is the product the winemaker intended for the consumer to drink, the product that best showcases their terroir, salt and all. I am pleased that Regina above knows she does not like saltiness and I do hope that one day she tries a Marlborough Sauvignon blanc that is from further inland that she enjoys!

  5. The missing variable in the salty discussion is the root stock. One, quite common root stock in Australia is from an American native vine, called “Salt Creek”, also referred to as Ramsey. It is not recommended for premium wines, but is very resistant to nematodes AND salinity, which then gets taken up by the vine. For these reasons it can be quite popular in saline soils such as those close to the sea.

    • That’s fascinating, Jim, and something I didn’t know, though it makes sense. So if I understand you aright, the rootstock is “resistant” to salinity insofar as it grows well in saline soils, but it also deposits sodium chloride from the soil in its fruit. I need to do some reading/thinking about this in the larger context of how soil minerals are and aren’t reflected in fruit.

      • Good comment. It may actually operate by blocking sodium ions. What I do know is that it allow potassium in and this reduces colour in red wines so I assumed that it also let sodium through. Incidentally, chestnuts are very sensitive to lime as they are unable to regulate the intake of calcium.

  6. Salty wine is crap. Pure and simple. This is a product produced from a grape, not celery. There is just no excuse. No need to tolerate it.

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