Graphite and salinity: Experimental results added

These two terms seem to be all the rage with critics right now. But do they mean anything?


Graphite in fact has no smell. (I checked a week or so ago, sniffing some powdered graphite.) In some cases it seems to be a sloppy allusion to pencils, which smell like cedar – because they are made of cedar. Cedar is also considered the best wood for cigar boxes. Cedar/cigar box is a scent you commonly find in red Bordeaux. Graphite isn’t.

And I have no idea what someone’s talking about when they use graphite to describe California pinots, Rhones, Brunellos and Burgundies, where cedar isn’t typical.

2009 Guigal Hermitage Rouge
Dunnuck, WA (93+ points): "A big, massive and rich effort that needs to be forgotten for 4-5 years, the inky colored 2009 Hermitage reveals terrific aromatics of cassis, blackberry, smoked herbs, graphite and seared meats.’’
[Ed’s note: Smoked herbs??]

Martin, WA (94-96 points): "The 2016 Malescot-St-Exupery has an opulent, lavish and pure bouquet with billowing black cherry and blueberry fruit, a touch of mint and graphite emerging with time.”

2011 Dominique Lafon Beaune Epenottes
Sanderson, WS (91 points): “Featuring expressive aromas and flavors, this red delivers black cherry, currant, rhubarb, graphite and loam notes. Linear in profile, with dense tannins guarding the finish for now.”
[Ed’s note: Does rhubarb have an aroma? Perhaps, but I don’t think it has much raw, and cooked I think what you smell is usually the other fruits combined with it (e.g., strawberries), or some caramelized sugar.]

2013 Varner Pinot Noir Picnic Block Santa Cruz
Galloni, Vinous (92 points): "Sweet dark cherry, menthol, pine, licorice and dark spices are all infused in the 2013 Pinot Noir Picnic Block. Deep and ample on the palate, the Picnic shows the more virile, masculine side of Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir. This is an especially dense, meaty Pinot Noir. Graphite, black pepper, game, smoke and scorched earth add the closing shades of nuance.”
[Ed’s note: What does scorched earth smell like? That’s another term that’s a head-scratcher for me.]

2010 Costanti Brunello di Montalcino
Galloni (97 points): “tunning. Dark, powerful and mysterious in the glass, the 2010 captivates all the senses with its breathtaking beauty and layered, multi-dimensional personality. Lavender, violets, savory herbs, smoke, plums and graphite flow through to the rich, explosive finish. There is a prism-like sense of transparency allied to pure power in the 2010 that is impossible to miss. "

Galloni, Vinous (93 points): “The 2014 [Chappelet] Cabernet Sauvignon Signature is fabulous. A host of graphite, smoke, licorice, lavender, crème de cassis and exotic spice give the wine its characteristic savory and mineral-drenched flavors.”
[Ed’s note: “Smoke, licorice, lavender, crème de cassis and exotic spice” don’t seem at all “mineral-drenched.”]


Salinity, meanwhile, is the new minerality: a term that might once have had some meaning as applied to wine but has not been debased completely as it’s applied to any of a wide range of wines.

I have a good idea of what salinity is in some whites that have solid acidity. There can be something salty about the finish in those wines. But I have a hard time imagining a salty Bordeaux, Burgundy or nerello mascalese.

Would these writers dare to call the wines slightly salty? I think that might sound daft, but “salinity” has a kind of expert ring about it – a pseudo precision.

Martin, WA (92-94 points): "The 2016 Phelan-Segur has a really quite superb bouquet, quite Pauillac-like in style with graphite-infused black fruit, subtle tertiary notes and later, pressed flowers. The palate is medium-bodied with fine tannin. There is plenty of tobacco-infused black fruit here, crisp and focused with a lovely salinity on the finish that lingers in the mouth.

Galloni, Vinous (91-94 points): "The 2016 Canon is a wine of pure sophistication and polish. A rush of red cherry, plum, mint, rose petal and blood orange gives the 2016 its sexy, racy personality. Underlying veins of minerality and salinity provide finesse and persistence.”

2013 Humbert Freres Gevrey Chambertin Poissenots
Tanzer, Vinous (90-93 points): "Urgent aromas of crushed black berries and licorice pastille complicated by a saline element. Rocky and taut in the mouth, with the crushed black fruit flavors currently hardened by the wine’s firm acidity and tannic spine.”

2012 Lignier-Michelot Morey St. Denis En Rue de Vergy
Tanzer, Vinous (89-92 points): “Good bright red. Very pure, perfumed aromas of cherry, raspberry, brown spices and flowers. Sweet, lush and lightly saline; a fruit bomb for Morey, with hints of menthol and minerals adding complexity. Finishes with suave, fine-grained tannins and very good spicy persistence.”
[Ed’s note: I cannot imagine a saline fruit bomb.]
2014 Passopisciaro Passorosso Etna Rosso
D’Agata, Vinous (97 points): “Bright red-ruby. The captivating nose combines strawberry, raspberry, minerals, violet and flint aromas. Creamy-sweet but amazingly light on its feet, offering palate-staining, perfumed flavors of soft red berries, ripe red cherry, vanilla, aromatic herbs and crushed rock. Rich, ripe and suave, but displays a penetrating, saline and energetic quality that gives this beauty a three-dimensional mouthfeel and a light-on-its-feet quality.
[Ed’s note: Wow! This must be doubly light on its feet!]

John–I agree with you on the graphite. It’s actually earthy cedar that folks are identifying.

However, I clearly get saline notes on the palate in some wines, more typically high end reds, most often some burgundies (although possibly it’s just because I drink more burgundy), so to me it’s a pretty specific descriptor. More likely in the wines that are more detailed, delineated wines–not the super-ripe, spoofed, oaked things.

I have a divergence of opinion here with my distinguished colleague.

Perhaps its the fantastical lead-ridden universe that defined my childhood, with my father an aerospace engineer and my mother an interior designer, their drafting tools of the trades scattered throughout their studios; or perhaps it is the lead-based paints that coated my Boston Brownstone childhood residence, which I probably ate along with the entire rainbow of crayons, but I swear pencil “lead” has a distinct perfume. I get it, carbon is an inert compound that has no odor, scientifically speaking, so perhaps it is some compounds mixed with the carbon to produce the lead that emit an aroma, but I detect a metallic perfume that is distinct from the cedar woodstick that encases the lead. I just smelled some pencil leads in a drafting pencil - yea, I did, I’m a dork - and it has a slight odor to me. What this means to wine, I have no clue. I do not think I have use the term “graphite” outside of the context of a No. 2 pencil, where the cedar itself bears resemblance to some Bordeaux. Incidentally, I have used the term “charcoal” in some notes, a material also made of a carbon, but acknowledge that it is a carbon made of char.

I also use salinity quite a bit in my notes. I think as a discriptor many of us use it in a way that does not connote the pejorative sense of using the word “salt” or “salty” to describe your wine. A slight digression, it would not be incorrect to use “salty” to describe a red Colares. I use “salinity” to connote the tincture of salt or salty minerals that, for my palate, are present in many of the wines I adore, especially Northern Rhone syrahs.

Now all that said, I am nowhere near the word-smith that John is, so my use of any term could also be totally off-base!

Funny i just thought of how clear the saline (or beef blood as I wrote) was in the 05 Betz wine i had last night, even double checked a few times to make sure thats what I was really tasting, it sure seemed like it.

I agree on graphite, and have stopped using the word mysef.

“Graphite” is what they say when they want to say “pencil lead.” Everyone knows they don’t use lead in pencils anymore so nobody wants to look like a fool and say “lead pencils,” yet it’s plain that pencils still smell like pencils and not just like cedar.

“Salinity” is a pompous term but there are definitely some wines that feel a bit salty. Some riesling as you mentioned. Syrah when it tastes like bacon. The chemists will have to chime in on this one, but I seem to remember a thread from awhile back discussing how drought conditions do lead to literal saltiness in the fruit. I do not, however, understood how saltiness can promote “finesse” (Galloni) or a “light on its feet quality” (D’agata).

Great points on ‘graphite.’

“Pencil” is a smell, “graphite” is a palate sensation.

“Scorched earth” is a funny one, but when you live in the South, it resonates. Soils and ground cover smell much differently in the summer heat, keep in mind it hits 100 degrees here. Smells much different than the musk of wet earth. It also produces the wonderful aroma of petrichor, when a summer shower hits the “scorched” earth and ground-cover, emitting yet another distinct and memorable aroma.

I had always assumed “salinity,” at least when describing aromatics, was used to allude to the smell of the ocean, which does have a distinct aroma beyond just decaying seaweed. It’s a term I’ve used most often when describing manzanilla sherry, but I am willing to admit that’s because I am usually thinking, however briefly, of Sanlucar when I drink manzanilla.

I think of “salinity” as an oceanic descriptor, as well.

Similar experience to Alfert. Been around drafting supplies all my life (including now) and swear that there is a graphite aroma. It’s possible they’re false memories but I don’t think that’s the case.

Something to keep in mind is the actual content of graphite in drafting tools. A #2 pencil is a pretty hard lead with less graphite than 8B or softer lead with higher graphite content. Having used lead holders (with soft lead) with no cedar/wood in sight, it would seem unlikely that I’m co-opting the smell of cedar shavings as the smell of graphite. But there is clay / earth mixed with the graphite so it’s possible that the softer clays have a distinctive aroma. (Iron like?)

Agreed, Taylor. I was educated in architecture and practiced in that field before merging it with law. My pencils were mechanical devices made of plastic where you insert a series of graphite sticks of all sizes depending on the pencil. There was no wood whatsoever.

drink a Muscadet or Assyrtiko and then tell me salinity doesn’t exist. You’d be wrong. Whether it is in the wines you listed, I don’t know. Maybe this discussion should be opened up to the field of wine criticism–which I have long divided into two camps–structuralists and adjectivists. The latter are like Parker, strings of adjectives describing a wine, rather than the more objective description of the structure of the wine. Different critics get completely different adjectives out of the wine, whereas the structure can be more uniform in description from critic to critic.

I completely agree on both of your points.

In my OP, I said:

I have a good idea of what salinity is in some whites that have solid acidity. There can be something salty about the finish in those wines. But I have a hard time imagining a salty Bordeaux, Burgundy or nerello mascalese.

I guess I’ve never looked for it in reds, and after reading some of the posts here, I guess I should be on the lookout.

Still, I think in a high proportion of these cases, salinity/saline is just one more in a string of adjectives that don’t really describe anything a reader is likely to experience.

I’m not sure I’ve seen a review that used “salinity” to refer to an aroma (perhaps because salt doesn’t have one!). I think it’s used for flavors.

The smell of the ocean is real, but I don’t think that’s salt. Anyone know what it is? Seaweed? Dead fish?

I’m with you, Keith, on the graphite/pencil lead. In my internal wine vocabulary, this descriptor has nothing to do with the cedar wood pencil itself.

Surely fleur de sel has an aroma? Our interactions with these components are never pure and rarely direct in terms of chemistry. Taste and smell are often interchangeable (if not the same depending on who you ask).

The danger with trying to approach these sensory experiences scientifically is that it often proves too much. Now we’re left questioning whether we’re tasting anything at all, and hundreds or thousands of experiences are figured to be mere illusion.

ummmm… no.

That’s not my intention at all. Cedar has a distinct scent; salt has a distinct taste. No one is denying that. Likewise with black currants, oak, butter. We all know what those mean in a wine. I just wanted to flag some usages that I think are in most cases either meaningless blather, sloppy language alluding to something that’s quite distinct (graphite for cedar) or pseudo-technical (salinity for salty, where if you use the ordinary term, you might ask yourself if the wine really does taste salty).

Ive been guilty of using graphite when in fact, it was pencil lead or steely or flint. No more. Saline character seems prevalent in some champagnes and white wines and I refer to it when its there on my palate.

I bet this thread will do wonders for soft pencil sales.