What do we mean when we say a wine is salty?

What do we mean when we say a wine is salty?
Image: AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File
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Some wine descriptions make inherent sense, like saying that a rosé has grapefruit notes or that a big California red had jammy qualities. Others are a little more abstract, like when you ask for a bright, clean white at your favorite wine store and the person helping you says that her favorite Muscadet is back in stock and that she loves its salty notes. Salty? In a wine? What does that even mean?

“People are using that term a lot,” says Christie Dufault, professor at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley. “Salty has become a buzzword.” She says that wines described as salty tend to be unoaked whites with high levels of acidity. They may call to mind oysters, olives, sea air, or perhaps a certain stony, rocky quality—these wines are sometimes also described as having the quality of minerality.

Many of them, like fino sherry and Muscadet, are grown near the ocean, and there’s a school of thought that the salty sea air influences the flavor of the grapes. “Does the salt from the sea air get on the grapes and stay in there throughout fermentation?” asks Dufault. “I don’t know. Either way, the wine definitely has that kind of briny saltiness.”

Lively, dry whites are naturals for summer drinking, whether you think that salty is a good way to describe them or not. A few to keep your eye out for on menus and at the wine store include Muscadet and Chablis, both French whites that are often paired with oysters, which bring their own saline tang to the table.

Etna Bianco from Sicily is another good one to try. Dufault says that Falanghina, an Italian white produced near Naples sometimes has salty qualities as well. Assyrtiko from the Greek island of Santorini, will be less familiar to most wine drinkers. “This tiny island, a crescent-shaped caldera and this indigenous, historic, historic grape, is growing on these ancient volcanic soil, and it’s surrounded by the Adriatic Sea,” says Dufault. “Those wines are very dry, very high acid whites as well that tend to have a salty characteristic to them.”

To be clear, we’re not talking about a mouthful of seawater here. Salty wines are bright and perhaps suggestive of sea air or olive brine, but the term may not work for the way you actually experience wine, and that is fine. ” I always tell my students, ‘Let your descriptors be authentic,'” says Dufault. “‘Try to let the descriptors flow naturally; what does this wine make you think of when you smell it. If things are coming to you authentically they’re meaningful and you’ll never be wrong.'”