Why You Need Some Salt in Your Wines

Zap away winter doldrums with these bright, minerally whites

This week, a wine style I’m crazy about right now: salty whites. These aren’t wines that I’m adding salt to, but rather those with minerally notes that come off as briny, chalky, flinty, or stony in flavor or texture, depending on your taste perceptions. 

It’s a strange thing to think about — salt in your wine. But these wines are electric, they zing on your tongue and transport you to far away places. Sipping one is like watching a David Attenborough-narrated episode of Nature on high speed. 

One of my faves, Big Salt, starts out with with honeyed aromatics, like bees buzzing in a meadow of wildflowers. Take a sip and you’re suddenly in a mandarin orchard surrounded by dewy, ripe oranges. Then the finish cuts to a shoreline of waves crashing over rocky outcrops.

And that’s just in one sip. It’s captivating; it’s an adventure. Once you try these wines, you’ll be hooked (and don’t get me wrong — we’re not talking about a mouthful of Morton’s; it’s more like a pinch). The saltiness adds another dimension to these wines, beyond the fruit and flowers and familiar textures like crispness or creaminess. Salinity is a characteristic that moves into textural depth and savory sensations.

But where, exactly, do briny notes in wine come from, and how can you find these wines?

What to know:

Saltiness can show up in wines in a few ways. 

It’s a characteristic of some unoaked whites with high acidity. These are the wines that zap your tastebuds alive when you take a sip. You’ll see it in Muscadet wines from the Loire that are a traditional French pairing for oysters (I’m a big fan of this Muscadet from organic producer Domaine de la Pépière, $16). It’s is a light-bodied wine with bright acidity and a hint of sea spray that makes for a perfectly on-point pairing. 

You’ll also find saltiness in whites from volcanic soils, like those from Mount Etna in Sicily. I love the bright, medium-bodied Gulfi’s Carjcanti (Carricante), $23, which is a wine that sends you first to the orchard (yellow apples + lemon zest) then to tropical tide pools. For a near guarantee on finding those briny qualities, look for bottles labeled Carricante or “Etna Bianco” — these are at least 60% Carricante. A great example is organic winery Masseria Setteporte’s Etna Bianco N’Ettaro, $22, which has similar flavors and saline notes as Gulfi’s, but with more texture and depth, making it an exceptional cold weather sipper (P.S. Try with fried chicken or fish tacos).

Proximity to the sea also seems to be a factor in finding salinity in wine, as the notes show up in coastal wines worldwide, from Manzanilla sherries in Spain to Assyrtikos from Greece. As a winter white, I love Assyrtikos for their typically rich mouthfeel and creamy texture that’s balanced out by the grape’s high acidity. One example that’s hard to find but worth searching out is A-Grafo Mount Uncharted from the organic producer Kontozisis (available in CA and NY), $27. It’s citrusy and floral, with a saline streak and weighty, practically oily texture. This wine made for an unforgettable pairing with a buttery spinach-feta pie and halibut. More widely available with similar characteristics is Karamolegos Assyrtiko from Santorini, $26.

So does the saltiness come from sea spray? While it’s romantic to imagine sea breezes blowing into the vineyards, researchers point to the mineral content in the soil as a likely contributor to brininess in wines. Many wine regions were covered by oceans in ancient times, which is why you find seashells in some vineyards. 

That’s likely one reason Big Salt, $18, has its namesake salinity: It’s the soil. But with this wine, it’s also the grapes. Big Salt is a cofermented blend of several varieties including Riesling, which is known to convey distinctive mineral notes. It’s a heavier bodied white that’s textural and layered. Big Salt comes from the natural wine producer Ovum Wines, run by a winemaker couple, Ksenija and John House. Ovum is based in Oregon and specializes in coastal whites. Thankfully, Big Salt is widely available — I’ve seen it in grocery stores and wine shops from Seattle to New Jersey. When I see it on a shelf, I always snap up a few bottles.

Whether you’re drinking Big Salt or any of the others noted here, these wines are guaranteed to zip away the winter blahs. They’ll transport you to a day at the beach, the sun beating down and waves crashing in the distance — at least for a few moments. And that’s something we could all use right now.