What's a Wine's Body?

Body levels are how the wine ‘feels’ inside your mouth. Does it feel light and refreshing or heavy and smooth, coating the inside of your cheeks?

If in doubt, the looks of the wine can give you some cues, but it’s really by tasting that you can nail it.


 

Why does it matter?

A wine's body level has nothing to do with the wine’s quality. Still, it's important to figure out if we like our wine full, medium or light bodied if we want to start building the ID of our perfect wine. 

It's the combination of body, oaking, ageing and many other factors, that brought together can result in fabulous wines. A balanced blend of all three is easy to ask for but much harder for the winemaker to achieve.

 

 

What determines Body Levels?

 
 

Wine is made of 6 natural components. Their combination make up the body of the wine. We have listed them below in order of decreasing impact on a wine's body.

As a rule of thumb, the richer the wine is with regards to each of its components, the fuller the body. Acids are the only exception: the higher the acidity, the lighter the wine will feel.

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(1) Glycerol

This is a gluey, sweet component that makes the wine glide down the glass. This is the single most important component in determining body as it's the root cause for a wine's thickness.

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(2) Alcohol

Not much to explain here. It's worth stressing that alcohol usually comes in equal parts to glycerol as they are produced together during the fermentation process that transforms grape juice into wine. So, if you're struggling with identifying the glycerol level, a good cheat is to check the alcohol by volume on the label.  

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(3) Tannins

These are that bitter thing that make your gums dry immediately and get your tongue to stick to your palate. Tannins can be found almost exclusively in red wines. Highly tannic wines are usually full-bodied.

 
 
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(4) Sugar

Most wines are completely dry, i.e. don't have any sugar. In some wines though, sugar is present as residual – ie. left over from the wine making process - making the wine sweet. In a later blog we'll log into the difference between sweet wine and aromatic ones, that by many are thought to be sweet as well. Riesling for example can smell and taste very sweet with high residual sugar, whereas Viognier smell aromatic and ‘of sweets’ but in fact have little residual sugar.

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(5) Minerals

These often impact in the taste of the wine, giving a savoury or even salty taste. Wines like Muscadet or Chablis are good examples in which to find plenty of minerals.

 
 
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(6) Acids

Generally high in most white wines, a wine's acidity will make you salivate while drinking. Beware that acidity tricks our perception, making full-bodied wines appear lighter than they are!

 

 
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Most red wines are medium or full-bodied, but it's quite easy to find examples of great light-bodied reds. The looks of the wine will help getting body levels right with reds, but it's the tasting that will confirm the final answer.

Let's try a wine together to see how to figure out its body level:

 
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Start by looking at the wine against a white background and notice the intensity of its colour. Pale reds with a watery rim are light-bodied and deeper, darker reds are full-bodied.

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Swirl it around the glass. Notice how the wine moves around. If it moves slowly like a thick and gluey liquid, the body is full; if it behaves like water, it’s light.

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Swirl again and look at the drops that that glide down the glass. These are the famous ‘legs’ (or ‘tears’). Glycerol is the main factor for this: the more and the slower they fall, the fuller the body.

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And finally let's drink! How does the wine feel in your mouth? If it feels like full-bodied full-fat milk, it's full-bodied; if it feels like skimmed milk, it's light-bodied.

If you are struggling to call a shot, try ‘chewing the wine’’: get a good sip and fake chewing on it. Does it feel dense or not?

see for yourself

Most red wines are medium to full bodied. Nonetheless, here are a couple of suggestions of wines widely available at major wine shops and supermarkets to sample light vs full bodied and see the difference first hand.

As a rule of thumb, for full bodied reds we have to head to warmer climates. Good examples can be found in Australia, with a classic rich Shiraz (try Yalumba Family Vignerons). Alternatively, you can try one a wine that has two completely different names on each side of the Atlantic: in California it's called Zinfandel (try Ravenswood Lodi) whilst in Southern Italy it goes by the name of Primitivo (try Surani Costarossa).

For light bodied reds, we have to go to colder places instead. The most classic examples are a Burgundy Pinot Noir (try Bouchard Pere et Fils) or a Beaujolais (try Louis Jadot) which is made from a grape called Gamay.

 

 
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White wines are most often light to medium bodied, wines we think of as crisp and refreshing and are lighter in the mouth and lower in alcohol.

Let's try a wine together to see how to figure out its body level:

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Swirl the glass. Similarly to red wines, the ‘legs’ of wine running back down the glass will tell the story. For fuller bodied whites, the wine will move slowly around the glass.

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Swirl again and look at the ‘legs’. The more legs and the slower they fall, the fuller the body.

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And finally, time to drink again! A white wine that feels like full-bodied full-fat milk is full-bodied; one that feels like skimmed milk is light-bodied.

And once more, if you are struggling to decide, try ‘chewing the wine’’.

 

See for yourself

As opposed to reds, in the case of whites the majority of wines are light to medium bodied. Nevertheless, find here are a couple of suggestions to compare the two ends of the spectrum.

For a full bodied white we can go for a classic oaky Chardonnay (try Vasse Felix from Australia). If we want to try something a little more off-the-beaten-path, let's try a wine that is gaining more and more popularity - Viognier; a good example is Bellingham's from South Africa.

Finding a light bodied white is much easier, and to be honest almost any Sauvignon Blanc will do the trick very well. But let's look for something a bit more exciting! A nice Riesling from Alsace, France is a great option (try Trimbach); alternatively, let's bring the Spanish cheerfulness into play with an Albarino from Tesco Finest.

 
Some ‘experts’ will claim that the best wine brings everything - body, oaking, ageing, etc - to the fullest.
Don’t let them decide for you. Choose what you like!

 

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