Wine 101: The low-down on body
Wine comes in all shapes and sizes. Whereas intensity describes how much a wine packs a flavour punch, body describes how mouth-filling a wine is – all about the feels. Here we're going to explore the three basics that make a wine feel light or heavy on your tongue: the lack or presence of tannin, alcohol and sugar.
Some people love themselves a big Barossa shiraz, packed with fruit and leaves your mouth coated in tannin. Others prefer a crisp, refreshing Hunter Valley sem that doesn't leave you feeling worse for wear after a whole bottle, thanks to that low alcohol. Either way you choose to sip, wine has body and the whole point of this article is to help you understand what body is.
Body is all about the feels. It's the weight it has when it glides over your tongue. It's the impression it leaves on the sides of your mouth. Body is decided by both the climate and the winemaker's stylistic decisions in the winery.
Body – the five-point mouth-filling scale
(As distinct from the slightly more fictional five-point-palm exploding heart technique...)
You might have a light-bodied Tassie riesling, a medium-bodied Coonawarra cabernet or a full-bodied Barossa shiraz. Then there are those wines that straddle these three key markers, and you end up with the muddiness that is 'light-to-medium-bodied' and 'medium-to-full-bodied'. Annoying differentiators, but useful once you get used to them. So to begin with, think of 'body' as a five-point mouth-filling scale.
So let’s break it down to the basics, what in a wine creates the body?
Tannins – not just smooth or rough
The best way to describe tannin is that to think of that grip you feel in your mouth when drinking bigger reds. Tannins also contribute to that drying sensation we sometimes feel after a glass or two. They are a bitter-tasting compound found in grape skins, seeds and stalks, and can also be imparted by oak barrels. Importantly, they provide a structure, and prevent them feeling flabby or acidic on your palate.
Red wines in general will have higher tannin than white wines. This can change depending on the grape variety. For example, pinot noir grapes have thinner grape skins which translates to lower tannins than something like cabernet sauvignon, which has much thicker skins.
Tannins are one of the factors that contribute to the overall body of a wine; grapes that have higher tannins will generally be more fuller-bodied and vice-versa.
With the exception of some styles of chardonnay, reds tend to have more oak treatment, too. More often, thicker-skinned grapes are happier in warmer regions, so you'll find that wines like McLaren Vale shiraz get more generously oaked than Tassie pinot. So again, body goes up.
Alcohols in wine are another factor that contributes to body. It varies from lower alcohol wines like riesling or Hunter semillon, to wines that are punching nearly into the fortified territory like Rutherglen durif. A wine's alcohol is largely determined by the ripeness at harvest, so cooler climate wines will generally have lower alcohol levels, compared to warmer climate wines. As a general rule, the higher the alcohol, the fuller the body. This is because higher alcohol levels add to a wine's viscosity.
Level-up: the reason I use the plural 'alcohols' is because although we all talk in terms of ethanol (i.e. 'that 13.5% cabernet'), there are other alcohols at play. Grape variety, yeast strain, fermentation temperature and other factors all change how much of these are expressed, but know that they can significantly change how a wine 'feels'. Ethanol is a lighter molecule than things like propanol and butanol, and small amounts of these latter two can add different flavours, 'weights' and viscosity to a wine. Now you know.
The majority of wines you’ll drink will be fermented to dryness, meaning that all or most of the sugar from grapes will have been converted to alcohol. Sweet wines on the other hand can range from just a touch of sweetness, to incredibly high in sugar (and equally delicious). The sweeter the wine, the more body you'll feel, but don't forget acidity – this uncanny beast counters the sugar to make a wine seem comparatively lighter in body.
Level-up: For example, a sweet riesling can seem not as sweet as its lower alcohol level might lead you to believe, thanks to its higher acidity (we're looking at German styles, in particular). Meanwhile, a Rutherglen muscat manages to be full-bodied and luscious, but maintain its acidity, because water has evaporated while sugar, acid and most of the initial alcohol remain – everything is intensified.
Explore for yourself...
The best way to understand, as with anything, is through exposure. Practice, practice, practice... yes, we're hard task masters. Here are some rough guidelines on regional wine styles and where they fit on the body scale.
Five light-bodied wine styles to try:
- Italian pinot grigio
- Marlborough sauvignon blanc
- Clare Valley riesling
Five medium-bodied wine styles to try:
- Austrian grüner veltliner
- Alsatian pinot gris
- Adelaide Hills chardonnay
- Cool climate syrah
- Spanish grenache
Five full-bodied wine styles to try
- Barossa shiraz
- Californian zinfandel
- Barolo (nebbiolo)
- Rioja Gran Reserva (tempranillo)
Where to from here?
These concepts are a good place to start, but winemakers ultimately have the ability to move the 'body' dial up or down a few notches with their toolboxes of tricks. Body isn't necessarily a measure of quality or cellar-worthiness, instead reflecting the characteristics of its terroir.
Our advice: it's best to experiment. Try some lighter styles, heavier styles, and everything in between. No two wines are the same, and neither are the vintages from which they were made. And no two tasters are the same, so – as we know – placing seemingly objective measures on something fundamentally subjective comes with inherent vagaries.
And if you're looking for a specific style, chat to our wine dealers and they'll guide you on a wine journey you won't forget. That's their whole reason for being here at Vinomofo. And you'll be able to talk body with the best of them.
It's one of the things that makes trying different wines so great: finding something you love, and knowing why. Then you're more likely to have something you love in the future. And once you know that, who can hold you back from the goodness that is wine?