What does “light-bodied” or “heavy” mean? They are talking about the wine’s body. Most experts attribute it to the alcohol in the wine. You’ll be left scratching your brain if you have a wine with a 14% ABV that is only medium-bodied. This is because they ignore five other factors contributing to wine’s body.
What is Wine Body?
You may not know I run a wine tour business in Chania on Crete. We teach our guests to taste wine on our tours. The most challenging wine characteristic to identify is the wine body. It’s impossible to quantify or define. I have taught thousands of people to taste and know the best way to help my guests understand the wine body.
The body of a wine is its thickness or thinness. Several factors, including alcohol, sugar, glycerin, and oak aging, can determine the body of the wine. Tannins are also a factor. These elements all contribute to the viscosity of the wine.
Disclaimer Before We Continue!
The quality of a wine is not determined by its body. Wine doesn’t need to have a whole body to be good. Wine writers gave high marks for big, bold, heavy, and over-extracted wine. It was just their choice. It set the trend for winemakers who now strive to make their wines all full-bodied. It was a mess. The trend is moving towards more elegant wines. It is not a measure of wine quality but merely a preference.
How to detect body in the wine
The wine’s body is determined by how rich or watery it FEELS. Full-bodied wines will coat the mouth and move slowly around it. It will feel heavier and thicker. Light-bodied wines will not cover your mouth and move quickly around it. The wine will be light.
If you’re looking for a deeper dive into wine, I cover this in detail in my online Wine Tasting course.
The milk comparison is often used to determine the body of a wine. Light body wines will be similar to skim milk or 0%, medium body wines to 1-2%, and total body wines to cream or full-fat. This tool is excellent for those who last consumed milk 20 years ago. This could be more helpful for those who don’t have a culture of milk drinking.
Everyone better understands the coating and texture. A light-body wine feels like a soft cotton sheet, and full-bodied wine is like a velvety blanket.
If you have trouble detecting the body of the wine, try taking a sip with your mouth shut, tilting your head forward, and flicking it with your tongue. If you move your tongue quickly through the wine, it is light. If it moves with resistance through the liquid, it is complete.
Viscosity of Wine.
Science was not my favorite subject. It would have been better if my teachers had broken down the different science lessons into how they affected wine. This excellent project report I found online is from a middle schooler. It shows how alcohol, sugar, and glycerin affect viscosity. Alcohol can be represented here by hand sanitizer. Sugar can be defined as syrup and honey. And glycerin, well, it’s glycerin. These substances are either more viscous or take longer to travel than water.
Science Fair Project done By Rushi Barot.
What Alcohol Does to Wine Body.
Viscosity is added to wine by alcohol. The more alcohol a wine contains, the more dense it becomes. The slower a wine moves, the thicker it is. This is evident when we swirl the glass and observe the legs/tears/droplets of wine dripping down the sides. The higher the alcohol content, the slower wine will flow.
This does not necessarily translate into a wine with a more significant body.
I live on an island in the Mediterranean that is hot. As with most wines from warm climates, the wines on this island are high in alcohol. More sunshine = riper grapes= grape sugar= higher alcohol. It is absurd to assume that all Crete wines are full-bodied. You would laugh out loud if you compared the alcohol content of our two most popular red grape varieties, Liatiko or Kotsifali, to determine whether they were full-bodied. Spoiler alert: Both of them are light-bodied.
Alcohol contributes to the body of the wine.
How Sugar Adds Body To Wine.
Sugar, like alcohol, adds body to the wine by increasing its viscosity. Many dessert wines have an entire body due to their high alcohol and sugar content. Sweeter wines coat the mouth and leave behind a film.
Many wines are added sugars to make them more full-bodied and appealing to the mass market. Apothic red is an example of a wine with over 16 grams of sugar! Compare that to the 1 or 2 grams of sugar in most dry wine.
Glycerol/Glycerin is used in wine.
Don’t panic because you’ve never heard this wine word before. Glycerol, a by-product of fermentation, is a natural substance. Glycerol is about 1% in the final wine composition. Glycerol can also be found in many grape varieties. Glycerol has no odor but a thick, syrupy texture. This gives wines a fuller body and slight sweetness. Winemakers may select a strain of yeast that produces more glycerol to increase the fullness of their wines.
The Oak Ageing Process Adds Body and Aroma to Wine.
I have written extensively about how oak adds aromas, flavors, and body to wine but not how oak aging gives the wine more body. Oak is the main reason why oak gives the wine a body. It provides an ideal environment for Malolactic Fermentation. This process converts malic acid to lactic acid, which provides the wine with a creamier consistency. The tannins in wine are also increased by oak aging.