You have likely heard someone talk about a wine they are enjoying as “light” or “lean”, “medium-bodied” or “bold and full”. These terms describe the body of a wine – its perceived weight and viscosity on your palate. To understand the concept better, think of milk: the difference between light- medium- and full-bodied wines would be akin to the differences between skim, 2% and whole milk! Body can greatly influence your perception and enjoyment of a wine in your glass. In fact, people tend to have a greater reaction to the weight of a wine than to any other defining characteristic. It is important to note, however, that body does not determine worth – wine body is a preference, not an indication of quality.
There are several factors that influence wine body including grape variety, alcohol content, residual sugar and acid level.
Red wine grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Malbec and Syrah tend to be inherently more full-bodied than medium-bodied Merlot, Sangiovese and Cabernet Franc or than the lightest red varieties like Pinot Noir, Grenache and Gamay. Conversely, body in white wine is determined primarily by treatment in the cellar. California-style Chardonnay is a good example of a full-bodied white. The weighty mouthfeel here is usually the result of malolactic fermentation (when malic acid is converted to lactic acid, giving a wine a creamy texture) and oak treatment (which adds tannins).
Alcohol adds viscosity to a wine and wines high in alcohol content are often – but not always! – described as big, weighty or full. To achieve higher alcohol content requires higher levels of sugar in the grapes at harvest, which is usually achieved in warm-climate regions that experience a great number of sunlight hours during the growing season.
Similarly, high sugar content in wine will result in a richer, more mouth-filling sensation. The level of residual sweetness in any given bottle is contingent on the sugar content of the grapes at harvest (which depends on such things as climate, growing conditions and harvest date) as well as a winemaker’s preferred style. Wines that are not vinified dry – where some residual sugars remain after fermentation – will be both sweeter tasting and fuller-bodied.
Any discussion about wine body must take into account acidity, as even the most trained palate perceives wines with higher acidity to be lighter in body than wines with similar alcohol and residual sugar content that have lower acid levels. Acidity is critical to achieve balance in a bottle of wine. If care is not taken to retain acids in grapes grown in warm, sunny climates, the wine produced can be heavy, flabby and overwhelming on the palate. Although ripe, boozy and overly-extracted wines were fashionable in the late 1990s and early 2000s, consumer tastes have changed considerably in recent years and many wineries are now striving to produce wines with lower alcohol levels and more balance between alcohol, residual sugar and acidity. That said, there will always be a place for beefier, more robust wines, providing they are well-made and complex enough to offset the richness!
Here is a selection of wines of different ‘weights’ from the Buyers+Cellars portfolio
that are sure to delight and surprise:
Quinta da Sanjoanne Terroir Mineral 2020
This is a wonderful example of a light-bodied white wine. Despite hailing from a very hot region in Portugal, canopy management and careful shielding of the grapes during the hottest parts of the day, coupled with using the high acid grapes Louriero and Arinto, keep it refreshing. Nervy and exciting, this still Vinho Verde is almost electric on the palate. Notes of citrus and flint, with a distinct aroma of petrichor, like rain in August. You’ll find flavours of pink grapefruit and lemon, with stony minerality and vibrant, tingling acidity. This perfect summer sipper pairs beautifully with oysters on the half shell, baked white fish with capers or with a picnic lunch of cold cuts and pickles.
Dr. Konstantin Frank Dry Riesling 2021
Riesling can run the gamut from light-bodied and bone dry, to full, weighty and lusciously sweet. Dr. Frank’s version is a drier style but was aged for five months on its lees to help flesh out the palate and so comes across as more medium-bodied than light. This elegant wine has notes of lime zest, Granny Smith apple, citrus and nectarine, with mineral stoniness and zingy freshness. Pair with soft goat cheeses, green salads or simply-prepared chicken, pork or fish.
Pietraventosa Volere Volare 2021
Primitivo from Puglia, Italy typically produces high-alcohol, weighty wines. Primitivo (also known as Zinfandel) grows best in warm climates with plenty of sun and the wines of Puglia, in sunny southern Italy, are often, stylistically, big and alcoholic. Interestingly, Pietraventosa has crafted an elegant, medium-bodied example from high-altitude vineyards that sit on a bed of limestone. It is deliciously plush and well-balanced, with aromas of chilli pepper, rosemary, sage flowers, blood orange and soft tobacco. Fresh acidity and fine tannins make this a great accompaniment to pizza or gutsy pasta dishes. Serve slightly chilled.
Alandes Paradoux Red
This is a full-bodied, non-vintage “Bordeaux blend” of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot — French varieties that lend themselves to palate-coating richness. It clocks in at a healthy 14.8% alcohol due to near perpetual sunlight during the growing season and some of the longest hang times (the time between bud break and harvest) in the world. However, these grapes are grown at the extreme elevation of the Uco Valley in Argentina, where temperatures drop precipitously in the evenings, helping to maintain acidity and balance in the finished wine. An expressive, bold nose of plum, blackberry and cassis, along with mocha and some classic pencil shavings. On the palate, it is plenty weighty, but the tannic backbone and marked acids make it far from ponderous. The finish is long, fruit-driven and contemplative. Serve with a grilled pinto bean and shitake mushroom burger with roasted red peppers, a grilled Rib Steak or stewed lamb.