Do you ever hear someone talking about a wine’s “body” and wonder what in the world they are referring to? The body of a wine is a description of the style, weight, or “mouth-feel” in a wine. It is used in both red and white wines and is the result of a number of factors, but is primarily derived from the grape used and how the winemaker crafts that grape into the style he or she is after. We’ll focus this discussion on red wine, although white wines certainly have a variety of styles as well. The categories are light-bodied, medium-bodied and full-bodied.
Light-bodied wines are often fruity and somewhat lower in alcohol. They also tend to be best when opened young, which signifies the absence of heavy tannins. Tannins are a preservative found in the skin, stems and seeds of grapes. They give wine a grip, as when you bite into a walnut and your mouth puckers up. Tannins get into the wine through the winemaker’s decision to leave the skins in contact for a longer period or in the aging of a young wine in an oak barrel rather than stainless steel or a neutral tank. Here are some examples of lighter varietal grapes: Gamay (Beaujolais), Pinot Noir (Burgundy), Tempranillo (Spain), Zweigelt (Austria and Germany), Cabernt Franc (France’s Loire Valley), Barbera and Dolcetto (Northern Italy). Some of these grapes can easily move into the medium-bodied and even full-bodied catagories depending on where and how the vines are harvested and how the winemaker vintifies the grapes. A light-bodied wine is fresh, not tannic, light on alcohol and, therefore, light feeling in your mouth. These wines pair best with delicate, simple foods such as fish, baked chicken, cheeses and veggies.
The step up to a medium-bodied wine might be as simple as allowing a bit longer hang time in the sun for the grapes, a longer maceration time to extract more color and tannins from the must, some extra fermentation time to allow the yeast to eat the sugars and produce more alcohol, or barrel ageing the wine to introduce contact with oak and the flavors and tannins that are thus gained. Grapes that are commonly thought of as medium-bodied include Grenache, Sarah, Mourvedre (Rhone Valley), Cinsault, Carignan (south France), Pinotage (South Africa), Tempranillo (Spain). These wines are paired well with a large variety of foods that are neither too heavy or too light. Grilled meats, pastas, roasted vegatables, pizza and hard cheese all are good picks for medium-bodied wines, in fact most of these wines benefit from a food paring.
The last category is full-bodied reds. These are the monster wines that can boast high tannin and alcohol that can fill your mouth and dominate your taste buds. Often these wines are meant to be tasted on their own before or after a meal. The grape varietals that pack the power to get in this class include: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot(world-wide), Malbec (Argentina), Zinfandel, Petit Verdot, Petit Sirah (California), Sangiovese, Brunello, Nebbiolo, Negro Amaro (Italy), Carmenare, Tennat (Chile), Touriga National (Portugal). The presence of alcohol (up to 16%) gives your mouth the feeling of a heaviness or fullness, and some wines go further by “fortifying” the wine, that is by blending distilled grapes (Brandy) to get even higher levels of alcohol, for example, Port and Sherry. To be sure, you can still successfully pair these with food, but it takes a hearty steak, stew, game meats or strong cheeses to stand up to the intensity of a full-bodied wine.
Of course there are varying degrees and cross-overs within and between each category, but this can give you the basics on what it means when it comes to “body”. As always, I urge you to talk with your local wine merchants or attend a wine dinner to learn more about the wines and their food pairings. Experiment, practice, and above all, enjoy!
Written by Hunt Mallett, the owner and operator of Weinhaus, located on Patton Avenue in downtown Asheville.