Q. We often read about wines being described as light, medium or full-bodied. But what does it actually mean?
A. These terms are used to describe the power, richness and feel of a wine in your mouth – unlike other tasting terms that are more about smell and flavour. Body in a wine is made up of various components, mainly alcohol, but also extract, tannins and a few other elements.
In short, full-bodied wines tend to have lower acidity, higher alcohol, and more tannins. Light-bodied wines typically have higher acidity, low alcohol and less tannin. A light-bodied wine is delicate and refreshing while a full-bodied wine is viscous and powerful. A white wine is more likely to be light-bodied and a red more likely to be full-bodied, but this is not always the case.
Alcohol is the most important factor in determining body. It brings a warming viscous sensation in the mouth. Full-bodied wines are typically at least 14 per cent but more likely to be 14.5 per cent, 15 per cent or more. Light-bodied wines can be anything from 8 per cent to 13 per cent. Medium-bodied wines lie somewhere between the two.
Other factors include tannins and various phenolic compounds, glycerol, sugar and acidity. Tannins bring a mouth-coating structure and create a drying sensation. Some grapes, such as Nebbiolo and Cabernet Sauvignon have thick skins, so the wines tend to be more tannic. Others such as Pinot Noir and Grenache have thinner skins so the wines tend to be lighter and less tannic. Wines high in alcohol tend to be low in acidity. Sweet wines, typically high in sugar and glycerol can be very full-bodied. A wine that has been through malolactic fermentation, oak ageing and lees stirring will have more texture and body.
The body of a wine is influenced by where it comes from; grapes grown in hot climates tend to be richer and higher in alcohol. Cool climate wines are usually lower in alcohol. For instance unoaked cool-climate Chardonnay tends to be light or medium-bodied and oak aged versions from grapes grown in warmer regions are more full-bodied.
Light-bodied wines include Mosel Riesling, Soave, Vinho Verde from Portugal, Muscadet, Valpolicella, Mencía from Spain, Beaujolais and some Pinot Noir. Oak-aged Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer are full-bodied whites, Barolo, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Australian Shiraz, Amarone and Cabernet Sauvignon are usually considered full-bodied.