For many wine lovers, talking about wine is at least as pleasant as drinking it. And as a true wine expert, you can describe wine with hundreds of terms. Some refer to its color; others describe its aromas and flavors or the mouthfeel it gives you. One of the latter terms is wine body.
The term wine body refers to the feeling that wine creates on the palate, especially regarding its viscosity, its alcohol content, and the amount of sugar. Wines can have a light, medium, or full body.
While wine body is not the only characteristic that impacts the drinking experience, it is typically the most obvious. And even newbies can feel the difference between light- and full-bodied wines. In the following paragraphs, we will discuss how a wine’s body is determined, how winemakers can alter it, and which wines are full-bodied or light-bodied.
What Makes a Wine Light-Bodied or Full-Bodied?
Numerous factors determine wine body. Its viscosity is the most important among them. Wines with a light body have a low viscosity, comparable to water. In contrast, full-bodied wines have a high viscosity like syrup.
The second crucial factor is the alcohol content. Light-bodied wines typically are significantly lower in alcohol than full-bodied wines.
Sugar is another component that affects the feeling of wine in the mouth. The more residual sugar remains in the wine after the fermentation, the fuller it will taste.
How Do Light-Bodied Wines Taste?
Wines with a light body are thin and watery. In the mouth, they feel like water or skim milk. Their low alcohol content of less than 12.5% makes them a crisp and refreshing drink. Besides, light-bodied wines tend to have a low level of tannins. So it’s unlikely that they will give you a mouth-drying sensation.
How Do Medium-Bodied Wines Taste?
Medium-bodied wines aren’t as watery as light-bodied wines. They are juicier and often described as mellow or elegant. Their alcohol content ranges from 12.5% to 13.5%, and you can expect to experience a higher level of tannins.
How Do Full-Bodied Wines Taste?
Wines with a full body feel thick and heavy on the palate. They are more complex than light-bodied wines, and their aromas linger in the mouth longer. In many cases, full-bodied wines are strong in tannins. So they create the mouth-drying feeling that many wine enthusiasts love. Regarding viscosity, the sensation of drinking full-bodied wine is comparable to drinking whole milk. In some cases, they even feel creamy. Full-bodied wines are high in alcohol, typically with more than 13.5%.
What Does the Bottle Label Tell You About a Wine’s Body?
For experts, it’s possible to determine the wine body even without tasting it. The bottle label gives away several hints for this purpose.
As mentioned before, the alcohol content is a reliable indicator. If it’s higher than 13.5%, the wine will most likely have a full body. Wines with less than 12.5% typically have a light body. And wines with alcohol contents in between are medium-bodied.
Another piece of information that allows you to determine wine body is the grape varietal. Some varietals naturally contain more sugar than others. And as we’ve already learned, sugar contributes to a fuller body. Even if the vintner allows most of the sugar to ferment, the wine will be full-bodied because it will be stronger in alcohol.
The wine’s origin can be a hint as well. If it comes from a New World country with a warm climate, the chances are high, that is has a fuller body than a wine from a colder place. The reason is that sun and heat help grapes to ripen earlier and accumulate more sugar. Thus, wines from countries like the United States, Australia, Chile, or South Africa (also known as the New World) tend to have a fuller body than wines from Europe (the Old World).
What Does Its Appearance Tell You About a Wine’s Body?
Even without having a look at the bottle label, you can get information about a wine’s body before tasting it.
Check the wine’s color first. Full-bodied white wines have a deeper color than light-bodied wines. They are on the golden-yellow side of the spectrum, while light-bodied whites are pale-yellow. For red wines, a fuller body comes with a more intense shade of red: Ruby red or purple indicates a full wine body. On the other hand, salmon-colored or pinkish wines have a light body.
There is one exception to this rule: Old wines that aged for a significant time tend to alter their color. For instance, a vibrant red can become a duller brown. Usually, it takes at least twenty years of aging to see significant changes, though.
Another way to learn about a wine’s body without tasting it is to observe the wine legs. When you swirl your glass, the wine inside will move around and form little tears on the bowl. These tears flow down the glass and create legs while doing so. For full-bodied wines with a high viscosity, these legs are thick and flow slowly. In contrast, wines with a light body form fewer stainings that disappear more quickly.
Wine Legs in a Glass of Red Wine
How Can Winemakers Impact a Wine’s Body?
Vintners have several options to impact wine body during the winemaking process. These options include the selection of grapes, the date of the harvest, the fermentation phase, and the aging process.
The most obvious way to impact wine body is the preselection of the grapes that are used to make it. With a varietal that tends to produce sugar-rich grapes, the winemaker can lay the foundation for a full-bodied wine. Grapes that accumulate less sugar are the right pick for light-bodied wines.
The second way to determine wine body is the date of the harvest. The more time the grapes have to accumulate sugar, the fuller-bodied will the wine be. So for creating light-bodied wines, vintners harvest the grapes early in the year. And for full-bodied wines, they give the grapes more time to ripen.
During the fermentation, winemakers can impact the wine body as well. The longer the fermentation process takes, the more sugar will turn into alcohol. As we’ve already discussed, alcohol is the main factor in a wine’s body. So by stopping the fermentation before all sugar is transformed, vintners can alter the wine body.
In some cases, winemakers decide to let the wine undergo a second fermentation phase called “malolactic fermentation“. During this phase, the aggressive acids in the wine soften. The result is a more balanced wine with a fuller body.
Finally, producers can decide whether they want to age their wines in oak or not. Aging contributes to developing more complex aromas, a better balance, and a fuller wine body.
Which Wines Are Full-Bodied?
The majority of full-bodied wines are red. Varietals that produce full-bodied red wines are:
White wines with a full body are uncommon, but you can find them. Typically, these are dry wines that aged in oak. They often come from a New World country with a warm climate. Here are the types of grapes that are used to make full-bodied whites:
- Pinot Grigio (sweet styles)
- Sauvignon Blanc
Dessert wines such as Port, Madeira, Sherry, or Tokaji have high alcohol contents, so they belong to the full-bodied category, too.
Which Wines Are Medium-Bodied?
Medium-bodied red wines can be produced from these grapes:
- Cabernet Franc
If you prefer whites with a medium wine body, look out for these varietals:
- Chardonnay (unoaked)
- Chenin Blanc
- Grüner Veltliner
- Pinot Blanc
Which Wines Are Light-Bodied?
Red wines with a light body are:
- Pinot Noir
These grapes produce light-bodied white wines:
- Sauvignon Blanc (unoaked)
- Vinho Verde
- Pinot Grigio (dry)
How to Describe Wine Body
When wine experts talk about their favorite beverages, they use many different terms that indicate whether a wine is full-bodied or light-bodied. Here are some of them:
Terms that indicate a full body:
Terms that indicate a light body:
How to Pair Full-Bodied Wines With Food
In general, the best way to find a good food pairing is to match it to wine body. This means that full-bodied wines go best with rich foods. In many cases, it’s also a great idea to create color matches: Pair red wines with red meat and dark sauces. Serve white wines with white meat and white sauces.
Full-bodied reds go well with roasted or cured red meat like beef, lamb, or pork, but also with meaty fish such as tuna. Strongly-flavored vegetarian dishes with mushrooms can be a good match as well.
Full-bodied white wines are good pairings for buttery foods like lobster, salmon, or poultry in a creamy sauce.
How to Pair Medium-Bodied Wines With Food
If you want to pair a medium-bodied red wine with food, consider Italian cuisine. Tomato-based recipes are great, for example, Lasagna or similarly scalloped dishes. Even Pizza is an excellent food to match with medium-bodied reds.
Medium-bodied white wines go well with many types of seafood, including scallops, oysters, or sashimi. Another option is pasta with green pesto or salad with vinaigrette.
How to Pair Light-Bodied Wines With Food
You can serve light red wines with roasted vegetables and with light fish that is steamed or baked. They’re also great with many types of cheese.
Wine body is a difficult characteristic to understand if you don’t experience it yourself. Without directly comparing a full-bodied to a light-bodied wine, you will have a hard time getting into it. So get yourself two glasses and taste the differences yourself.