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Full bodied wine, what does it mean?

Body: Because wines have weight issues too!

Full-bodied, fleshy, great legs and handles food well – no, I’m not referring to domestic goddess Nigella Lawson (how dare you suggest such a thing). These are terms that wine people use all the time when talking about a wine and body is often one of the first things we look for. But what is body, and what is it that gives a wine body? It certainly can’t be defined in the same way as the human body, even if some of the terms cross-over.

Full bodied wine, what it is? Full bodied wine, what it is?

In its simplest terms, body is the weight or viscosity of the wine: how much does it not feel like water? Is it light, delicate and more watery in the way it moves and feels like a Muscadet or Beaujolais Nouveau, or is it more syrupy, more viscous like an oaked Californian Chardonnay or a Port?

Alcoholic content is a big determiner of body, as higher alcohol content gives more viscosity so wines like Chateauneuf du Pape which usually have more alcohol tend to towards full body. Glycerol is one of the alcohol compounds, produced as a by-product of fermentation. It’s slightly sweet, colourless and odourless but is weightier than water so gives a wine a slight thickness. Generally speaking, wines at around 12.5% are lighter bodied than those at 14%. This in turn is often down to grape variety and climate. Grapes with higher sugar content when ripe tend to produce fuller bodied wines because the sugar is vital in the fermentation. Any residual sugar can also add to the weight. Warmer climates equal grapes with more sugar, therefore a greater potential for alcohol and body. Grenache (often grown in Australia, South of France, Central Spain) is a grape that is more likely to be full bodied than, say, Gamay (generally grown in cooler climes like the Loire or Beaujolais). Thick-skinned varieties, another one of those cross-over terms, also tend to have more body as the skin imparts more solid elements to the wine.

But of course there’s more to it than that. A term that is sometimes banded around is dry-extract, which is basically whatever is left in the wine once the water and alcohol have been removed. This includes sugar, yeast cells and other leftovers from the winemaking process if the wine is unfiltered and un-fined, and is also made up of phenolic compounds, which come from the natural phenols and polyphenols found in the grapes and stems. These contribute to taste, colour and mouthfeel of the wine. Tannins come under this category, but there are also other compounds such as Vanillin - a phenolic acid associated with notes of vanilla - which is imparted by oak barrels. That butterscotch quality in those over-oaked Chardonnays of days-gone-by is down to the compounds imparted by the sap in oak. Red wines will naturally be richer in phenols as they are found mostly in the skins, so the phenols in a white wine will be mostly from the pulp, but wines can contain up to several hundred of these. All of these compounds add further weight to a wine, and many come with added health benefits!

So what about body and natural production? It is true that the full bodied wine of the last 40 years or so has often come at the price of natural, sustainable wine making. Reverse osmosis, green harvesting and liberal use of chemical fertilisers have been used by wine makers in the pursuit of more concentration and body to feed the demands of an international market who want to be impressed by their wines. Without this manipulation, many of the wines from the USA, Australia, Bordeaux and Rioja would not be as full and rich as they are. Indeed, naturally produced right bank Claret is a medium or sometimes even light bodied wine left to its own devices, ref; Chateau Le Puy. Generally nature tends to find ripeness at lower sugar levels with higher acid despite the climate. This makes sense, nature wants to preserve itself hence higher acid in the grape and doesn’t want to get us drunk, hence lower sugar! However, natural wines are not all light and sharp. Given the right grape and climate, lush full bodied reds and whites can be produced without any intervention at all. The great thing is the freshness and vitality is not lost so you get the body and the drinkability. One only has to taste the wines from the Coulee de Serrant in the Loire or some of the Natural wine makers in the Rhone like Mattieu Dumarcher to know that body doesn’t come at the expense of nature.

However, don’t take our word for it, the best way to get to grips with body is to try as many different types for yourself, and feel the difference in your own mouth. Body is not a sign of quality necessarily; nevertheless, it is an important characteristic of a wine and one which many consumers deem to be very important. Happy researching!

David Weale – Buon Vino