What is Wine Body?

by JJ Buckley Fine Wines

Row of glasses with red and white winesImagine you are attending a wine tasting in a breezy Napa Valley vineyard. You have just been poured a glass, and the sommelier has prompted you to appreciate the wine's body. 

But what does that mean exactly? It isn't a reference to the flavors present in the wine — that's what descriptors like fruity, earthy, and spicy are for. And since it is a liquid, ebbing and flowing and taking the shape of whatever container it's poured into, it's clear that wine body has nothing to do with shape. So, what is wine body?

What is a wine's body, and what influences it? 

The definition of wine body, simply stated, is the richness and weight of the wine in your mouth. 

Other drinks have a body as well. Take milk, for example. It's not difficult to use fat levels to tell the difference between skim and whole milk. But when wine is involved, there's a bit more to influence its body than fat content. 

The primary determiner of wine body is alcohol. This is because alcohol gives the drink viscosity, which can be simply defined as how little or much a fluid resists flowing. The higher the alcohol content, the more viscous — or heavier — the wine becomes. 

Other factors that shape wine body are grape variety*, oak aging in barrels**, residual unfermented grape sugars, and the grapes' growing climate (grapes sourced from warmer areas lead to rich and full-bodied wines). 

*Grape Variety: There are over 10,000 wine grape varieties in the world, and a few dozen of them are widely popular. A few of the most popular, like Chardonnay or Zinfandel, produce wines that translate perfectly into an easy to recognize wine body category.

**Oak Aging: When examining a wine's body, it's important to take tannin structure into consideration. This structure is one aspect of wine that can change as it ages in an oak barrel.

Breaking Down Body Types

Just as people do, each wine has a body type of its own. Unlike a person, however, each wine can fit into one of three categories: light, medium, or full-bodied. 

Light-Bodied Wine

As a general rule, any wine with an alcohol percentage under 12.5 percent is considered light-bodied. These are usually crisp and refreshing wines, such as Pinot Grigio, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc, or lighter reds from cooler climates. Because they are more acidic than other varieties, do not be surprised if you find that your light-bodied wine has a sharp, almost spicy taste.

Because they are so light, many wine drinkers have found that these varieties pair beautifully with light foods, including but not limited to seafood and salads. Unfortunately, because there is said to be an absence of deep flavors in light-bodied wines, they are deemed somewhat inferior by vino enthusiasts, at least from a complexity standpoint. This judgment, however, is unfair, as lighter-bodied wines can be just as enjoyable as those that are full. 

Medium-Bodied Wine

Next up on the wine spectrum is medium-bodied. These varieties boast an alcohol percentage between 12.5 and 13.5 percent. You will find key players like Rose, French Burgundy, and Sangiovese to fall into this category. 

Medium-bodied reds have been deemed perfect food wines. This is because they're so balanced in both acidity and tannin. These two components of wine are the first to take into consideration when deciding what kinds of food a wine can pair with. 

Full-Bodied Wine

Last but certainly not least are the full-bodied wines, which generally have an alcohol percentage of over 13.5 percent. The majority of wines that fall into this category are red, however, Chardonnay is an example of a full-bodied white. 

Full-bodied wines are heavy and rich enough to stand on their own, but are still quite pleasurable with food. Their fullness can be attributed to higher tannin and alcohol content. 

"Wine" Down

Maybe you're a longtime wine expert with a cellar or pantry packed with more bottles than you'll ever be able to drink. Or perhaps you're an aspiring sommelier who is brand new to the wonderful world of wine and looking to learn more. Whichever camp you fall into — or even if you find yourself in-between the two extremes — it is important to note that wine is not a "one-size-fits-all" type of drink. Flavor notes, body, and other characteristics are a matter of personal preference, and it may take a bit of time and a lot of exploration to figure out which bottle is the best choice for you. 

Shopping for great wine can be overwhelming, so make the process simpler by buying from one expert source, such as JJ Buckley Fine Wines. We offer a wide variety of products that you can explore while also experimenting with grape varieties. Or make your search for your new favorite wine even simpler by taking advantage of our professional wine consultant services. We can answer your questions on flavor notes, food pairings, and wine storage, along with exclusive offers to the best wines in the world.