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What is "Wine Body", exactly?

by Isabelle @ Wine Tasting Demystified


When I introduced you to Wine Mouthfeel last week, I assumed you had already heard or read the term "wine body." Most wine bottle back labels will mention whether the wine is light-bodied, medium-bodied, or full-bodied.
But what is "wine body", exactly?
Let me clarify a few basics for you; it's not as trivial as some wine experts may let you believe.

If you are new to wine, you may have searched the web for a definition of "wine body." My recent Google search listed 18 relevant articles on the first two pages. What I saw was that most popular wine sites define wine body as "the weight of the wine in your mouth" or "the viscosity in your mouth."
Think of having a glass of full-fat milk and how it feels in your mouth compared to a glass of fat-free milk. Full-fat is likely perceived as thicker and the fat-free as thinner in their perceived consistency in the mouth.

In this quick web search review, I also found that most writers identify alcohol as the component defining wine body. You would read that the higher the alcohol content, the fuller the wine body.

Here are some of these definitions, and the link to these webpages.

BODY: The "weight" of wine on the palate; this term is mainly related to alcohol.T It contributes to mouthfeel, that is, the thick or thin consistency of the liquid.

BODY: The impression of weight or fullness on the palate; usually, the result of a combination of glycerin, alcohol, and sugar. 

"Body" and "weight" are used somewhat interchangeably in wine-speak, referring to how heavy or viscous a wine feels in your mouth.

Others also associate glycerol and residual sugars (the sugar that did not convert into alcohol during wine fermentation) as components contributing to the perception of wine body.

I run the same search on Google Scholar (a search engine scoping the scholarly literature), and it showed only four relevant scientific publications on the topic. You might think, so what? May be scientists are not that interested, or they know it all already. Not exactly.
It looks like, on the contrary, we lack scientific evidence to explain what wine body is!

In a 2017 review, Laura Laguna and colleagues concluded after a thorough search of scientific evidence that:

*While wine body seems an essential characteristic of wine, the classification in light, medium, or full body is more empirical than based on scientific facts. In addition, it lacks consistency among wine professionals.

*"ethanol provides significant changes in density and especially in wine viscosity when it is measured instrumentally; however, for humans, ethanol is not perceived as perceptual body change."

*Glycerol contributes primarily to the perception of sweetness in wine, at the levels usually found in wine. "Until now, it has not been related to viscosity or body."

And that's a common assumption made by wine or food technologists. They believe that whatever their instrumental analysis shows-such as viscosity increase, humans must perceive this change as well. Not always. Alternatively, there are also many examples when humans sense flavor changes, and the instruments can't pick them. That's true, for instance, for wine taints such as corked taint.

So what do humans, you and I, perceive when we use the term "wine body"?

Jun Niimi and colleagues conducted a study with Australian consumers to get to the bottom of it. They did an online survey and asked participants to:
1-Rank in order of importance different wine characteristics they believe indicate wine quality.
2-If they use the term "wine body" to describe wine; if yes, how would they describe "wine body"?
3-Match a list of familiar varietal wines with the wine body style (light, medium, or full), they associate with each wine style.

One hundred thirty-six consumers with different levels of knowledge answered the survey. Results showed that:
* 49% of participants used the term "wine body" to describe wine.
* 37.5% described the wine body as being related to flavor, then 32.4 % said it was related to fullness.
* Only 16 % said it was related to mouthfeel, and those participants were, in general, more knowledgeable about wine.
* 11% had no clue.

In this study, the Australian consumers believed that full-bodied wines were more flavorful and robust. That might indeed be related to the wine alcohol content as these consumers also described Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon as full-bodied wines. But remember, the science says alcohol only plays a minor role in wine body when measured by trained tasters.

These results may not be generalized to all English speaking countries, and other languages as well.

The main lesson here is that consumers do not understand expert descriptions as experts think they do. Why it matters?
As a consumer, you want to choose wines that you like, and they might be full-flavored wines. If the sommelier at a restaurant understands you like thick wines, they may recommend Malbec wines while you might want instead Rhône-style wines, complex in flavors. You will be disappointed, and the sommelier may lose the opportunity to convert you as a regular customer of the restaurant.

So it matters to be clear and specific when we communicate wine qualities to each other and avoid disappointment or, worse, deception. Fortunately, building a common descriptive language is possible through wine tasting training.

How do your define wine body?

Leave me a note in the comment box.

Published October 10, 2019

Literature used for this article
Niimi, J., Danner, L., Li, L., Bossan, H., Bastian, S.E.P. (2017). Wine consumers' subjective responses to wine mouthfeel and understanding of wine body, Food Research International, 99, 1, 2017, 115-122.

Laguna, L., Bartolomé, B., & Moreno-Arribas, M. V. (2017). Mouthfeel perception of wine:
Oral physiology, components and instrumental characterization. Trends in Food
Science & Technology, 59, 49–59.

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