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 Wine body: what it is and what it is not

Wine body is one of the facets of wine mouthfeel. Wine reviews often describe a wine as light-bodied, medium-bodied, or full-bodied. Let me clarify a few basics for you; Wine Body is not as trivial as some wine experts may want you to believe.

Wine reviews often describe a wine as light-bodied, medium-bodied, or full-bodied

Searching for what wine body means

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. I saw 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 thicker, and the fat-free is thinner in the 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.

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 the wine body.

I run the same search on Google Scholar (a search engine scoping the academic 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!

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. Besides, 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 the 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 increases, humans must perceive this change. Not always.

Alternatively, there are also many examples when humans detect flavor changes, and the instruments can't pick them. That's true, for instance, for wine off-notes such as corked taint. 

What do humans 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-To 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 the mouthfeel, and those participants were, in general, more knowledgeable about wine.
  • 11% had no clue.

In this study, Australian consumers believed that full-bodied wines were more flavorful and robust. That might indeed be related to the wine alcohol content.

These consumers also described Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon as full-bodied wines. But remember, the science says alcohol only plays a minor role in the wine body when measured by trained tasters.

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

Consumers do not understand expert descriptions as experts think they do. Why does it matter? 

As consumers, 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.

The sommelier may lose the opportunity to convert you as a regular customer of the restaurant, by not understanding what you are asking for. 

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 have you been trained to explain the wine body?

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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.

Published October 10, 2019

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