Can Wine Have ‘Body’?
24th November 2023
Wine tasters use a large arsenal of terms to express what they taste. One of those that are used with pleasure is the term ‘body’. But what is wine with body? Technically body means ‘having a physical structure’. So if we ask ‘Can wine have body?’, the answer will definitely be: of course, it has, as wine undeniably has a physical structure. If wine didn’t have a physical structure, it wasn’t a thing and we could not experience it with our externally oriented senses. So every wine, as it is a thing, will have body. The question might then be: why is this made so explicit for certain wines?
Now if we look clinically at wine we can say that for more or less all regular wines about 86% is just water, about 12% is alcohol (ethanol) and only the remaining 2% contains various discrete molecules like the remaining sugars, acids, minerals and the phenolic and aroma compounds in the wine.
So as water is the basic fluid on earth, for 86% of the liquid there is nothing typical about wine to attribute the idea of body to it. For 12% there might be a difference, as alcohol differs from water. But as all wines have (more or less) such a level of alcohol, this shouldn’t make wines differ from each other. Meaning that the idea of having body should be caused by the remaining 2% of its components.
In relation to wine, body is a sensory tasting term, used to describe how heavy and rich a wine feels on your palate. As such body is a part of the larger mouthfeel of a wine. But what exactly causes the feeling of weight and richness in the palette? The perception of weight and richness is primarily caused by the level of viscosity, which is a measure of a fluid’s resistance to flow. It has to do with the thickness and texture of the fluid. More technically, the viscosity in wine is a result of the various levels of and balance between alcohol, (residual) sugars, acids, minerals and the phenolic (like tannins) and aroma compounds. All of these elements are first of all defined by the type of grape itself, like the size of the individual grapes, color, ripeness, and thickness of the skin. Additionally, the viscosity can be influenced by the vinification method (e.g. malolactic fermentation), maturation method (e.g. on the lees) and way of aging (e.g. on oak). But also artificially elevating alcohol or sweetness can contribute to a fuller body. On the opposite, creating a higher acidity can make a wine feel lighter in body.
So the property of creating body in a wine is an equilibrium of the levels of only a minimum quantity of discrete molecules (like acids and minerals) in the liquid (the water and ethanol). These few elements cause an experience of less or more body. This experience itself can further be described in more detail by qualities such as rough/soft, coarse/fine and slimy/smooth. A light-bodied wine will have a smooth, thin and feather-light mouth feel. A full-bodied wine will have a viscous, tenacious sometimes coarse mouth feel and it tends to be round, mouth-filling and intense.
So body in wine isn’t really about more weight. It’s about the variation of only a limited amount of molecules which creates another feeling in the palate due to the way they hold themselves together. Various combinations create various perceptions of coarse or glutinous effects in the palate, which create the illusion of differences in heaviness. Or to put it in another way: it only produces another perception without physically being more weightier. It’s just the experience of an illusion.
Corné van Nijhuis
World’s first self-declared Vinosopher
Corné van Nijhuis
Longing for knowledge and wisdom about the nature of wine and the existential meaning associated with it, which makes him a self-declared vinosopher.