Light bodied and full bodied wines – a definition

When I first started out in the wine trade, I used to struggle with the word “body” when used in wine lexicon. It sounded pretty as a description for sure, but what did it actually mean? I had a vague understanding that the expression probably had something to do with alcohol content, but I knew there was a more exacting definition out there.

As it turned out, it was reasonably simple – a wine’s body refers to the perceived weight of the wine in the mouth. A wine’s weight will depend on its alcohol content and extract (the dissolved solids in the wine).

As alcohol (next to water) is the major constituent of wine, and as it has a higher viscosity, the higher the alcohol content, the higher the perceived weight (or to put it another way, the sensation of fullness).

A good way to consider this relatively is to think about the sensation of water in your mouth, as opposed to the sensation of cream. The cream will of course be mouth-filling, rich, and unctuous – the same sensations apply with full bodied wines.

In general light bodied wines are those (relatively) low in alcohol from cool climate countries or regions (England, Austria and Germany are all famous for producing light bodied wines). They generally tend to sit in the 7-10/11% alcohol content area.

Medium bodied wines are (you guessed it) moderate in alcohol (12/12.5% abv). Areas particularly well known for medium bodied wines are Bordeaux and Burgundy.

Full bodied wines (the big beasties) tend to be at the top end of the scale in alcohol terms (13-14%+) and tend to be high in extract, and (in the case of red wine) higher in the preserving compound tannin. Well known examples of full bodied wines include Australian Shiraz, Argentinean Malbec and Californian Cabernet Sauvignon.

Some sources suggest a wine’s body refers to (amongst other things) the wine’s consistency in the mouth. I’ve always found this a curiously unhelpful description, as I equate consistency (in part) with length (a wine’s aftertaste). Also, before you ask, a wine’s body has absolutely no relation on its quality. It is simply a question of style.

So is it easy to spot light/medium full bodied wines in a blind wine tasting event? Well, whilst it should be achievable to differentiate between extremes (light against full bodied for instance), the definitions do not have legally recognised boundaries, which can make bullish pronouncements a high risk strategy!