For those still learning the language of wine, the names of the varieties may not provide much insight into what to expect. You may not be sure what the difference may be between full-bodied and light-bodied wine.
What does full-bodied wine mean?
Body describes the weight or thickness of the wine. A full-bodied wine has a rich and deep flavor profile, as opposed to a light body wine that might taste watered down by comparison.
We’ll explain in a little more detail the differences between a full-bodied and light-bodied wine, as well as what makes wine full or light-bodied. We’ll also give a short comparison of the levels of body found in some wines.
What Gives Wine Body
Suspended in each glass of wine are particles that makes the wine unique. The wine is comprised of alcohol, acid, tannins, sugars, and water to give the wine a specific weight and viscosity. A wine that has more of these components than others will taste heavier, indicating that it’s a fuller-bodied wine. A wine that has less will taste lighter and have a lighter body.
A well-balanced wine will have a good proportion of alcohol, acid, tannins, sugars contributing to its body. If a wine is especially high in one element, the profile may not be very desirable. A full-bodied wine with a lot of sugar but low in alcohol content or tannins may not taste very good to many people.
Acid comes from the grapes that are used to make the wine, resulting in wines that have higher pH levels than other wines. Acid is necessary to give the wine a good flavor. Too much and the drinker will pucker too much, yet too little will cause the wine to taste flat. Higher acid wines typically come from cooler climates, where nighttime temperatures get low, or the growing season is short. Sweetness typically balances the noticeability of the acidity of a wine.
Any sugar from the grapes that is not converted into alcohol remains in the wine as residual sugar. Some wines are high in residual sugar, while others have very little. Wines with low residual sugar are described as being dry. If you imagine dissolving granulated sugar into a glass of warm water, the resulting fluid is very thick and syrupy. Sugar will add density to the wine as well as viscosity.
Tannins are phenolic components that come from the seeds, skins, and stems of the grapes used to make the wine. Tannins cause an astringent mouthfeel. Wines that are higher in tannins were able to sit on the grapes longer than those that did not. Reds tend to be higher in tannins than whites, as reds usually sit on the grapes for longer. Since higher tannins are present in fuller-bodied wines, these wines will typically be richer in color.
Alcohol content provides a lot of the body of the wine. The more alcohol in the wine the more of other components are needed to balance out the flavor of the wine. A full-bodied wine is often high in all of these components, especially in well-balanced, full-bodied wines. A medium-bodied wine is typically in the middle, while a light-bodied wine is low in many of the components.
You may be able to tell if a wine is full-bodied before tasting it. If you pour it into a glass, take a careful look at the appearance. If you are able to compare one glass of wine to another, you might notice that a full-bodied wine has a deeper color or that it may be harder to look through the wine to the other side of the glass. If you tilt or swirl the wine, you may also see if the wine sticks to or lingers against the glass. If the wine doesn’t coat the side of the glass, the wine might be a lighter-bodied wine, where one that does may be full-bodied.
Remember when considering what to pair with your wine, full-bodied wines are best paired with fatty, creamy, or bold-flavored dishes, while lighter-bodied wines are better served with more delicately flavored dishes. This is why big bold reds, such as the Cabernet Sauvignon, is most often paired with dishes like steak or stew, while lighter-bodied wines, like an unoaked Pinot Grigio, may be served with fish.
Comparing the Bodies of Different Wines
Even though the descriptions on the wine label might help indicate what you can expect as you shop for wine, not all wine labels have great descriptions to help you decide between a Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon.
Here are some easy recommendations for varying bodied wines.
Light Bodied Wines
Light-bodied wines are typically low in alcohol, tannins, sugars, and other components. They usually have lower alcohol content, under 12.5% ABV. Some words that may describe a light-bodied wine include light, crisp, refreshing, zesty, elegant, crisp, thin, or floral.
Here are some light-bodied wines:
- Unoaked Chardonnay
- Unoaked Sauvignon Blanc
- Unoaked Pinot Grigio
Medium Bodied Wines
Medium-bodied wines are generally good choices to serve with a meal, being that the flavors won’t overpower the food, but also won’t be overpowered itself. Medium-bodied wines are often described as: moderate, juicy, spicy, fleshy, tart, mellow, or soft.
Medium-bodied wines are in a middle range of alcohol, tannin, sugar, and other flavor components. Medium-bodied wines may have alcohol contents between 12.5% and 13.5% ABV.
- Sauvignon Blanc (including oaked)
- Pinot Grigio (including oaked)
- Pinot Blanc
- Cabernet Franc
- Pinot Noir
Full-bodied wines may be heavy, thick, or substantial, even feeling like a meal or a snack. Full-bodied wines have high levels of alcohol, tannin, sugar and other components. Full-bodied wines might be described as buttery, lush, bold, intense, structured, concentrated, or intense.
- Chardonnay (oaked)
- Cabernet Sauvignon
If you are considering a blend, take a look on the back of the label to see if the varieties of wine used are noted. If you see several full-bodied varieties mixed with a medium, the wine is likely closer to full-bodied.