Part of the way a wine tastes is down to its body. This description ties in with how much alcohol a wine has, but is also affected by other factors such as climate and quality of the grapes.
It is a complicated idea to describe, but often comes down to how the wine feels in the drinker’s mouth. The thicker and oilier a wine feels when drinking it, the more body it is said to have. White wines are often the lightest bodied, while deep reds and port wines will be the heaviest.
Some areas are famed for producing specific lighter or heavier bodied wines. Italian wine such as Moscato d’Asti has a very low alcohol level of 5.5%. Meanwhile, many Californian wines are stronger in strength, with some being up around 15-20%. Famed international wine producer E & J Gallo made their name with Thunderbird, a 20% ABV wine. As with Special Brew beer in the UK, it is known as a favorite for the section of the population the US calls ‘winos’ or ‘bums’ and the UK refers to as ‘the homeless’ or ‘beggars’. It does what it says on the tin at that strength.
In Europe and the United States, typical wine strength is classed as ‘medium bodied’, usually around 12% ABV. Many French wines are in this bracket, including some of the most famous champagnes.
Heavy bodied wines, with a high alcohol content, are often fortified with distilled grape brandy spirit. Port and sherry are both fortified wine, as is dessert wine such as Madeira and the French vins doux naturels.
The color of a wine can also give a clue to its body. Pale straw-colored wines are often lighter bodied, while the darker the red, the heavier bodied it is. Heavy red wines are usually more viscous than the lighter whites; this is reflected in the depth of taste as well as the body. They are also visibly thicker in texture than a white wine.
Light bodied wines
The foremost makers of light bodied wines are the Italians and Germans. Moscato and Asti are both well known Italian varieties of wine with 10% ABV or less. From Germany comes the Riesling family of wines, while France contributes Alsace Blanc and Muscadet (from the same grape as the Italian Moscato.)
Typically these wines are a light shade of straw colored yellow. Some are fizzy, and all have a noticeable residual sugar (RS) level. They are all best drunk young and fresh, although the extra half a percent of alcohol in Spätlese Riesling is achieved by letting it sit in the cellar for longer (Spät = late, lese = lie) before bottling.
Medium-low alcohol wines have no more than 11.5% alcohol by volume, and are the result of using grapes which are lower in sweetness. Again, Europe leads the way in these wines, with France, Germany and some Italian regions producing notable varieties such as Pinot Grigio, Lambrusco and Soave (Italy) as well as some varieties of Muscadet which are heavier than the 9.5% lighter bodied versions.
Medium bodied wines
Medium bodied wines include some of the best known types from Europe, where the climate lends itself to their production. Anything from 11.5% to 13% is considered a medium bodied wine. These will look thicker, taste oily on the tongue and possibly have an aftertaste from the increased levels of tannin.
Famous French names of reds such as Bordeaux, Cote du Rhone and Beaujolais are in this range, as well as many Californian Sauvignon Blancs, Chilean red wines plus Chianti and others from Italy.
Medium-high alcohol (and therefore heavier bodied) wines include Viognier and Chardonnay (white), Grenache (rosé or red) Shiraz, Pinotage and Malbec (red). Anyone who has drunk too much of these on a weeknight will know about the thick head, sluggish limbs and general feeling of tiredness that accompanies them the following morning. One friend, used to a certain amount of Sauvignon Blanc (11.5%) a night, tried to drink the same amount of rosé Grenache (13.5%) as a change. The next day, not surprisingly, he had a hangover. The heavier the wine, the bigger the kick the following morning.
Heavy bodied wines
Anything over 15% ABV is considered a high alcohol, heavy bodied wine. Fortified varieties fall into this range, as do sherry, port and dessert wines such as Madeira and Marsala. After around 20%, the product is generally referred to as ‘spirits’, which will then encompass such products as whisk(e)y, rum, vodka and the like.
The great thing about wine is that, whatever a drinker’s taste, there is a wine to suit. People who don’t drink often can enjoy a glass of Moscato while those with a preference for heavier bodied alcohol can indulge in a glass of Chardonnay. It’s up to the individual to try different varieties and find which ones they prefer.