Posted On 26 October 2023

Body can be described as the overall weight of a wine in our mouth (tactile sensation). For most of us this does not explain much or simply does not make sense. When we say a wine is light in body, we mean it gives you a similar sensation like when drinking water or skim milk. When a wine is medium body it feels more like semi-skimmed milk and full body just like whole milk. All wines, white, rose or red can be light, medium or full bodied. Body not only contributes to the overall taste of our wine but it also helps us with our food pairing options which i’ll explain later on.

Our mouth cannot taste body as it does with acidity and sweetness but instead it feels it. In our mouth we have thousands of sensors that detect ‘touch’. On our tongue these sensors are called filiform papillae, they are thin, long “V”-shaped cones that don’t contain taste buds. They are mechanical and are not involved in taste sensation, but instead tactile sensation only.

There is no specific substance that gives wine its body but actually it’s a combination of many things. One thing we must clarify from now is that body is not connected directly to the quality, flavour intensity and aftertaste of our wine. For example, a full body red wine with harsh green tannins isn’t really a good wine.

What contributes to wine body?

Alcohol is one of the most well-known contributors and was considered for many years the only reason a wine was lighter or full. A low alcohol chardonnay will feel lighter than its higher alcohol counterpart. Most red wines seem fuller than whites and roses because they tend to have more alcohol. Alcohol definitely influences body but does not act alone.

Sugars influence body a lot. All dessert wines either produced from sun-dry grapes or botrytised grapes (noble rot) always have more body. Some of these wines are so concentrated that you can visually see their thickness. Sugars at concentrations of just 0.2% can already influence the perception of body.

Glycerol is a natural by-product of fermentation. It is a thick, colourless and odourless liquid that gives wine a fuller, more pleasant texture. In dry and semi-sweet white wines, it can be around 5 g/L to 14 g/L respectively, in dry red wines around 10g/L and in botrytised wines up to 25g/L.

Tannins (or phenols in general) found in red wines also increase body. A good example would be to compare wines produced from grapes that have more or less tannins. Pinot Noir is always lighter than Cabernet Sauvignon because it has less tannins. More on tannins in a bit.

Polysaccharides have also proven to add more body. Polysaccharides come mostly from the cell walls of the grape itself and the yeasts. The most famous are mannoproteins which are released by yeasts during fermentation and aging. The rest of the polysaccharides come mostly from grape crushing and maceration (skin contact before and during fermentation).

Winemaking region. Wines produced from the same variety but in a different region will have more or less body. For example, a Shiraz from Finger Lakes Region (New York) will definitely have less body than a Shiraz from Cyprus. This applies also for white grapes like Chardonnay and Semillon. In Cyprus we have more sunshine and a longer ripening period which explains why we produce wines with more body, alcohol and tannins.

Grape variety. Some grapes like Viognier produce fuller wines than others. This might be related to grape size and the percentage of skin and flesh present. For example, Xinisteri grapes compared to Viognier are bigger, have more flesh and a thinner skin. There are of course less obvious reasons, like the amount of anthocyanins a variety usually has.

Giannoudi showing off in the sun

How can winemakers increase body?

There are various ways a winemaker can influence a wine during and after the alcoholic fermentation.

Maceration and fermentation. Maceration is the process where we soak grape skins and seeds with juice. In white and rose wines maceration is usually just a few hours before fermentation while in red wines several days before and during fermentation. Longer maceration periods extract more colour, tannins, body and varietal flavours. Extraction is also depended on temperature. Low temperatures(during maceration) translate to a wine that has delicate fruity aromas, less body and tannins and an open colour. So, if we want our Cabernet Sauvignon to feel lighter than usual, we can keep it on the skins for just three days at a relatively low temperature (18-20°c).

It would be a mistake not to mention cap management during fermentation. Grape skins and seeds during fermentation float to the top of a tank creating what we call a cap. If we don’t break up the cap, only a small part of the juice comes in contact with the skins. Thus, winemakers can extract more or less depending on how many times they mix in that cap.

Blending is an easy way to improve body in a final wine. This can be done if our wine is a mixture of different grape varieties or the same variety but from various vineyards or regions. For example, blending a Xinisteri with a fuller Semillon or Chardonnay. In countries like Australia it is very common to find blended wines which grapes came from regions 100’s of kilometres away. For instance, a blend could be a wine from a cool region like Mornington peninsula(less body) with a wine from a warm region like Hunter Valley (more body).

Oak barrels. Most white wines sold in the world today are fermented and aged for a short period of time in stainless steel tanks. If we take this same wine and age it in oak barrels our final wine will have more body, rounder tannins and a more stable colour. Some of the reasons our wines gain body by oak aging is through micro-oxygenation and oak tannins. (Note, micro oxygenation can also be done with machines).

Tannins additives. Tannins can be added in wine in the form of a powder to help us increase body, texture and protect our wine from oxidation. They can come from untoasted and toasted oak, grape seeds, chestnuts, exotic woods (such as tara and quebracho) and gall nuts. Oak barrel alternatives like oak chips, oak blocks and oak staves can also be used.

Lees aging. A wine aged on its lees (dead yeast cells) for a few months will have more body than a wine without. Winemakers are taking advantage here of the mannoproteins we talked earlier. Mannoproteins are also sold in a powder form and can be added before, during or after the alcoholic fermentation.

Gum Arabic is basically the resin (polysaccharide) from an acacia tree. This product is added into wine to increase body, round up tannins, reduce astringency, stabilise colour and enhance tartrate stability.

Reverse osmosis is the process by which a wine is passed under pressure through a membrane that separates water molecules from alcohol. Since water is removed, we end up with a more concentrated wine (more body and flavour intensity). This technology is very expensive and is only used by a few high-profile wineries.

Grape skins and seeds

Wine body and food pairing

One of the most basic ways to pair food and wine is to try and match the body/weight of wine and food. Other things like acidity, sweetness, salt, bitterness, umami and spiciness play a huge role but body is our base. If our dish is light then it’s safe to assume our wine has to be light. Weight in food not only comes from the type of food, such as meat, fish, vegetables but also from the method of cooking. Steam, poached or boiled dishes are gentle while fried or roast not as much. A steam cooked fish is lighter than a fried fish and so a light white wine might be a better choice. In addition, if our dish is served with a sauce then everything changes. A fish cooked in the oven with a lot of tomatoes is not light but rather medium body. In this case a medium body white or rose wine will be ideal. Choosing the right wine in a meal can elevate our dish or vice versa. Of course, all the above are guidelines and it doesn’t mean we need to strictly follow them. Food and wine pairing are subjective and the possibilities are endless if we are not afraid to try out new wines or dishes.

by Fikardos Fikardos, assistant winemaker.