Exploring the Real Meaning of Wine Body

Wine Body is another wine lingo that remains to be scientifically defined. Here's what we know.

If you are new to wine, you may have searched the web for a definition of "wine body." My recent search showed first this definition:

Wine body is defined by the weight, texture, and richness of a wine. A light-bodied wine will have a smooth, feather-light mouth feel, while a full-bodied wine will have a viscous, tenacious mouth feel. 

Wine body = weight + viscosity (is it?)

Weight and viscosity of the feelings in your mouth seem to be, indeed, what most popular wine sites define as wine body. 

You can look at these two pictures to imagine what the feeling of a viscous liquid in your mouth could feel like versus something fluid like water.

Difference between a viscous feeling and a fluid feeling
How to relate to mouthfeel descriptions?

You can also think of having a glass of full-fat milk and how it feels in your mouth compared to a glass of fat-free milk. Full-fat is thicker and heavier, and the fat-free milk is thinner in the perceived texture in the mouth. 

What about alcohol?

In this quick web search review, I also found that most writers identify alcohol as the component defining wine body. You would read that the higher the alcohol content, the fuller the wine body.

Here are some of these definitions.

  • The "weight" of wine on the palate; this term is mainly related to alcohol. It contributes to the mouthfeel, that is, the thick or thin consistency of the liquid. 
  • The impression of weight or fullness on the palate; usually, it's the result of a combination of glycerin, alcohol, and sugar. 
  • "Body" and "weight" are used somewhat interchangeably in wine-speak, referring to how heavy or viscous a wine feels in your mouth.

Others also associate glycerol and residual sugars (the sugar that did not convert into alcohol during wine fermentation) as components contributing to the perception of the wine body.

Could robust scientific experiments clarify what "wine body" is?

I ran the same search on Google Scholar (a search engine scoping the academic publications), and it showed only five relevant scientific publications on the topic. 

You might think, so what? 

Maybe scientists are not that interested, or they know it all already. 

Not exactly. 

On the contrary, we lack scientific evidence to explain what "wine body" is!

Exploring previous studies

In a 2017 review, Laura Laguna and colleagues concluded after a thorough search of scientific evidence that:

  • While wine body seems an essential characteristic of wine, the classification in light, medium, or full body is more empirical than based on scientific facts.
    Besides, it lacks consistency among wine professionals.
  • Ethanol provides significant changes in density and especially in [wine] viscosity when it is measured instrumentally; however, for humans, ethanol is not perceived as perceptual body change."
  • Glycerol contributes primarily to the perception of sweetness in the wine at the levels usually found in wine. "Until now, it has not been related to viscosity or body."

And that's a common assumption made by wine or food technologists. They believe that whatever their instrumental analysis shows, such as viscosity increase, humans must perceive this change. 

That's not always true. 

But, there are also many examples when human senses can detect flavor nuances that instruments can't notice. That's true for many off-flavors perceived in wine, such as "cork taint."

How do normal people explain the term "wine body"? 

Jun Niimi and colleagues conducted a study with Australian consumers to get to the bottom of it. 

They did an online survey and asked participants to:

  1. Rank in order of importance different wine characteristics they believe indicate wine quality.
  2. If they use the term "wine body" to describe wine, if yes, how would they describe "wine body"?
  3. To match a list of familiar varietal wines with the wine body style (light, medium, or full), they associate with each wine style.

One hundred thirty-six consumers with different levels of knowledge answered the survey. 

Results showed that:

  • 49% of participants used the term "wine body" to describe wine.
  • 37.5% described the wine body as being related to flavor,
    then 32.4 % of them said it was related to fullness. 
  • Only 16 % said it was related to the mouthfeel, and those participants were, in general, more knowledgeable about wine.
  • 11% had no clue.

In this study, Australian consumers believed that full-bodied wines were more flavorful and robust. That might indeed be related to the wine alcohol content. 

These consumers also described Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon as full-bodied wines. But remember, scientific studies showed that alcohol only plays a minor role in the wine body when measured by trained tasters.

These results may not be generalized to all English-speaking countries, and other languages as well. 

Exploring furthermore into wine drinkers' understanding

In 2022, Ivanova and colleagues conducted a series of group discussions with two groups of 30 wine consumers to understand the aroma, taste, and mouthfeel components involved in the perception of red and white wine “body.”

Participants tasted 3 white wines or 3 red wines, depending on the group.

They were asked
>> to categorize each wine body time and
>> to describe what they smelled (aroma), tasted (flavor), or felt (mouthfeel) for each wine.

Overall the intensity of the overall wine flavor drove the categorization as “full-bodied wine.”

>> Aromas of dark fruits, caramel-like and woody-like characters were dominant for red wines, while sweetness and ripe fruit flavors illustrated full-bodied white wines.

Although mouthfeel attributes such as thickness and weight were also mentioned as important, participants agreed that flavor strength and flavor lingering were important components of full-bodied wines.

Astringent mouthfeel (this sensation of dryness) and darker wine color were also cues that these participants used to categorize the 3 wines.

While wine body is traditionally associated with weight and viscosity, normal wine consumers have learned to associate other criteria to this “ill-defined term”, as the study authors put it.
>> Or these associations were led by the wine samples they tasted that day, which is always a possibility.

It’s worth noting that knowledgeable wine consumers and less knowledgeable ones agreed on these conclusions.

Why does understanding "wine body" matter to a wine enthusiast?

Is it fair to conclude that regular wine consumers do not understand experts’ vague definitions?

As consumers, you want to choose wines that you like, and they might be full-flavored wines. 

>> If the sommelier at a restaurant understands you like thick wines, they may recommend Malbec wines, while you might want instead Rhône-style wines, complex in flavors. You will be disappointed.
The sommelier may lose the opportunity to convert you as a regular customer of the restaurant. 

So it matters to be clear and specific when we communicate wine qualities to each other and avoid disappointment or, worse, deception. 

Fortunately, building a common descriptive language is possible through wine-tasting sensory training.

Published 10 October 2019, Revised May 15, 2023

Recommended reading:

Understanding Wine Mouthfeel and How It Impacts Your Drinking Experience

Two Wine Tasting Wheels to Describe Red and White Wine Mouthfeel Sensations

References cited:

Niimi, J., Danner, L., Li, L., Bossan, H., Bastian, S.E.P. (2017). Wine consumers' subjective responses to wine mouthfeel and understanding of wine body, Food Research International, 99, 1, 2017, 115-122.

Laguna, L., Bartolomé, B., & Moreno-Arribas, M. V. (2017). Mouthfeel perception of wine:

Oral physiology, components, and instrumental characterization. Trends in Food Science & Technology, 59, 49–59.

Google search 5/15/2023: First item found

Natalja Ivanova, Qian Yang, Susan E.P. Bastian, Kerry L. Wilkinson, Rebecca Ford, (2022) Consumer understanding of beer and wine body: An exploratory study of an ill-defined concept, Food Quality and Preference, Volume 98,104383.

Categories: : Tasting education, Wine Language, wine style

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