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Body Count - On Describing the Body of Wine

Despite being odorless and tasteless, body is an important character in wine. It adds to, or detracts from, our pleasure in drinking. In blind tastings body provides a clue as to varietal and regional origin. It is a key factor in wine and food pairing too, ideal matches being similar in weight.

What is body in wine?

Body is the perceived thickness of a wine in one’s mouth. Think about how water feels in your mouth. Now think about vodka. Vodka feels more viscous than water because of the alcoholic content. Maple syrup is much thicker than water because of the dissolved sugar.

The amount of body in a wine is determined by the levels of alcohol, sugar, other soluble fruit extract (pectin, phenols, proteins, etc) and acidity. Perceived viscosity increases with the content of the first three elements. The acidity in wine is less viscous than the other elements and the higher the  acidity the lower alcohol tends to be. Therefore, wines with a lot of acidity tend to be lower in viscosity than their lower acid wines. However, some high acid wines are also very high in sugars and they can be full-bodied.

Why does alcohol feel more viscous than water? The longer a molecule and the more easily it creates hydrogen bonds, the more viscous it will be. Water bonds readily but is the smallest of molecules. Therefore, water molecules aren't easlly “tangled” with others. Ethyl alcohol feels thicker because its molecules are larger and it also bonds easily.

Molecules of water (left) and ethyl alcohol (right). The structure of the latter causes it to snag on other molecules. That resistance in movement is viscosity.

Wine Body Descriptors

Body gets the usual assortment of semi-confusing (or entirely confusing) wine-speak descriptors. Without formal training or a secret decoder ring, quantitative descriptions such as “medium-plus” seem abstract. Qualitative comments—lithe, supple, luxurious, opulent—are poetic but only a little more helpful.

Here’s a table showing the five standard “quantitative” descriptors, their association with different types of milk—a convenient reference—as well as some common, creative descriptors. Some adjectives fall into more than one range. That’s because their use varies by varietal. Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon may be elegant at medium+ body whereas Beaujolais Nouveau may not. Some descriptors also have multiple applications. Feminine may refer to body, but also to aromatics, structure and balance. There are also a lot more flowery celebrations of full-bodied wines than those of medium body or less. That’s indicative of both the relative scarcity of high-quality, light-bodied wines and of what critics tend to prefer.


skim milk

angular, lean, delicate, feminine

Medium-   angular, lean, delicate, feminine, elegant, lithe
Medium whole milk lean, elegant, feminine, supple, lithe, oily
Medium+   elegant, supple, lithe, oily, rich, weighty, masculine
Full half-and-half rich, weighty, masculine, creamy, opulent, fat, unctuous, chewy, plump, decadent, fleshy, lush, massive, viscous, high glycerin, voluptuous, Rubenesque

bodyThe 5-point scale of wine body, from light to full, is useful but we have to remember that wine is analog not digital. In the real world there’s a smooth continuum of increasing weight from light through full. Terms such as medium+ express a range of possible viscosities, not a single specific consistency.

Not all the ranges are the same “size” either. “Medium” is narrow, in part to combat our natural tendency to play it safe by calling everything medium. “Light” is a smaller range than “Full.” That’s because there is a finite limit to how little body a wine can have but the ceiling for body is quite high.

The ranges blend from one to the next. There are no absolute dividing lines between them. Body also varies with serving temperature—the warmer the wine the less viscous it is—and the type of food, if any, with which a wine is paired. Candidates for advanced wine certification (such as Diploma, Wine & Spirits) are required to pinpoint just one body designation for any given wine. Wine reviewers often use a two-step range though, because they don’t know the conditions under which a consumer will be tasting. I often use the slightly more precise “nearly full-bodied” to indicate that a wine is on the border between medium+ and full.

One of my pet peeves is wine reviews expressing a three-step range for a wine. I see this frequently, even from celebrated wine advocates. They’ll tell you a particular red wine is “medium to full-bodied.” Virtually all high-quality red wines from the New World, and most from the Old World, fall into that range. It’s like saying a particular breed of cat has fur. Not terribly illuminating.

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