What makes a wine “heavy”?

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We’ve all made the comment “this is a very heavy wine”, but what does it actually mean and what causes it?

Wine Body Definition: In wine talking about body is not a discussion of shapeliness, but instead an analysis of the way a wine feels inside our mouth.

Wine body breaks down into three categories: light body, medium body and full body, and a good way to think about the difference between them is the way skim milk, whole milk and cream feel in your mouth.

Full-bodied wines are big and powerful. In contrast, light-bodied wines are more delicate and lean. Medium-bodied wines fall somewhere in between. There is no legal definition of where the cut-offs occur and many wines fall into the medium-to-high or light-to-medium body categories.

Alcohol is typically the primary determinant of body. Alcohol contributes to the viscosity of a wine. The higher the alcohol in a wine, the weightier the mouth-feel, and the fuller the body. Wines with alcohol levels above 13.5% are typically considered full-bodied.

Extract is another important factor that contributes to body. Extract includes all the non-volatile solids in a wine such as the phenolics (e.g. tannins), glycerol, sugars, and acids.

In general red wines are more full bodied than white wines. If the wine is fermented or matured in oak, it adds further weight and body to a wine.

What Winemakers Do To Make Full-Bodied Wines (via WineFolly)

Winemakers are more like alchemists than ninjas. They guide grapes into wine and only intervene when necessary. Still the winemaker’s choice of yeast will greatly affect the mouth feel and taste of the resulting wine. Additionally, what they do after the wine is fermented also affects the flavor.

  • Malolactic Fermentation: After the wine is fermented, an additional fermentation called Malo-lactic fermentation (MLF) will increase the texture. MLF is basically just altering the type of acid in a wine. Malic acid is the same acid that is in apples. Lactic acid is smooth, like the creaminess of whole milk. Starting a malolactic fermentation involves a different kind of yeast that gobbles up malic acid and poops out lactic acid. If you want a rounder more creamy feeling wine, look for a wine that has undergone what winemakers sometimes call “Full malolactic conversion.”
  • Oak Aging: Oak aging not only adds tannin but it adds aroma compounds to wine including vanillin. Oak esters and tannin help balance out the harshness of a wine and add body. The newer the oak, the more it affects the wine. New oak barrels will often be ‘toasted’, which actually means torched with a fire. The torching caramelizes the oak and in some instances turns some of the oak to charcoal. All of the chemical changes in toasted oak add different esters to a wine. How long the wine sits in oak also affects the resulting flavor and over a long time in oak wine will have a slightly increased alcohol level. If you like the bigger, bolder wines look for oak aging at 12+ months.
  • Believe it or not it is common to leave a hint of residual sugar (RS) in a full-bodied dry red wine. Sugar, like alcohol, increases the viscosity of a wine. We’re not talking about a lot of sugar though, only up to about 3-4 grams per liter. In order to leave sugar in a wine the winemaker doesn’t add it, they simply stop the fermentation a little early by cooling down the yeasts and putting them to ‘sleep.’

So what are the biggest full-bodied red wines out there? Pay attention to a wine’s color and you’ll notice darker wines tend to be bolder. This is because a large portion of the flavor comes from the skins of the grapes. As you may already know, some grapes have thicker skins than others. Click here to learn the Top 10 Darkest Full-Bodied Red Wines in the World.


WineFolly: Defining Full Bodied Red Wines

VinePair: Wine Body Guide – Light, Medium & Heavy Body!

TheKitchn: Wine Words – Body


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