‘Can you bring along a nice medium-bodied red?’ some good friends of ours suggested when we were going to dinner with them. That gave me a good steer as to what was wanted but it is interesting that the word ‘body’ was used as it’s one of those wine words that you hear quite a lot but, in my experience, is not always properly understood. (Our friends clearly did!)
For me, the easiest way to explain it is to contrast drinking water with taking a spoonful of honey or syrup. The water doesn’t really have any weight in your mouth – if it was a wine, you’d call it ‘light-bodied’ – whereas the honey or syrup seems much denser and heavier – typical of a ‘full-bodied’ wine. And, of course, wine isn’t just light- or full-bodied, there’s a whole spectrum in between and, in fact, most wines could be described as medium-bodied.
What determines the body of a wine? The main factor is alcohol and so wines from hotter regions, where the grapes will become riper (and therefore potentially produce more alcohol), are more likely to be fuller bodied than those from cooler climates. As an example, many German whites have only 8 or 9% alcohol and are some of the lightest bodied wines of all; most English wines, like the Sharpham, below, are similarly lacking in weight. But you can have light bodied reds, too: most Beaujolais, Bardolino and Valpolicella fall into this category.
At the other end of the scale, there are a few full bodied whites – some Rhones and Australian and Californian Chardonnays – but many more reds: Zinfandels, Italian Amarones and Châteauneuf du Pape all often weigh in around 15% alcohol or even more, and are likely to be decidedly full bodied.
Why is all this important? In trying to pair food with wine, you don’t want the food overpowering the wine nor vice versa. So, with a delicate, subtly flavoured dish, choose something at the lighter end of the range – it can be white, red or rosé – while for a more robust dish, a fuller bodied example will probably work better.
There’s a lot more to say about food and wine pairing (some other time, perhaps) but thinking about the body of the wine is a first step.