Category Archives: wine faqs

The ‘Body’ of a Wine

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‘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. 

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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. 

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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.

To Decant or Not?

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In a couple of recent Bristol Wine Blogs I’ve mentioned ‘decanting’ a wine.  It’s a subject that causes considerable debate in the wine world. So, what do I mean by decanting and when and why might I think about doing it?

Thelema redDecanting, simply, is pouring wine out of the bottle it’s sold in into a decanter (or, indeed, any jug large enough to hold the contents).   There are 2 main reasons why you might want to do this: to separate the liquid from any sediment that might be in the bottle or to aerate the wine.

Many wines (and Vintage Ports) are bottled without being filtered (or, at least, with very minimal filtration).  This means that some of the solid matter that results from the fermentation process ends up in the bottle.  This sediment is harmless but you really wouldn’t want to drink it as it’s often quite bitter or astringent.  So, if you expect that there might be sediment in the bottle, it’s best to stand it upright for a few hours or, even, overnight (assuming it’s been stored on its side) to allow the sediment to fall to the bottom.  Then, when you uncork it, pour the wine very slowly into your jug or decanter watching the neck of the bottle to see when the first of the sediment starts to appear.  At that point, stop pouring.  You’ll have a little wine left in the bottle, but the liquid in the decanter will be clear and can be poured into your glasses without worrying.

The other reason for decanting is rather more controversial: to aerate the wine, otherwise known as ‘letting the wine breathe’.  Some, including renowned experts, are firmly opposed to decanting for this purpose, saying that the wine’s aromas are lost in this way.  Others, equally expert, disagree, suggesting that wines, especially robust or tannic wines, can be softened and made more harmonious by decanting.  I’m generally in the latter camp but, as with so much in wine, there are no absolute right and wrong answers. 

My advice is to experiment; open the bottle and taste.  If you’re happy as it is, go on and pour straight away – but have a decanter handy, just in case.

A Wine Worth Keeping

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How long should you keep a bottle of wine before drinking it?  That’s one of those ‘how long is a piece of string?’ questions!  Of course, it depends on the wine – most whites are probably best within a year of purchase, most reds within 2 years – but also on your personal taste.  A friend of ours thinks we drink our wine too young, whereas I think that many of the bottles he opens are passed their peak.  We’ll never agree, but that’s the beauty of wine.

And, although I said that most wines are best within a year or two, there are definitely some – mainly reds, but also quite a few whites – that will only improve for keeping.  Which ones?  Try looking at the back label which may recommend drinking dates.  Otherwise ask a reliable wine merchant or you may be able to check on-line (but always bear in mind what I said above about personal preferences).

I’ve had a bottle of Meerlust Red 2011 from Stellenbosch in South Africa sitting quietly in a wine rack under the stairs for at least a couple of years and, as the label recommended drinking within 8 years of the vintage, I decided recently that now was the time to uncork it – especially as we were having some good friends to dinner who I knew would appreciate it (another important consideration when thinking when to open a bottle!)meerlust-red

This lovely, rich and flavoursome blend of 4 of the Bordeaux varieties (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot) was, most definitely, drinking well now.  Even so, I took the precaution of decanting a couple of hours in advance to let a little air finish the process.  The ripe, red fruit flavours were beautifully vibrant and, despite the warmth of Stellenbosch being reflected in 14% alcohol, there was no burn to the wine, all was nicely in balance.

My one regret: it’s the only bottle of this wine I bought and I can see it still drinking well five or more years from now – for my taste, that target of 2019 shown on the back label looks a bit conservative.