Several weeks ago I argued that the body of a wine is not a single quality but a group of related yet distinct features that sometimes leave conflicting impressions. Thus, referring to body as either light, medium, or full, as most tasting notes do, is simplistic, sometimes misleading, and covers up a world of meaningful detail.
In this post, I want to lay out an alternative that I think captures some of the complexity of how we perceive the body of a wine.
The body of a wine has four dimensions that can vary independently of each other.
Wines differ in how heavy they feel on the palate. Wines with high alcohol, more sugar, low acidity, or deeply concentrated fruit may feel heavy. Perceptions of weight may also be affected by perceived movement on the palate. Wines that are lively may be perceived as lighter. Some Pinot Noir is viscous and concentrated without feeling heavy.
There is some overlap with weight on this dimension, but they are not precisely the same. Concentration refers to the perceived richness of the fruit which is often the result of more flavor compounds (extract) as a percentage of water content. A concentrated wine will usually feel heavy on the palate, but if it has robust acidity or lower alcohol it may not feel heavy. High quality Burgundy wines can sometimes feel concentrated yet not weighty. Some wine vocabulary glossaries define concentration in terms of intensity. This is a mistake. Some deeply concentrated wines lack intensity; they taste flat and lack movement. Quality Riesling may be concentrated without feeling heavy or viscous. Cabernet Sauvignon is often concentrated without being viscous.
Viscosity is a quantifiable physical dimension defined as the resistance to an object passing through a substance. But, in wine tasting, we are referring to perceived resistance. Again, while there may be overlap with weight or concentration, viscosity is its own dimension. A good Viognier from Condrieu may feel viscous yet light. Wines with residual sugar feel viscous but some lack fruit concentration. “Creamy” is a descriptor that indicates viscosity. Some scientific analyses of body include astringency as a dimension of body. Tannins modify the rate at which fluid layers move past each other, which is how viscosity is defined. However, subjectively we experience astringency as drying rather than thick. Furthermore, astringency is most readily experienced on the finish rather than the “main body” of the wine prior to swallowing. Thus, it is best to distinguish viscosity from astringency. Subjectively they vary independently of each other. Astringency is a contributor to mouthfeel but not to body.
“Round” is a common descriptor for wines that have a sense of fullness but with no hard edges. Each component seems to blend into the others with little resistance. Fat is the extremity of this feature. By contrast, other wines have that sense of fullness but are stocky because the tannins or acidity seem to resist or contain the fruit power, and the perceived transitions the wine undergoes on the palate seem full of effort. Slender, the opposite end of the continuum, refers to wines that seem compressed. This is not to be confused with “thin” meaning lacking in viscosity or diluted. Slender wines may not taste diluted if they have flavor intensity and they may have a texture which is perceived as adding body. White wines, such as those from the Italian region of Lugana, with dry extract are a good example of slender wines that have texture. “Angular” suggests that the wine is sharp and has what some tasters describe as “cut”. “Lean” is often a descriptor for thin wines. But lean also tends to connote wiry, sinewy, or tough, adjectives that are not about shape but muscularity, or the perception of force, which is a dimension of the wine’s perceived movement on the palate.
There is obviously much more to be said about mouthfeel. Body is only one dimension of mouthfeel.
For more on mouthfeel, texture, and the movement of wine on the palate consult Beauty and the Yeast: A Philosophy of Wine, Life, and Love.