BODY OF A WINE
The term “body” or viscosity refers to the feeling of weight a wine seems to have in your mouth. A good way to understand this is to imagine the difference between the feel of skim milk, whole milk and cream. A wine’s body can simply be described as light, medium or full. Other words used to describe body are heavy or light, thick or thin, velvety or powerful, sleek or robust, and light or chunky. A wine’s body is usually linked to the level of alcohol content within. Alcohol is generally felt rather than tasted, thus the sense of touch comes into play here. For instance, there are light wines (Riesling at 8 to 9 percent alcohol) medium wines (such as Merlot with 10 to 12 percent alcohol) or heavy wines (Zinfandel or Amarone at 14 to 17 percent alcohol.) Matching the weight and body of a wine to a food is a key element to successful food and wine pairings. Heavy wines need a hearty food or they will overpower the dish, suffocating the flavors. Similarly, lighter wines are best paired with delicate foods, such as Dover Sole or light shellfish.
Many white wines may be described as feather-light, pleasant and approachable. Other whites, particularly those that have been aged in oak or bottle for several years are more substantial, fuller, and require comparable food to better complement their character.
Red wines similarly range from light and delicate to powerful and velvety. The difference between a light wine and a more full-bodied wine isn’t an issue of quality, but of preference and occasion. You can choose which type of wine you’d like to serve by how you plan to use it. (Check our list of ‘grape varietals by body type’ for a better understanding.)
This is one of those terms wine geeks use to make people’s eyes glaze over. Perhaps a culinary analogy will serve to clarify complexity. Imagine you are making a fresh salsa. You begin with chopped tomatoes in a bowl. Taste it. There is only one flavor there: The chopped tomato. Now add chopped raw onion and taste it. Now there’s two flavors. Now add diced fresh jalapeno: Three flavors and some spice heat as well. Now add some lemon juice, then chopped fresh cilantro and finally sweet bell peppers: Now we have 6 flavors. Somewhere along the way, some of these ingredients will interact with each other, creating entirely new flavors. That is complexity. Some wines are a one-note melody, some a three-piece jazz combo, some can be a symphony. All have their place, but tickets to the symphony will usually cost more. Wines that exhibit greater levels of complexity are usually much better quality, show higher flavor intensities and demonstrate longer finishes.
The art of making wine is difficult and multifaceted. There is always a degree of unpredictable variation within the grapes, the soil and the climate. What a wine maker chooses to do with these elements is what can product great wine. This is what makes the wine maker a true artist. The art of creating juice from a grape into a finished wine that is not too acidic, sweet, harsh or even too soft can be as challenging as a tightrope walk.
Balance is basically comprised of four components: fruit, sugar, acid and tannin. A wine is balanced if all of these components are present, but not obscured by one component dominating another. Wine high in acid should be balanced with the proper amount of residual sugar. Red wine with loads of fruit should have tannin and other acids to provide balancing structure. The best wines have a seamless sense of harmony and balance between all four components.
The last impression of a wine is the finish: The taste that stays on the palate after the wine has been swallowed. The length of the finish is the final indicator of the wine’s quality. That taste can be short and crisp, or it can linger for a minute or more, continuing to unfold the flavor secrets of the wine before finally fading away. Generally, more extensive finishes will be evident in higher quality wines; 20 to 30 seconds is good for the average bottle of wine and when it reaches 45 seconds, it is showing powerful flavors and careful crafting. It is not uncommon for spectacular wines to last as long as a minute or even more. These everlasting finishes are the hallmark of great wines, increasing pleasure and adding value beyond the palate.
When drinking a dry white wine, you will usually find a clean, crisp finish. With age, the wine tends to soften and the finish will become more round (subtle changes and fading) and long. Oak aging imparts a longer, more complex finish. Riesling is generally in the 30 second area, crisp and refreshing. A California Chardonnay or White Burgundy may be more powerful, stretching out to the 40-60 second mark.
Young reds will generally possess a linear finish, one with singular taste appeal. These reds tend to be lighter in taste and are more approachable for the uninitiated palate. But the truly world class reds produce a long, lingering taste in the mouth which continues to develop and which is as complex as the wine itself. Bordeaux and Burgundy are tywo styles that typically have long finishes, as does Zinfandel and Cabernet. Merlot, Chianti and Beaujolais are light and somewhat crisp, generally shorter on the finish but still very pleasant.
EVALUATING THE WINE
At this point, we are now ready to make an assessment of the wine—both novice taster and expert alike. The process for wine tasting and evaluation is precisely the same on either side of the experience brackets, so you should have the confidence that your opinion holds the same validity and merit as the experts. To review, we have examined the color, evaluated the aroma, tasted the wine and held it for 15 seconds or more at least twice, and mulled over the length of the finish. Now we are ready to ask ourselves a few questions:
- Was the color pleasing, showing clarity and brilliance? Did you like it?
- How was the “nose” of the wine, it’s aroma? Was it light and subtle, nice and appealing, strong and alluring or some degree in between? Was it amazingly powerful, something that really stood out in your mind as exceptional? Did you like it?
- How was the taste intensity of the wine? Was the concentration of the fruit there, or was it barely noticeable? Was it ample and nice, abundant or wonderful? Did it surpass that description? Could it be described as powerful, intense or even overwhelming? And once again, did you like it?
- Was the wine balanced? Were the fruit, sugar, acid and tannin in harmony? Were you able to note each of these in varying degrees, but not so much that one aspect overpowered the others? Were they enjoyable?
- How was the length of the finish, the final nature and essence of the wine? Did it fall off quickly (less than 10 seconds) or did it seem everlasting (a minute or more)? Was the finish average (30 seconds or so) or exceptional? And finally, did you like it?
- What was the wine’s style?
A few common descriptive phrases used by wine enthusiasts to describe wine styles are “fruit forward,” “New World” and “Old World.” The term fruit forward is used to describe wines which are easy to drink, with soft tannins and ripe fruit flavors. You may have heard people talk about Old World and New World wines and wondered what they mean. Well, Old World is a term applied to the wine produced from Western European counties such as France, Italy and Germany. Here wine making is more of an art form and the resulting wine traditionally needs time to develop in the bottle and also needs to be drunk with food.
The New World refers to countries such as Australia and Chile that have challenged the traditional wine making methods employed by the Old World, and produce wines which typically have up front ripe and fruity flavors and which can be enjoyed immediately, either on their own or with food. These countries promote the fruitiness of their wine by picking the grapes at greater ripeness, keeping the grapes and grape must chilled and by using state of the art technology during fermentation and bottling. Many producers are even pushing the limits of grape ripeness on the vine, waiting to pick them until they reach peak physiological maturity and sugar levels. The resulting wines are considerably more concentrated than their earlier picked brethren; with deep intense color and flavors. The alcohol levels of these wines are higher as well, contributing to an impression of weight and sweetness in the wine. This style of wine has proven popular; with Shiraz and Zinfandel sales increasing exponentially each year.
So, if you are used to drinking the ripe and fruity tasting wines of the New World then drinking traditional French wines may cause a shock to your taste buds as they can seem relatively lighter and less fruity, especially if you drink them without food.
There is a heavy emphasis placed on your own personal taste when evaluating wines. The real question of a wine’s quality is if you liked it, not a reviewer, television host, magazine, your best friend or the sommelier at the fancy restaurant. Since taste is generally a subjective matter and no two people have the exact same measure of sensory perception, your taste, preferences and opinions hold the same validity as anyone else’s. The easiest path to gaining confidence with your tasting abilities is to taste, taste and taste again, coupled with thinking about the aspects of the wine, writing down your opinions and openly sharing them with others to get their thoughts on the wine, recognizing that there are no wrong answers.
All it takes is a bottle of wine, a glass, your senses and an open mind.