Too often, wine geeks use terms that most people don’t understand. Two words that often cause confusion are body and structure.
Let’s look at body first. Body refers to the weight of the wine, derived from alcohol, glycerol and/or sugar. If you compare the mouthfeel of having a sip of water to a sip of wine, whisky, honey water or even olive oil, you’ll find that water feels light on the palate and that whisky feels heavier than wine. Honey water and olive oil are even heavier.
How does body relate to quality? The answer is that there’s no relation. A wine’s body can be light, medium or full depending on its alcohol level and sweetness. German Riesling Kabinett and Portuguese Vinho Verde are light-bodied because their alcohol level is around 10% to 11.5%. California Napa Cabernet Sauvignon and Australian Shiraz, with alcohol typically between 13.5% and 15%, are full-bodied. Sweet wine is full-bodied even though its alcohol level may only be around 8% because of its high sugar content.
Body can also be seen in terms of “legs” or “tears” when you swirl the glass. Some people are misled to believe that a wine is of a higher quality when there is more legs or tears, but this is absolutely not the case. More legs or tears just means that the wine has a higher alcohol content or is a sweet wine.
Now, what about structure? Structure refers to the tannin and acidity in wine and how they interact with the fruit. Tannin is derived from grape skin, so red wine relies mainly on tannin to provide its structure, although Pinot Noir, with low tannin but relatively high acidity, relies on acidity for its structure. Most white wine is not fermented on skin, so its structure comes from acidity.
I like to compare wine to people. Tannin and acidity are the backbone, while fruit is the flesh. A healthy person can be big and strong but should not be overweight. Similarly, a wine can be powerful with lots of fruits but must have enough tannin or acidity to support it; otherwise it will be flabby. At the other end of the spectrum is a lean wine with crisp acidity supported by delicate fruit. A lean wine, however, may taste too acidic, similar to lemonade without any sugar added. This is like a very skinny person who is possibly not in very good health.
Oak is like make-up. It should enhance a person’s personality but not cover it up. Some people like to look glamourous, while others prefer a more natural look. Whatever you prefer, remember that the role of oak is to support the fruit and not overpower it. If a wine tastes only of vanilla and spices, you might as well chew a cinnamon stick dipped in vanilla-infused tea – it’s much cheaper.
When you look around, there are people of all shapes and sizes. Wine is the same. As long as a wine is balanced between tannin/acidity, fruit and oak, it is a good wine. And as for the body of a wine, this is an indicator of its alcohol and sweetness levels, giving a clue as to the possible origin of the wine in a blind tasting, but it’s not related to its quality.
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