The Continuing Saga of Understanding Sparkling Wine Part 5
Witnessing wine – The Body of the wine
The properties we consider when we taste wine come under the following categories,
Getting back to witnessing wine, one of the most difficult qualities to describe is what we mean by the “body” of the wine.
I mean it is fairly easy to talk about concrete things like alcohol, sugar and acid but the body of the wine is a much more abstract notion. So to tackle the subject I am going to look at both ends of the spectrum by considering both red and white remembering that the most of the wines we drink are in between these extremes of styles of wine.
Body or mouthfeel is the textural impression created by a wine.
As I have tried to emphasize, wine is a ”complex matrix” of all the things I have been describing. Sweetness, acidity, alcohol tannins each relating to and dependent on the other – a dynamic interplay that provides an impression of weight, size and volume that is derived through tactile sensations in the mouth.
Some people like to describe “body” as the perception of weight or density which in turn is related to the viscosity of a wine on the palate.
Other than water alcohol is the second major substance in wine; alcohol is more viscous than water so alcoholic strength is an important contributor to the fullness of a wine.
There is a belief that glycerol is important contributor but for the most part this is not true, glycerol is a byproduct of fermentation and interestingly is found in its highest concentrations in wines that have been infected with Noble Rot or Botrytis, wines like Sauternes and Tokay.
The body of a white wine gets much less consideration than with red wines simply because white wines have little or no tannins. In white wines the mostly commonly used technique to increase the body of the wine is what is called lees aging.
There are two major styles of white wine when it comes to body consideration quite simply – light bodied white wines and full bodied white wines.
Light bodied white wines include wines like Albarino, Gruner Veltliner, Muscadet, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc Soave, Vermentino. As a group these wines are appreciated for their dry and refreshingly bright acidic, tart flavors. Generally considered as light wines they are meant to be enjoyed young and consumed typically with seafood, these are not wines to be laid down. The very reason for their existence is their simplicity, not that all of these wines are simple and there are countless examples of the wines being vinified to increase their complexity. and body weight.
A great example is a wine from the Nantes region of the Loire valley in France called Muscadet. I’ve met vignerons like Pierre Bise, from Domaine Pierre Bise where winemakers comment that it is a shame that he, as a winemaker, is stuck with using the grape in Muscadet -the Melon de Bourgogne. Muscadet is a light citrusy wine with some grassy characteristics that’s best consumed with Fruits de Mer, huitres, homard and crevettes. In 1994 in a marketing ploy the Muscadet region came up with the idea of aging Muscadet on the lees or as they say in France “sur lie.”
Doing so has a direct parallel with aging sparkling wine after the second fermentation with the wine in contact with lees. The lees contact increases both complexity and the body of the wine and in the case of Muscadet the wine is transformed from a light bodied, simple wine, into a full bodied infinitely complex wine.
The story is exactly the same with the Chardonnay grape often described as a neutral grape that when fermented in stainless steel creates a light bodied wine with flavors of apple, pear and citrus. However, by fermenting the wine in a barrel and aging it on the lees the simple light bodied wine such as a Chablis is converted into a full bodied complex wine like a Chassagne Montrachet using the same grape in this case Chardonnay.
In contrast to white wine “body” plays a much bigger role in the realm of red wines. Let’s start with full bodied red wines. Full bodied deeply colored wines include Aglianico,Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Mourvedre, Nebbiolo, Nero d’Avola, Petit Verdot, Petite Sirah, Pinotage, Syrah, Tempranillo, and Touriga Nacional and any blend of the above.
These are the wines that are most popular in the wine world, these are the wines that we could pigeon -hole into “Parker” Wines.” Robert Parker, probably the most recognized name in the wine world, likes big, bold red wines with intense aromas of flower, fruit, lactic acid, forest floor, tobacco, cedar and truffles with a full (fullest) body, high alcohol and with tons of oak. If there is a gender gap in wine preferences these wines cluster much with men than women( cf Pinot Noir).
Then again there are wines like Barolo. Barolo is the name of the wine from the Piemonte in Italy made from the Nebbiolo grape.
This wine is unique in the sense that the skins of the grape are relatively thin and the wines are relatively pale, both factors that would lead you to think that tannins would be low, but astonishingly the tannins are massive. There are few wines that can match the tannins and full-bodiedness of a Barolo. Barolos are made to be aged and the high tannins and high acids ensure its aging potential. Conventional wisdom has it that you should not open a Barolo until it is at least ten years old and when it comes to developing complexity with age Barolos are amongst the very best in the world.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are what we call light bodied wines the best two examples of which are Gamay (Beaujolais)- and Pinot Noir both thin skinned grapes that are often best consumed lightly chilled.
Beaujolais for me has little or no tannins which can be attributed to a combination of the nature of the Gamay grape and to the way the wine is fermented. The process called semi-carbonic maceration extracts gobs of fruit components, color and because of the short fermentation time little or no tannins,hence Georges DuBoeuf Nouveau Beaujolais; another marvel of French marketing. Every year in the third week of November “Beaujolais Est Arrivé” that purplish red, fruit sodden wine tasting of bananas and Kirsch floods the market for at least a week or two.
Even the highest quality Cru Beaujolais wines made without semi-carbonic maceration are low in tannins that for me are to me more of the function of the grape itself than of the vinification process “you can’t make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear” and as much as I have tried I have yet to be impressed by a Cru Beaujolais even when I wanted to be impressed.
That leads us to our final consideration, the light bodied, female leaning Pinot Noir grape a miracle to behold depending on where the grape is grown and how the wine is made. On one end of the spectrum is Burgundy France the primal origin of pinot. The Burgundian pinot wines are truly light bodied and extremely complex;the complexity more of a function of age than the quality of the grape.
Complexity with Pinot is the passport to success and because the grapes grow in France in a continental climate sugars are much lower as are the alcohols. Burgundy wines are full of restraint, floral aromas, with mostly red fruit components and when aged long enough lots of mushroom, leather, tobacco, and forest floor. I have visited Burgundy more than any wine region in the world twice with our good friends Christine and Dennis Vrooman who own Ankida Ridge.
Their vineyard elevation is a key to their success in growing and making the highest quality Pinot Noir in Virginia bar none.
Compare the restrained red burgundy (old world) with the bold in your face California, Oregon and Washington State (new world) pinots that by comparison are so much flashier, more ostentatious and have higher alcohol levels.
If you prefer raspberries or strawberries it is all a question of personal preference or as they say in France.
Chacun à son goût.
So there we have it a quick spin through my take on how to understand the concept of the body of the wine, when it comes to understanding any wine be it red, white, sweet, sparkling or fortified.
There is the grape, the conditions under which the grape is grown and the way the wine is made – that simple!
Tune in next week for the final version of how to witness wine after that we are going to talk about how we give wine value.