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Bridgette Smith
October 7, 2021 | Bridgette Smith

How to Tell if the Wine in Your Glass is Light-Bodied or Full

One of my favorite things to do is analyze wine - whether I am at home with my wife having a glass, chatting with guests at Williams Gap, or if I am having a shift glass with the team at the end of the day. One of the primary ways to analyze and talk about wine is by discussing a wine’s body. All liquids have a specific weight, determined by the presence of fats, alcohols, sugars and more. Wine is no different - this weight is what we call the body of a wine. The easiest way I can describe it is to think about the way milk feels heavier on the tongue than water, and you're on the right track to understanding how to determine a wine's body. But then there is a scale - light bodied, medium bodied and full bodied. So using milk as an example, fat free milk is light bodied, 2% milk is medium bodied and whole milk is full bodied. The reason I wanted to touch on this topic this month is that red wine season is upon us and we get asked a lot of questions about the body of our wines.

There are many factors that can contribute to a wine’s body and one of the main factors is alcohol. Alcohol is what gives a wine its viscosity and is responsible for either the heavy or light mouthfeel we experience when we sip a wine. There is a tasteless substance called glycerol derived naturally from fermenting grapes that increases the perception of wine body (just a fun geeky fact to pull out while you’re out wine tasting). Because of this substance, we call a heavily viscous wine full-bodied and a low viscosity wine light-bodied. This brings us to another interesting point - about 1/4 of our guests bring up “the legs” - let me debunk this point for you. Despite what you may have heard, wine legs or ‘tears’ are not an indication of quality of wine. It’s actually a scientific phenomenon that can tell you key information about the alcohol level in wine. Legs mean one of two things: either the wine has a high ABV or it has higher residual sugar. High alcohol wines collect a higher density of droplets on the sides of the glass than low alcohol wines and sweeter wines are more viscous, so the tears will flow slower down the sides of a glass.

Ok, let me jump off of my soapbox - back to the body of wines. There are a few general rules regarding the alcohol content to help you decide before drinking if the wine is light, medium or full:

Wines under 12.5% alcohol (the alcohol percentage should always be written on the wine’s label) are said to be light-bodied. These are generally the white wines we think of as crisp and refreshing. A good example that hits close to home is our Vidal Blanc - the 2019 vintage comes in at 12.3% ABV. A worldly example would be Vinho Verde or German white wines. 
Wines between 12.5% and 13.5% are considered medium-bodied. Good examples of these wines around the world are French Burgundy (white or red). Most of Virginia’s wines are going to come in around 13%. 
Finally, any wine over 13.5% alcohol is considered full-bodied. Some wines that are normally over this alcohol level and considered full-bodied are Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and bold red blends. Wines from Williams Gap that would fall into this category (just barely) are our 2019 Red Blend, the 2020 Round Hill Red and the 2019 Fieldstone. Interestingly enough, our 2019 Petit Manseng also falls into this category (it is a full bodied wine because of the ABV and the sugar content). 

Alcohol and sugar are not the only two factors though! Grape varietals play a huge role too. Certain grape varieties produce more full-bodied wines and some are simply lighter-bodied varietals. Typically Cabernet Sauvignon’s are full and Pinot Noir’s are light. Cabernet Franc is known for being a medium bodied wine. Oak aging can change the body of a wine as well. Think of Bourbon - when you age Bourbon in brand new barrels, the final product often tastes more full-bodied. Same goes for wine; the newer the oak used, the more tannin is imparted to the wine and thus, the wine tends to be fuller bodied. The last big factor is the climate type. As a general rule, grapes grown in warmer climates tend to produce richer, more full-bodied wines and the opposite goes for grapes grown in cooler climates. Virginia is considered right down the middle when it comes to climate, meaning we traditionally create medium bodied wines that we can manipulate to be heavier with the vessel it is aged in or how much sugar we leave in the finished product. 

What type of wines do you enjoy? If you like a lighter style, go for our Rosé, Vidal Blanc or Mountain Valley Red. Like it heavier and bolder? Our Round Hill Red, Fieldstone and Petit Manseng might be right up your alley. And finally - the medium bodied lovers, we have a couple options for you too. Our Cabernet Franc and White Blend are very popular wines in the Tasting Room because they both appease a group’s pallets (those that enjoy heavy and those that enjoy light). I hope you have learned a little bit today through our blog and thanks for checking it out! Now it’s time to pour a glass and analyze it a bit. Cheers! 

Bridgette Smith

Tasting Room Manager


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