How to improve your tasting skills: What is ‘body’?

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In the previous column, the effect of oak and lees on wine was discussed. This month, let’s widen the topic further to include the body of wine.

If you want to become a really good taster, it’s not enough just to taste and be exposed to all styles of wine. You should also understand how to access all elements of the wines in front of you. This means that several aspects of the wines you taste should be used to gain access to its definitive character, such as body and tannin.

Image: Wine lovers at Decanter Shanghai Fine Wine Encounter, credit Decanter
Image: Chinese wine lovers at Decanter Shanghai Fine Wine Encounter, credit Decanter


What is ‘body’

Body is a term that many people find confusing and sometimes it can even seem unintelligible. Actually, the easy way to think about it is by having three glasses to taste (from left to right): of lemon, orange and mango juice.

Move through those flavours and textures: if you move from left to right, you feel the increase in weight and heft. If you move from right to left, the differences become very pronounced, and the lemon juice will taste incredibly sharp and light. This is the effect of moving from heavy to lightweight texture and it is precisely this feeling which is described as body.

Of course, the flavours of lemon and mango are very different and the juices are very intense; but it’s easy to practice this kind of comparison with wines as well to help us understand body. I recommend getting together four wines (of the freshest vintages possible): the first one should be a Hunter Valley Semillon, the second a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, the third should be a white Burgundy like a Macon-Villages or a Cote-de-Beaune village wine (don’t get a Chablis – get one from the south of the area), and lastly a traditional Napa Chardonnay or rich Californian Chardonnay (if you want to save some cash). Then try each wine from left to right, assessing the build-up in weight in the mouth, working first from 1 to 4 but then working backwards to really understand the feeling. Then compare one and four – the difference is even more obvious.

If you want to do the same exercise with red wines, I would recommend that you first get hold of a fresh regular Beaujolais (not Cru) or regular Bourgogne Noir (not easy to get fresh ones in China – consider 2013, 2014 or 2015 only). The second wine could be a New World Pinot Noir from a warmer area of the US or Chile. The next along could be a good quality Chianti Classico or decent Cru Bourgeois from Left Bank Bordeaux (or, similarly, a good quality St Emilion). Lastly, I would select a high quality Sonoma (e.g. Dry Creek) Zinfandel or decent Barossa Shiraz.

Do the same exercise and you will understand how this applies to red wine.

I would also suggest that in order to make the whole exercise much more affordable, divide the price of the eight bottles with seven wine-loving friends. In that way, you can all afford to practice.

What are tannins

Staying with red wine specifically, some people find tannins a bit tricky. In fact, you can use the wines from the above red wine exercise to help. Also, you could compare the Bourgogne Rouge to an additional bottle: for example, a Barolo. This would make an excellent comparison: both are high in acid, but the Pinot Noir will have very little tannin and be of light body whereas the high tannin of the Barolo will make the body feel much fuller.

So, moving on from these two aspects, next column we’ll discuss exercises to help you ascertain the acid, alcohol and sugar components of wine. Hope to see you then.

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