Red Wines: A Body-Type Primer

The feel and consistency of red wine is a function of the wine's tannin levels.

Making the leap from “Hey, why does my wine have a cork instead of a screw top” to “I detect hints of fig in the nose of this Malbec” isn’t exactly child’s play. Red wines come in an astonishing array of palate choices, with naming conventions bringing nothing but eyes-glazed stares from those not already initiated in the secret code of varietals, regions and blends.

That said, everyone needs to start somewhere. Let’s begin with segregating red wines by body type— that is, by the “feel” of the wine on the tongue. The feel and consistency of red wine is largely a function of the amount of tannins present; tannins provide the drying, astringent aftertaste of wine that comes from the seeds, skins and stems of the grapes. Light-bodied reds, which have less tannins, often have the consistency of water and are not as dry. Full-bodied reds have relatively high tannin levels and a thicker consistency — more like milk — and a slightly higher alcohol-by-volume metric. Ever hear of the difference between “sweet” and “dry” wines? High-tannin wines are usually “dry,” which merely means that they’re not sweet-tasting.

Side note: Tannins soften with age, so an older bottle will taste smoother than a younger bottle, and lower levels of tannin increase a wine’s pairing power with various foods. A Beaujolais Nouveau will pair with a wide variety of fruits and cheeses, whereas a California Cab’s complimentary pairings are more narrow.

Light-bodied wines include Beaujolais Nouveau, Gamay, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese and Temparanillo.

Medium-bodied wines include Cabernet Franc, Chianti, Grenache, Merlot and Shiraz.

Full-bodied wines include Bordeaux, many of California’s Cabernet Sauvignons, Malbec, Super Tuscans, Syrah and Zinfandel.

Rules of thumb:

  • If you like dry wines, go for a good Malbec or Syrah. If you like sweeter reds, aim for a Pinot Noir. Merlot and Shiraz make for nice middle-of-the-road wines.
  • In wine, as with cigars, the price point is often a reliable indicator of quality. Even occasional drinkers can discern a difference between a $10 bottle and a $30 bottle. If you aim to impress a host, the bottle shouldn’t cost less than $20. Twice that, if the host knows a thing or two about wine. Ten times that, if the host has his own wine cellar.
  • Pay attention to complimentary food pairings. Dry reds don’t mix well with dessert, and sweet reds aren’t the best choice to accompany spicy dishes. The reason? The flavor profiles “confuse” the tongue, and contaminate the purity of flavor of both the wine and the food. And that’s not just snobbery talking. Try a slice of chocolate fudge with a glass of Syrah and a glass of Pinot Noir and see how much the wine influences your enjoyment of the dessert.
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About jason

Jason is the principal of Gillikin Consulting, a business-media and ethics consultancy based in Grand Rapids, Mich.