Behind the Cork™ Wine of the Week

Alexander Valley Vineyards Merlot ($15)

The Alexander Valley in Sonoma County turns out some terrific wines, including this Merlot from the winery named for the originator of the valley. 

The Wetzel family who own and run Alexander Valley Vineyards, purchased a large portion of a homestead built by Cyrus Alexander, the valley’s nineteenth century namesake. Today, the Wetzel Family Estate grows fourteen grape varieties, on diverse sites stretching from the banks of the Russian River up onto the hillsides.

This Merlot is a fine example of a medium body red with soft tannin and good black fruit flavors of black cherry, blackberry and plum with a touch of oak to add a subtle vanilla flavor. The finish is long and lasting. This medium bodied Merlot is great for food pairings due to its moderate acidity and tannin. It works well with beef, pork, cured meats and even a flavorful chicken dish. 

Exploring Medium Bodied Red Wines

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Recent posts have addressed light bodied red wines including two of the most common, Gamay and Pinot Noir. Light bodied red wines have bright red fruit flavor and little to no tannin.  But looking across all red wines you'll find very few that are light bodied. On the other hand, not all red wines are big and bold either. So let's take a look at medium bodied reds.

Many medium bodied red wines continue with red fruit flavors such as cherry, raspberry, cranberry and strawberry, but what sets them apart is tannin. If you're not familiar with tannin, it is an astringent compound that comes from the grape's skin, seeds and stems as well as wood barrels. Tannin is responsible for the characteristic of producing a mouth-drying sensation.  Tannin builds character in red wines and allows them to age well.

So, just as you might expect, a medium bodied red wine will have medium levels of fruit flavor, acidity and tannin. And, as described previously, the terroir and the winemaker can have a big influence on the style of wine produced from the same grape. Cool growing climates tend to produce lighter bodied wines while warmer climates lead to bolder wines. And oak aging will also influence a red wine's flavor with new oak adding flavor and neutral oak yielding little to no additional flavors.

Although the Sangiovese grape can be made into light bodied Chianti, it can also produce medium bodied wines. While Chianti is aged a minimum of six months, Chianti Classico is aged for one year and Chianti Reserva is aged two years.  This additional aging smooths out the acidity and produces a bolder wine.

Another example of a grape capable of producing a light bodied wine as well as a medium bodied wine is Pinot Noir. As previously described, the Pinot Noir grape, when grown in warmer climates such as Oregon's Willamette Valley, produces a fuller bodied wine.

Medium bodied red wines also begin the transition to flavors of black fruits including plum, black cherry, black currant, blueberry and blackberry.  These flavors are evident in Barbera, Grenache, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Zinfandel. The moderate tannins attributable to all these grapes gives them a smooth mouth-feel and allows the fruit flavors to shine through.

Medium bodied red wines are great for food pairings due to their acidity and tannin. They work well with beef, pork, cured meats and even chicken.  As always, the key to pairings wines with meats is to pair them with the overall flavor of the meal that often includes sauces. So, you might not think of pairing a medium red with chicken, unless its got a flavorful sauce (e.g., Coq Au Vin). Then a red wine works quite well.

As mentioned earlier, medium bodied red wines age well due to the compounds in tannin. These reds can easily age for three to five years under proper wine storage conditions. Serve these reds at a cellar temperature of approximately 60 degrees F (not room temperature) in a large wide-mouth wine glass and store any leftover wine in an air evacuate bottle in the refrigerator for up to 3-5 days for best flavor. Cheers!

Some More Thoughts on Medium and Full Bodied White Wines

Having just examined light bodied white wines and spent a bit of time on Chardonnay, it's time to look into some other white wines that are in the medium body and full body category. These are going to have bigger, fuller flavors than those of the light bodied whites, contain a bit more alcohol and may be aged in oak.

Here are some of the white wines that are considered medium bodied:

Gewürztraminer (go-veertz-tram-ee-ner) - This is a big fruit wine. It's also a very aromatic wine with the fragrance of roses petals, lychee and perfume. Flavors include pink grapefruit, tangerine, peach, mango, apricot and guava. This crisp and fresh flavored wine will typically have sweet undertones while still being dry (low residual sugar). These wines are most famously produced in the Alsace region of France where they can also take on a rich and silky texture with subtle salinity.

Grüner Veltliner (GREW-ner FELT-lee-ner) - Nearly three quarters of all Grüner Veltliner is produced in Austria. This too is a big fruit wine with moderately high acidity. You may find flavors of peach, pear and yellow apple in this wine. The light and zesty versions of this wine are most common and affordable, having crisp acidity and hints of melon and lime. The Austrian Reserve versions can be rich with fruity flavors such as apple, mango and honey along with hints of white pepper.

Sémillon (sem-ee-yawn) - Approximately half of the Sémillon in the world is produced in France with another 25% coming from Australia, and is gaining popularity in California. This is truly a medium bodied wine in all aspects of fruit, acidity and alcohol. Common flavors include lemon, peach, with a waxy mouthfeel and a bit of salinity. Bordeaux blends will include Sémillon along with Sauvignon Blanc. Sémillon is sometimes barrel aged in oak to give it additional richness and flavor.

Marsanne (mar-sohn) - This is a medium-low bodied wine with medium fruit, medium-low acidity but a medium-high alcohol level. Flavors may include Mandarin orange, apricot, and acacia with a slight waxy mouthfeel.

Viognier (vee-own-yay) - This is a big fruit wine with the fragrance of roses, and flavors of peach, mango, and tangerine. Without Malolactic fermentation this wine can also have flavors of lime along with fragrances of flowers and some flavors of mineralality when grown in cool climates. Warmer climate versions of this wine may have flavors of apricot, rose and vanilla. Malolactic fermentation will give this wine richer smoother flavors and reduced acidity.

As previously stated, an oaked Chardonnay is a classic example of either a medium or full bodied white wine, depending on the strength of flavor the oak imparts and if the wine maker takes the additional step of putting the wine through Malolactic Fermentation. And when it comes to full bodied white wines, this is one that everybody knows.

Chardonnay (shar-doe-NAY) - An oaked Chardonnay is a classic example of either a medium or full bodied white wine, depending on the strength of flavor the oak imparts and if the wine maker takes the additional step of putting the wine through Malolactic Fermentation. California Chardonnays of recent past were typically being put through Malolactic Fermentation and aged in new oak to make them a full bodied wine.  These were the Chardonnay's that were referred to as "buttery" due to their big and bold oak flavor and the creamy mouth feel from the conversion of the sharper malic acid (found in green apples) into softer, smoother, creamy lactic acid (found in milk). This process reduces the total acidity such that the wines become softer, rounder and more complex. This trend has largely been reversed such that today most California Chardonnays are either being made un-oaked (often noted on the label), or treated to a lighter dose of oak to allow the fruit flavors to shine through. You can still find a full bodied "buttery" Chardonnay, but they are in the minority.

So there you go with a run through of the various body styles of white wine. Next time we'll start exploring the body of red wines . Tannin is the big difference there. So, until next time, explore some medium and full bodied white wines. Serve them cool, not cold, and enjoy! Cheers!


Medium Bodied and Full Bodied White Wines

Light bodied white wines are a great place to start when learning about and tasting wines.  They are fresh and crisp with bright fruit flavors and high acidity.  So the next step up is into medium bodied and full bodied whites.

As I have been researching and putting together notes on white wines, I've found that it's been tough, as expected, to describe and define a wine's body.  That's because there are not strong lines between the categories of light, medium and full bodied wines.  But the characteristics of alcohol levels, tannin, residual sugar and acidity do give some basic guidance on a wine's body.

While white wine with less than 12.5% alcohol by volume (ABV) would be considered light bodied, medium bodied white wines are said to have 12.5% to 13.5% ABV and full bodied white are those with greater than 13.5% ABV. These are general guidelines, but at least this is one of the few characteristics that is actually shown on a wine's label (ABV percentage is legally required to be printed somewhere on a bottle of wine).

A wine's residual sugar (RS) is also a telling characteristic of its body, but it is directly related to a wine's alcohol level. The lower the alcohol level, the more residual sugar; the higher the alcohol level the lower the alcohol level. So you can expect a light bodied, lower alcohol, wine to have some residual sugar and to have a slightly sweet taste.  The medium and full bodied white wines will have higher alcohol, lower RS and little to no sweetness to them.

The acidity of medium and full bodied white wines is much lower than light body whites.  While the acidity in a light bodied white wine will give it a bright, crisp and mouth watering finish, medium and full bodied white wines will not. These will be richer and smoother.

And finally, there's the characteristic of tannin. This is something that isn't really a factor in white wines. Tannins come from the grapes skin, seeds and stems.  Most every white wine is pressed and the juice is immediately separated from the skins, seeds and stems. So tannin levels are next to zero.  So called "Orange" wines are made from white wine grapes and they to get contact time with the grape skins, seed and stems, giving them the characteristic light orange color (not the flavor of an orange). Tannins do play a huge roll in red wines and we'll say more about this when we address the medium and full bodied red wines in future postings.

In addition these four characteristics, one must consider that a wine's body is also influenced by the wine maker.  The grape variety isn't necessarily the key to determining the body of a wine. Take Chardonnay for example. A Chardonnay that is produced in stainless steel or concrete tanks is considered light bodied. But, if the wine maker chooses to age the Chardonnay in neutral oak it's going to be medium bodied. A Chardonnay that goes through the addition step of Malolactic Fermentation and is aged in new oak will be full bodied.  So, it isn't just the grape variety that determines a wine's body, it's also how it's made.

While Chardonnay is a great example of a medium or full bodied white wine, there are certainly others. And we'll get to them next time. Cheers!