What makes a wine BIG?

Wine is not particularly self-evident, meaning that when you look at a wine, you really don’t know very much about it. Many people claim that they know something about a wine just by looking at it, but they are just fools or liars. Or both. To understand anything at all about a wine, one has to, at the very least, taste it.  

I mean ‘at the very least’ precisely, because the human species has a very poor sense of taste. Our sense of smell augments the taste sensors in our mouth, but even then, we do a pretty lousy job of tasting. So we compensate. We taste with our eyes, ears, memory and expectations along with our nose and mouth. All of this helps, of course, but the various tools we employ to taste sets us up for mistakes pretty easily. Changes in lighting, room temperature, and/or music have been proven to affect what we think we taste. Prior information (like the price of a wine) impacts how the wine tastes. Texture and temperature also impacts taste. The shape and size of the glass changes the taste of a wine or beer or coke.

Then there’s the problem of trying to find the words to describe a ‘taste’. What does beef taste like? What does a tomato taste like? Describing those is not an easy task…and arguably, we’ve tasted more beef and tomato than wine.

Wine critics (and wine bores) like to pretend that they possess a superior sense of taste, a refined palate. This is largely crap. Some do know more about wine than the general public. Some have particular sensitivities to a specific flavor. But, really, what the genuine wine expert has is knowledge: knowledge based upon nearly nonstop tastings and reading and studying and comparisons. A doctor can diagnose a patient quickly from across the room; sometimes they are even correct. But in an examination room, studiously examining clues, responses to stimuli and asking questions, the doctor, because of their training, can make a more accurate diagnosis. Ditto the wine expert.

Anyway, the topic for today is ‘BIG”.

What is a big wine, and how does a wine become BIG?

BIG is not a flavor, nor a texture, but a descriptor of a sensation that is caused by other factors. BIG, in wine, usually refers to ‘body’ or ‘mouthfeel’ which are similar but not the same. Many wines that are described as BIG are viscous, actually thick. Others are less thick but ‘mouth coating’, leaving the impression of thickness. And others still have texture, a coarseness that also leaves the impression of thickness. A few have all those factors; they are measurably thicker and mouth-filling  and textural. Are those better wines? Maybe…do you like them better?

BIG wines that are thick are usually made from ripe fruit and are highly-extracted (this refers to the amount of dissolved solid material in a wine). Ripe fruit has higher levels of fructose (sugar), which is consumed by the yeast that is either present on the grape or introduced by the winemaker. If all the sugar is consumed, the wine made from riper fruit is more alcoholic that the one from less ripe fruit. If there is sugar left behind, the wine might taste sweeter. (Even if there is no sugar left behind, the wine might seem sweeter because as poor tasters, we often describe fruit flavors as sweet even when they are not.) Both higher sugar and higher alcohol levels make the wine seem fuller and both enhance ‘mouth feel’, they are more mouth coating. Highly extracted wines have the skins (and sometimes seeds and stems) in contact with the most (juice from the grape) for extended periods of time and/or are manipulated in various ways in order for more contact between the skins and must. This provides deeper coloration, greater viscosity and often, more texture. Does that mean the wine is better? Maybe…do you like it better?

BIG wines are often consumed during colder months because we eat bigger foods and because they have higher alcohol levels, which make us feel warm. There is no ‘wine expert rule’ that instructs you to drink BIG wines in the winter. The person that suggests that such a rule exists is both a fool and a liar.

BIG wines can be made from white grapes or red. The same process works for any color of grape. BIG is not a color nor is it determined or influenced by color. If you don’t believe me, I’ll just have to put red food coloring in your white wine which will then make you love the white wine that moments before you claimed you hated, Everyone will laugh at you and wonder whether you are a fool or a liar. Or both.

Always remember, there are only two wine expert rules about enjoying wine:

Rule #1 Drink whatever you like

Rule #2 See rule #1

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