Fat and Flabby
In spite of our well-intended summer resolutions, by August the words fat and flabby hang in the air as heavily our seasonal humidity. In the petite sub-saharan country Mauritania, fatness is a cherished sign of beauty, an enticing display of family wealth. Fatness is so prized in Mauritania that girls as young as five and as old as 19 were traditionally force fed up to 18 litres of cow’s milk per day by the village “fatness advisor” in an effort to bulk them up. Mauritanians are not the only culture to prize fatness. In wine culture, fatness can be an asset. Note that’s the fatness of the wine – not the drinker.
Fatness is used to describe a wine’s body, or perceived weight. A fat wine doesn’t physically weigh any more than a thin wine, but if feels thicker or heavier in one’s mouth. A wine without fatness will seem watery and thin. The term “round” sits somewhere between fat and thin. A thin wine feels like water in the mouth. A round wine feels more like low-fat milk and a fat wine feels somewhat like whole milk, some even verging on the sensation of cream.
A number of components contribute to a wine’s perceived fatness, but alcohol is the primary padding. To experience the weight contribution of alcohol, pour a shot of vodka into your glass of wine. Color and flavor molecules also contribute to the sensation of fatness. In fact red color molecules are so heavy that over the course of years many will drop out of the wine altogether, collecting at the base of the bottle as a grainy sludge known as sediment. Sweetness also fattens up a wine. Anyone who has stirred honey or liquid sugar into tea will have noted that sweetness adds thickness and weight – and not just to the tea.
Winemakers can be a subjective bunch, but even they like their science and most wines undergo laboratory analyses ascribing numbers to components contributing to wine quality. In one test, wine is poured into a centrifuge to remove all of its water. After spinning the wine at extremely high speeds only a fine powder remains. The powder, called dry extract, is a significant measure of flavor and body, or fatness.
While the terms fat, round and weighty are complimentary, oddly the word flabby is disparaging. Fatness is desirable – just as long as it’s not flabby. The term is always used pejoratively to describe a wine that lacks sufficient acidity. Flabby wines are like good candidates for yoga or pilates – they lack appropriate acidity or “core strength” for balance. Without sufficient acidity, a wine is too cloying and doesn’t provide refreshment.
Before the lanky catwalk girls start feeling too smug, thin isn’t the goal either. Unlike the rest of the fashion world, when comes to wine, thin is not in. A wine described as thin is as exciting as drinking a glass of water. In Mauritania, however, thin is in when it comes to men – chubby men being perceived as lazy providers and “womanish.”