Is “light” as a wine term the kiss of death?

I like light reds. Pinot noir, gamay, barbera all make food-friendly wines that can be light in style as compared to, say, cabernet sauvingnon or zinfandel, which are fuller bodied (and often higher in alcohol).

Talking about the flavor profile of wines, from light to full bodied is, in my view, a really constructive way to talk about wine. Heck, entire stores such as Best Cellars in Manhattan and wine lists at numerous restaurants arrange wines this way.

So I was surprised to hear a boutique wine distributor tell me the other day that “light” is verboten! Here’s what he said:

“Light is bad. It’s the kiss of death for a wine. I instruct my sales staff to never describe a wine is light–it’s not beer after all! Succulent and fruit forward and food-friendly, yes, but light, no.”

It’s probably just a question of semantics since he does have many light-bodied (my term!) wines in his portfolio, which I don’t think even has one Aussie shiraz or Cali cab. But I was struck by his hostility to the term and, needless to say, I don’t think it is the kiss of death; rather, it’s a strong endorsement in my view! What do you think?

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22 Responses to “Is “light” as a wine term the kiss of death?”

  1. Good point.

    Personally, I like those “light” wines. Probably most of the wines I drink are “light”.

    It’s the game of persuasion. I’m still in retail, and sometimes a customer wants to hear “light”, but, usually, they don’t.

    I don’t think that listing a wine as “light” on a menu or in a store is a wise decision. Customers cling to the written word here in the US of A. Then customers will first think of “light” and, second, the wine. I don’t like arbitrary flavor categories, I like to make customers make their own decisions or have conversations with the somm/wine person.

    PS. Tyler, great job on Chicago Public Radio’s World View! I adore WBEZ I was cooking carrot soup and making granola and had to spring crank my iTunes when I heard they were talking with you.

  2. The local retailer (monopoly) just renamed a while ago all the light reds in their 400 stores (Beaujolais, Burgundy, Bardolino etc.) as “medium bodied” and crafted a new category above “full bodied” which is “the very full bodied”. Reason? Light doen’t sell.

    Pompous and effective it seems. Maybe next will be “very-very full bodied”. The real question of course is what’s wrong with you people:)

  3. I think this goes back to wine ratings and minimal consumer education.

    To borrow from the recent election, Joe wine drinker, may not know much about wine or wine and food pairings, but has managed to read a few ratings, and with effort can count to 100. Joe wine drinker remember wines with large numbers being described as full bodied, rich, and hedonistic. None of those words sound close to light.

    Recently at my favorite wine store, I heard a customer ask the clerk if a particular bottle of wine was strong. The clerk started to explain the wine was medium bodied and food friendly when he was interrupted by the customer. The customer wanted to know if the wine was high alcohol, and if he could get something with higher alcohol for the same price.

  4. I’ll side with the dumb masses on this one. I’ve never been comfortable with “light” as a descriptor and I, too, drink more in the “light” category than elsewhere (is Champagne light?). Light always seems to suggest that a “slightly less than full-bodied” wine might be somehow unserious. Which is so often not the case.

    By the way, I love Ryan’s story. My kind of wino! Awesome.

    We actually bombarded wine with UV light at the Lab. Different kind of kiss of death entirely.

  5. Light wines are EXACTLY the wines I run to!


  6. Martin, Thanks for the kind words — glad you caught the segment today! How did the granola turn out?

    Viinipiru – that is hysterical!!

    Ryan – hysterical too!

    David – what were the results of your experiment?!?

  7. I think the key problem is a mix-up of light and thin. Thin or dilute is not something I want in wine. I don’t think it is about miseducation, but rather about the difficulty of describing wine, a matter of somehow using language to adequately characterize tastes, smells, weight, viscosity, age, and a variety of other aspects all in a few words. Worse, here we are discussing using only one word. So, from a linguistic perspective, I think that we could do better than light. I look for lively, which has more to do with acidity, but I think it still is most prevalent in “light” wines. Matt Kramer had a good article on “Austere”, and i agree with him that austerity can also be great, but it is also a word whose meaning in common parlance keeps it from being a desirable tag for a wine, at least from a sales perspective. I like crisp, clean, lively, and pert, but the funny thing is that light may remain the most accurate descriptor, even as it attaches with linguistic stigma.

  8. Haha great comments Ryan and Viinpiru.

    Overall it does come down to perception, light is a product trait which is displayed for the consumer’s mind. For the beer category, light has certain labels, positive and negative tied to it. That’s why we see a lot of messaging for that category, dedicated toward maintaining the positive benefit of light, with none of the negatives (dainty, or lack of, flavor, watered-down). I believe this consumer psychology could transfer over to wine, and be the result in the word-spinning. Though when I hear that the wine is light, I hardly ever think it’s watered-down in any way.

  9. Dr V,
    After bombarding a low-end Riesling (dare I say, “light”?) with UVC radiation in a SterilGARD III Biological Safety Cabinet overnight for a week, we effected a taint of rubber bands and burnt rubber.

    The full report is here:

    We think we might get more dramatic effects with a tanning bed (UVA spectrum). On that front, we’re waiting for our grant proposal to be approved.

    thanks for asking.

  10. Viinipiru – I love your story – super-size my wine description! my descriptor above “full-bodied” is “heavy” which doesn’t sound very good unless you’re channeling Haight Ashbury 1968.

  11. Dr. V, as you know, we just ran a Beaujolais tasting a couple nights ago. Everyone who showed up fully anticipated, obviously, to drink a lot of light-bodied wines. I think young people in particular are embracing the notion that wine comes in all shapes and styles — and that there are good and bad examples of all of them.

    Strangely enough, though, almost all the wines we tried ran a lot fuller than we ever would’ve thought. One Fluerie felt more like a Mourvedre than a Gamay. A lot of them were 2006 — is that typical of the 06 Beaujolais crus? Or did we have all the exceptions at one meeting?

    Tasting notes coming soon…

  12. Avoiding the word “light” is just silly. Totally agree with Jesse: people GET the idea that wines come in all shapes/sizes/styles. I did a wine reception last night for 200 people in NJ. Wine bar was set up with wines arranged by style, lighter through fuller. Most popular wine of the night was a Rueda (Las Brisas). Key was describing it as “a Mediterranean white that’s light, like Pinot Grigio”. Done. Bingo. Happy peeps.

  13. according to our wait staff the main misconception of our guests and also of some of the staff itself is not the “light”/”medium bodied”/”fullbodied” – character of the wines, but rather what people call “dry” or “sweet”. an aromatic, fruit-driven wine is often perceived as “sweet”, even though it’s bonedry. I have no idea where that comes from. I keep educating our staff about the alcoholic fermentation process and all, but this is a misconception that just seems to cling….

  14. @caroline palla, “sweet” IS one of those tough ones too! And if you say no, it’s dry, people don’t understand. There’s a lot of confusion about the fact that sweet and dry are the opposite of each other among consumers.

  15. Yeah, the sweet vs. fruity thing plagues our beginners as well. It’s tricky, because here we are, telling them that this wine tastes like melon, and pear, and even honey — the three sweetest things ever — yet the wine is allegedly dry?!

    We tend to use the old “tip of the tongue” method: if you can’t taste it there, it’s probably only fruity, not sweet. However, this is an imperfect science. Anyone have a better method?

  16. Jesse – the sweet vs dry thing can drive a retailer nuts. We get a lot of “I want the driest wine you have.” We usually ask if they want crisp, zippy, refreshing dry..or rich, creamy, butter dry. With that, we can avoid the impulse to say “they’re all dry” and go forward with what style the customer really wants.

  17. […] bring this up because it came up in the comments of this recent posting about “light” as a wine style. And it comes up regularly in my NYU class. If you want to see sweet and dry in action, try tasting […]

  18. Here are our Beaujolais results. As you’ll see, they weren’t quite as “light” as we might’ve thought!

    A couple of definite winners though. Typically, I like Beaujolais BECAUSE it’s so light, not in spite of it. But even if the crus run a little fuller than what I’m used to with basic Beauj or Beauj-Vil, there’s great diversity in terms of flavors and textures. Really interesting stuff.

  19. i think that anyone interested in the subject should read kermit lynch’s excellent “adventures on the wine route!”

    and i think anyone in earshot who describes any variety or style of wine as a (blank) bomb ruins the experience for all.

  20. Deep in the Lab’s cellars, we found something amusant to suggest that “light” might be an old kiss indeed:

  21. Wow, great comments from everyone! Definitely very interesting to see everyone’s view on the subject.

    I like “light” wines, and I agree with Tish that people get what “light” means…

    Well, I agree half-heartedly…

    The reason why is because many wine drinkers consider light wines to be wines that are light in flavor or extract (don’t ask me why)and don’t believe that a wine can be “light” and still have intense aromas and flavors. And then even these are not quite so light if you compare styles today versus traditional styles years ago (thank you global warming and Parkerization!)

    But in this day and age, when compared to the high-extract, high-alcohol, super-rich style that it seems almost everyone in the wine world (critics and winemakers) is trying to make (creating seas of sameness) and stuff down our throats, I can see why it’s so challenging to keep a distinct definition on the word “light.”

    It’s interesting though, because one idea about it could be that as wine consumers (in general) we might not be as educated (shall I say it?) in our own tastes, or what we perceive in what we taste!

    One of the things I began to realize as I started to study wine was how the aromas or “bouquet” of the wine could lead me to make certain mistakes in judgement about how I think the wine should taste based on its aromas- back to your comment about the misconception of sweetness and dryness, Jesse. Because something has a sweet aroma, we tend to associate that aroma with a sweet taste (partly true becasue 80% of that taste is established by our sense of smell). Also let’s take into account the glycerin levels (especially at present) of certain styles of wine.

    I think if we as wine consumers actually began to think for ourselves and not pay such close attention to all the hype (popular wine magazines, certain wine critics, shall I say more?), and be courageous enough to go out and drink what we like, I don’t think there will be such a fuss about using such a simple word to define the body of a wine.

    Heres to giving us all something to contemplate! Cheers!

  22. If we’re talking light, then how about So’Light? This is a range of low calorie, low alcohol (9 degrees) wine from a French producer called Claude Vialade of Les Domaines Auriol. Now THAT’s what I call light!


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