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What's in Your Wine?
It could be Mega Purple
On a trip to California back in 2011, I had an experience that left a question in the back of my mind that was jogged in a column by Matt Kramer in the Wine Spectator two years later. The article was called "Why Authenticity Matters," and in it, he used not-from-concentrate orange juice as an example. It seems that not-from-concentrate orange juice can spend up to a year in tanks after being pasteurized and stripped of oxygen, a process that also removes most of the flavor. Then, before packaging, they use "flavor packs," developed by companies like ADM, who specialize in flavorants, to re-flavor the juice. That's why not-from-concentrate juices are always so consistently the same. It was enough to make me want to go back to squeezing my own juice.
That got me thinking about a comment from a wine-grape grower I met on that trip to Napa Valley in 2011. We were in a Cabernet Franc vineyard in Napa in late October, and it had been a tough year. Grapes that should have been ready for harvest were still pretty tart when they should have been very sweet. When I pointed that out, his comment was, "they're going to need a lot of concentrate this year."
I did a little research, and "wow!" grape concentrates are legal wine additives that require no labeling or disclosure and are widely used. It also seems to be something no one in the industry wants to talk about. The concentrates are thick and very sweet and are available for almost every grape varietal. They are used by winemakers to enhance color, weight, and sugar levels before or after fermentation. The Wikipedia entry for the concentrate Mega Purple claims that it is used by almost every low to moderate-value (under $20) wine producer. I find that hard to believe, but maybe I'm being naive because I certainly see a lot of Pinot Noirs that look way too dark.
Back in 2019, Mat contacted a grape concentrate manufacturer in California, and they were happy to send us samples. They sent two concentrates, their Purple, a Rubired Grape concentrate similar to the Mega Purple that Canandaigua West makes, and a pure Pinot Noir concentrate. So, we found an eye dropper and began to experiment.
Both were thick syrups and contained over 60% fructose and glucose, so really, really sweet. However, the Purple packed an incredible wallop of color. That is one drop in a glass of water and one drop smeared on a sheet of white paper. You could literally use this stuff as ink.
While the Purple seems to be designed to beef up thin wines and mask flaws, the 100% Pinot Noir concentrate was another matter. It seemed to us to be a more honest tool in a winemaker's bag. We tested it by adding a drop to a glass of Pinot Noir Rosé. It actually made only a small impact on the color of the wine, but upon tasting, there was a noticeable sweet edge to the wine. It seems that pure varietal concentrates are used primarily as additives before fermentation to bring up the brix level (sugar) when the grapes have not achieved the desired level of ripeness.
High-volume producers and "jug wine" makers in the Central Valley are the heavy users of concentrates like Purple. There the grapes are harvested at a yield of 14-20 tons per acre. Compare that rate to 5-6 tons per acre for premium grapes, and you get an idea of the scope of the market for concentrate.
What I wonder about is how much of it is used by fine wine producers. The temptation has to be there, and the fact that no one seems to want to talk about it leaves me very suspicious.
February 1, 2023