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01.31.2006

Mega Purple: What Crosses The Line?

I don't have all the answers. Far from it. Like everyone, my palate and my ideas are evolving over time. Perhaps when I'm 90, I'll have drunk enough wines that nothing will surprise me and I will have an intuitive sense for what makes for greatness in a wine.

In the meantime, I have a lot of wine to drink, a lot of vineyards to visit, and a lot of thinking to do about some pretty thorny issues when it comes to judging what I think makes for a legitimate expression of soil, fruit, climate, and human effort, and what crosses the line into technologically driven, manipulated monstrosity. Think that's a pretty easy call?

Then read this.

The link above is to a thread on Mark Squires' forums about a product called Mega Purple. The short story on this product is that it was sort of "outed" by wine journalist Dan Berger in one of his recent newsletters. This additive, which is essentially the 100% natural reduced extract of wine grape skins is apparently in wide use as a color enhancer in wines, from the under $20 stuff in supermarkets to some "to-be-unnamed high end California reds." If deeper colors were not enough, apparently this additive, which appears in quantities well below .1% also adds some attractive flavor and texture to wine, to the point that in a comparative tasting of several wines by some folks in the industry, many preferred the wines that had this additive.

On first blush, this is an easy issue to react to. If I ever learned that a wine or winemaker I liked was using this additive, I'd never buy from them again. I want my wines as natural as possible, of course. Who wouldn't?

But wait a minute. This is essentially just grape skins here. I drink, enjoy, even rate highly wines that consistently have all sort of things done to them -- whether it's California Pinot Noir picked over-ripe and then watered back to a reasonable level of alcohol; or White Burgundy that's had bags of sugar dumped in it in a process called chapatalization to add body; or less commonly, other whites that have had acid added to them in the winemaking process. Still others have actually had alcohol removed from them via centrifuge or reverse osmosis through membranes.

What is an appropriate level of intervention in the winemaking process? What goes too far? It's not really always a question of new world technology versus old-world traditions. Many of the oldest, crustiest, finest wines of France have had some of these treatments, though usually they're in the mode of bags of sugar rather than $50,000 wine centrifuges.

I pose these questions because I really don't know the answer. On the one hand, thinking of someone tipping a little bottle of mega purple into a barrel of wine makes me sick to my stomach, but on the other hand, what if I really like the way that wine tastes?

The answer cannot be that anything more complicated in the winemaking equation than one man, one vineyard, one old cellar, and fifty old barrels used the same way for decades is somehow a bastardization of wine, yet there is clearly a point at which wine ceases to be wine and becomes a wine-flavored beverage.

Would I know the difference just by taste? Would you? Should we care?

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