It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Why do so many red wines taste the same?

Many of the world’s finest red wines are the result of blending two or more grapes.  With the possible exception of Burgundy, with its mono-varietal Pinot Noir, the other wines of France are produced by blending grapes to achieve the style that has delivered them fame and fortune.  Of course, this situation is not unique to France.  Research any European appellation, and you will discover, for the most part, that their reds are also blended from two or more grapes.

But why blend at all?  The answer lies in the underlying character of each grape that is utilized—how it looks (color), smells (aromatics), and tastes (dry, sweet, full or light).  Each grape has a story to tell, and wines sourced from a single grape, because of inadequate structural aspects, can run the risk of being one dimensional and/or poorly balanced. For that reason, winemakers often prefer to blend and craft a wine that will look, smell and taste more complex, structured and interesting.   

In the See, Swirl, Sniff protocol of wine tasting, the appearance of a wine is where the attention getting, first impression takes place, and in the case of reds, the deep, dark, port-like colors are what attract the taster’s eyes.  And without a doubt, inky, purple/red wines have become the preferred color, because it implies they will possess greater depth, concentration and flavor, (even though that may not really be the case.) 

Wine 101 informs us that the color of a wine originates in the skin of the grape, not from the juice inside.  Some grapes skins are thick and heavily pigmented while others are far less colored.  But what if the underlying red grape, whichever it may be, yields a finished wine that is somewhat lacking in color?  What are the winemaker’s options?  Blending in a darker red is one possibility.  In France, such a procedure requires that the grape be permitted by the appellation’s rules and regulations.  

However, in the New World, no such restrictions exist, and the winemaker is virtually unfettered to pursue materials as long as they are “approved as being consistent with good commercial practice in the production, cellar treatment, or finishing of wine.” With that in mind, permit me to introduce you to a controversial product that will add darker color, additional fruit and a bit more sweetness to red wines: Mega Purple.

Mega Purple is a sweet and highly concentrated grape juice made by a California subsidiary of Constellation Brands, one of the world’s largest wine and spirits producers.  While it apparently has commercial jam and frozen fruit applications, its use as an additive in wine is where the debate arises. 
A few wine writers and educators claim that Mega Purple is likely used to enhance most red wines in the $15 and under price level, and to many above that level.  However, there are no industry statistics to substantiate those claims, and there is very little, if any, discussion of this topic within the industry, even though it has been around for years.

However, if swirling in a sack of oak chips to mimic the effect of aging Chardonnay in costly oak barrels is an acceptable practice, certainly “putting some lipstick on the pig” via some dark, sweet, concentrated grape juice can’t be any worse.
Or can it?  It depends on who has your eyes and ears. “An insidious additive that can ruin a wine,” screams one wine lecturer and educator.  Meanwhile another scoffs, “What’s the big deal? It’s only grape juice.”

Those professionals who have pursued this issue via blind tastings typically agree that while Mega Purple does create a darker color, a bit more body, and a notch up in sweetness (America’s favorite taste), it does have some compromising side effects.  It tends to diminish the varietal character and aromatics of the wine’s underlying grape.  This can homogenize red wines to the point where they will be sharing the same general profile and characteristics.
Is it a Cabernet, or is it a Merlot?  Who cares as long as “It tastes good.”  And just think about it!  One big, inky fruit bomb for everyone!  And with the bonus of vibrant, purple legs oozing down the inside of your swirled wine glass.

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