Wine: Color Additive Mega-Purple is a Shade Off

Hue and Cry: Mega-Purple pumps up the color of reds, but its effect on flavor, mouthfeel — and teeth and lips — is more than a shade off

When refreshments were offered at a recent memorial gathering, one of those in attendance noticed that guests drinking the red wine being poured had purple lips and teeth.

Perhaps it was strong feelings of well–earned affection and emotion for the departed, but purple lips and teeth are more likely to have been caused by a wine made from highly ripe, young red grapes. New gamay, for example, has those deep purple hues.

I have left big wine competitions with purple teeth and lips, but that’s after having tasted copious amounts of new young reds, 60 to 70, in a morning’s work — and even that’s very unusual. No, the most likely culprit considering there would have been maybe one or two reds poured at the event, was an additive used in inexpensive red wine.

Lips and teeth, meet Mega-Purple, a concentrate made from a little-known red grape and commonly found nowadays in American and Australian reds. Some industry publications report that as much as 20 percent of red wine now contains Mega-Purple or other red-color additives.

It works much like Clairol hair coloring, making reds sassier, darker, and more appealing. Like most dye, if Mega-Purple is overused, it won’t just be your winemaker “who knows for sure,” to borrow the line from Clairol’s catchy 1950s ad. The rest of the world will know, too. Mega-Purple is made from a grape called Rubired. It’s so intense, it takes just drops to pump up the color in a bottle. One trade publication says Mega-Purple sells for $135 a gallon, which is a lot of Clairol.

Normally, color is obtained during maceration, when grapes are squeezed and the juice that’s extracted from red or white grapes is left in contact with the red skins. But prolonged skin contact can lead to other problems, such as unpleasant tannins, giving the wine a rough mouthfeel and what some consider undesirable flavors.

In winemaking, getting your flavors and the sensory feel — the smell and the taste — to come together just right, is tricky. It can come at the expense of a color that doesn’t look so hot when the wine is poured. An example would be pinot-noir wines, which can have perfect pitch, balance, and texture, but look very light, almost rosé in color. Winemakers stew a lot about the color of their pinot noirs.

Enter Mega-Purple, which is supposedly colorless and odorless. By using it as a color adjuster, they can get your wine looking — in addition to smelling, feeling, tasting — exactly as you’d like.

The problem with too much Mega-Purple in wines is that its presence is as obvious as a bad male hair-dye job. You know it when you see it or when you pour it, because of a thick, inkish and almost blueberry-like appearance.

Now, it seems some red wines are also getting big enough doses to add a jolt of purple to your teeth and lips.