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Oh Goode Grief!: Concentrate and Mega Purple

by Curtis Phillips
February 22, 2011

The California Department of Agricultural Statistics gauged the 2010 California winegrape harvest at just 3.2 million tons prior to the Preliminary Grape Crush Report being released only to realize an actual crush of close to 3.6 million tons. Not only was the Rubired varietal pointed out as the culprit of the third largest harvest on record, now its use in one of our rarely discussed tricks of the trade has been noted today in Jamie Goode's Wine Blog:

Grape juice concentrate is a controversial topic in winemaking. It’s widely used, but people don’t really like to talk about it, because it sounds a bit like cheating. It’s a brave winemaker who shows journalists this widely used trick of the trade. Normally, it’s kept hidden away.

Before commenting on Jamie Goode blog post, I suppose I ought to disclose that I used to work for Canandaigua Wine Company (now Constellation Brands), albeit not in the concentrate division. My parting with Canandaigua was not really amicable however so I don't think it would be wise to read too much into that detail as, except for having a few friends that still work there, I have little vested interest in Canandaigua/Constellation one way or the other.

Goode's blog entry is more temperate than most, but it seems like every few years some self-appointed guardian of wine gets a bee in their bonnet over Rubired. I suppose it's still fashionable to slag the upstart Americans, but this sort of commentary is uninformed at best. Granted that the wine industry has itself to blame for convincing consumers that wine should require some sort of specialized knowledge. However, it never ceases to amaze me how many "wine experts" get wrapped up in a mythology that was never true and forget that wine is first and foremost a consumer product. What should matter is how the wine tastes. As long as it complies with the appropriate regulations, how it was made should be just a detail.

Goode makes the same mistake that many do when interpreting the annual California Grape Crush Report. There are a few things to remember while interpreting the annual crush report data. First off, the Crush Report is crop-specific, not use-specific. There is some attempt to capture use data, but some use-classes like juice and concentrate can be diverted to other final products. It is also important to remember, that the crush returns are self-reported. This makes them useful for spotting trends, since the same growers and processors tend to report year after year, but somewhat unreliable for absolute returns. The state does the best it can, but would need many times the staff to monitor the entire harvest.

The CA Crush Report attempts to count all grapes processed, including table grapes, raisin grapes, grapes for juice, grapes for concentrate, and grapes for wine. For most grape varieties, there is essentially a one-to-one relationship between the varietal and the use. Essentially all Cabernet Sauvignon goes to wine production. however, some cultivars are classed for a specific use by the state, but have multiple uses. Thompson Seedless (AKA Sultana) grapes are the classic example in that they are widely used for raisins, table grapes, juice grapes, grape concentrate and wine.

The primary market for grape concentrate, including red concentrate from Rubired, is the food-products industry outside of the wine industry itself. White grape concentrate is used as a "natural" sweetener and directly competes with other juice concentrates like apple and pear. Red grape concentrate is used both as a natural sweetener and as a "natural" color. The fact that red grape concentrate is a natural color agent is the main reason the price for Rubired has held it's own while the bottom fell out of the white grape concentrate market.

Another thing to remember about Rubired is that it is [75%] Vitis vinifera. Essentially it is the grandchild of Alicante Bouschet. Alicante, by the way, is a tinturier (red-fleshed) varietal and is frequently used to bolster the color of wine. It remains one of the more widely planted grape varieties in France for this very reason.

None of this addresses the issue of Mega-Purple itself. I've made wines across the entire price spectrum including some of the large-scale multi-million case "cheap" wines and despite working for the company that makes the stuff, I've never felt compelled to use it myself. Either my wines had plenty of color or were aimed at a price segment that was too low to justify the expense. I have trouble believing the use of either Mega-Purple or Mega-Red is really "widespread" in US wine industry. Blending generally yields better results anyway.

I can see using Mega-Purple in a year with a lot of grey-rot to counteract the laccase from Botrytis, but is maintaining the color in a Merlot from the Sacramento Delta really worth the apparent hysteria from the winerati? In any case, it should show in the glass. A cheap Central Valley Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon would be better off blending in some Barbera, Carignane, Ruby Cabernet, and Mouvédre (AKA Mataro) for color and acidity. It would be cheaper and would produce a better final wine.

It's funny how the Europeans can construe using grapes to make wine as somehow being unnatural while routinely using cane-sugar and gum-arabic in their own, supposedly "authentic", wines. If the issue is using grape concentrates in wine production, then perhaps we should be discussing the use of must concentrators in Europe.

Edited and updated 2/23: As noted in a comment above, I had forgotten that Alicante Ganzin, one of Rubired's parents, was a French hybrid. This would make Rubired only 75% vinifera.

A reader writes in and asks:

Approx 2.4 lbs of grapes = a bottle of wine. How many lbs of Rubired to produce the concentrate for the required color/textural correction?

Curtis responds:

Not too much, maybe half a dollar's worth (1/250th gal), maybe less, but it depends on where you start, and even $0.25 can mean the difference between profit and loss on a cheap wine. The main points are that Mega-Purple is an added expense and it's not cost effective for "cheap" wine when you can buy a ton of Central Valley Carignane/Barbera/Mourvedre/Rubired, etc., for less than $125. Mega is an added cost of $0.25 to $3 dollars per gallon, depending on how much is needed and how much you waste. It makes your wine more expensive to produce whereas blending up to 24% of red blenders will bring the per-gal cost of the product down.

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