You know how you go for the slightly shinier apple, or get (briefly) bummed when the Big Mac in your hands looks absolutely nothing like the Big Mac in the commercial? Like it or not, aesthetics factor into consumer judgment as much as — often more than — substance. But not because we’re monsters. We live in a hyper-visual, hyper-commercial world where everything from hamburgers to depression medication is marketed to us with a strong aesthetic component, such as when the depressed woman is finally hopeful again, a window shade opens up (yay!) and maybe we notice her teeth look a bit whiter. Visuals are a messaging shorthand, often used to impart a sense of quality.

The same is true in beverage — yes, even in the age of rampant “craft,” when we’re all thirsting for authenticity, we’re also tweaking the visuals for marketing purposes. Which is why something like whiskey, one of the most revered distillates in drinking history, is very often “corrected” with caramel coloring. All the flavor we’re looking for could already be in the bottle but the producer knows we associate complexity and style with a particular hue. And the same goes for wine. It’s just not talked about, at least not so much that we all get really worked up and charge the nearest chateau, demanding answers.

Not that we don’t talk about any wine additives. We just don’t really talk about some of them, like Mega Purple, the nightmare-Barney-sounding grape concentrate thousands of wineries quietly use to “color correct” their bottles. Made from a teinturier grape called Rubired, Mega Purple is extremely rich in color (“teinturier” is the French word for a grape with both red skin and red flesh, hence its ability to add deep hue). To make Mega Purple, Rubired grapes are prepared into a kind of wine with a ton of residual sugar (about 68 percent) and a very rich color. If and when Mega Purple is used, which is a lot, it’s generally used in extremely low doses. It’s so “mega,” that’s all you really need.

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Mega Purple
Mega Purple, looking quite mega, photo courtesy of

So why do wineries use it? And why are they so freaked out about us finding out? One major factor is that visual/marketing thing. We haven’t really admitted it to ourselves, but we seem to like our red wines really red these days. Especially if we’re buying cheap, seeing a nice dark inky purple in the glass makes us think we’re getting more “depth” of quality than might actually be in a $9 bottle. Beyond enriching the color, Mega Purple is thought to add “roundness” and boost the fruit or residual sugar of a wine that may have come out with less than desirable body. Winemakers also use Mega Purple to cover up the flavor of pyrazines, the compounds that give an unmistakable green bell-pepper flavor to certain wines. While not always undesirable, and generally well-suited for aging, vegetal flavors are a much harder sell than big, fruity wines that promise to taste like a tannic blackberry explosion at 14.5 percent ABV.

Speaking of, you might be inclined to think something called “Mega Purple” is only going into the bulk cheap wines that line grocery store shelves and tend to come in $14 two-liter bottles. While those wines most definitely rely on Mega Purple to create their generic, fruit-forward, softer reds, smaller wineries making more expensive wines supposedly use Mega Purple, too. For obvious reasons, it’s not easy to get a winemaker to admit openly to using the stuff.

And that’s why we can’t really judge the impact, since we don’t know who’s doing what with Mega Purple and how much of it they’re adding. We do know the stuff’s been said to soften if not neutralize a wine’s native aromatics if too much is added, which is part of the reason Mega Purple is dangerous as a standard practice. Sure, you get what you’d expect from that $11 Australian Shiraz, but you’ve also been taught to expect that because the winery has quietly used Mega Purple to ensure consistency of that “Shiraz” flavor. (Or whatever wine it is you’re buying, though Mega Purple, as you can imagine, is probably used in darker wines where big fat fruit and richer colors are desirable.)

Many winemakers anonymously insist they only use a very tiny proportion of it, adjusting for color but not affecting the aroma or flavor. But since nobody is really telling us anything, what the hell should we trust? For now, maybe we can just recommend they rename the stuff something less 1984-bleak.