The 2006 edition of the California State Fair won't get under way until mid-August, but the fair's commercial wine competition begins this morning. On the eve of each competition, however, judges gather at Cal Expo for a refresher course in evaluating wine. Generally led by a university enology instructor or winemaker, the sessions are meant to bring judges up to speed on current understanding of such winemaking factors as the common spoilage organism brettanomyces, the influence of various kinds of oak, and so forth.
Last night's lesson, led by Napa Valley and Amador County winemaker Scott Harvey, had to do with Mega Purple and Mega Red, concentrated grape juices so saturated with color that a couple of drops can turn a glass of water into what looks like ink.
The stuff is natural and perfectly acceptable in winemaking, but a lot of winemakers don't like to acknowledge that they use it because it suggests that not all the color in the wine in your glass comes from the variety of grape you think you are drinking.
Harvey, who said he doesn't use Mega Purple and Mega Red in his winemaking, brought eight wine samples, one an undoctored base wine, the others all treated with Mega Purple or Mega Red in various degrees of intensity. They were poured blind in no particular order. Judges tasted through the lineup to try to determine what influence Mega Purple and Mega Red might have on the wines in addition to shading their color.
I found it easy to finger the base wine. The edge of the color was a light reddish/orange, not quite as deep as others. It also tasted more dry. The doses of Mega Purple and Mega Red in the other samples varied slightly in residual sugar, and while the variations were minor a distinct sweetness could be detected in some of the pours. Some judges felt the additives contributed a candied aspect to some samples.
But sweetness in wine can come from sources other than Mega Purple and Mega Red, such as residual sugar in wines not at all influenced by the concentrates.
Harvey's session was illuminating, and when the judging gets under way shortly the use of Mega Purple and Mega Red in wines definitely will be on my mind. Whether the presence of either will make the difference between a gold-medal wine and a bronze-medal wine remains to be seen.