It was a shocking shade of purple and there was no way it was natural.
Ever seen a wine that seemed to defy the laws of nature? Carnivor Cabernet Sauvignon is one of them.
It’s not a wine I would ever purchase – not after seeing its ridiculous marketing campaign at the recent Rocky Mountain Wine & Food Festival: a gigantic poster featuring a life-sized, suit-clad fellow doing his best Christian Grey impression. When wines put that much into marketing, it’s usually to overcompensate for inadequacies in the bottle: this was confirmed when I tried it at my parents’ house a few weeks later. (My dad is a sucker for wine marketing.)
It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great: heavy on the upfront fruit without much in the way of structure and a touch cloying. The really shocking thing was the colour: an inky purple, almost black – a shade I’ve never before seen in wine. Even the most full-bodied, extracted reds have never come close to this hue, and certainly not ones that retail for less than $20.
This perplexing, disconcerting experience led me down a shady back alleyway of the wine world: additives.
A bottle of wine contains so much more than fermented grape juice: dozens of additives can be added to wine, and none have to be listed on the label. (Hint: if the label talks about “modern winemaking practices” this is code for “we use additives.”) Different regions have different rules about what is and isn’t permitted, but the highest concentration of additives will be found in cheap, bottom-shelf wines. The reason is simple: cheap wine tastes pretty crappy unadulterated, but can be made somewhat more palatable (depending on your taste) with a host of amendments.
Oak chips, staves and oak powder are used in place of expensive oak barrels to add oaky characteristics to inexpensive wines – though I think they end up reeking of fake vanilla extract and cannot stand them; this is why I avoid all Aussie Shiraz below $20. Other additives are used to increase/decrease acidity, tannin, alcohol. But none of these are responsible for changing the colour of a wine; that honour goes to Mega Purple.
Mega Purple is used in an astounding amount of wine: reports suggest that the vast majority of American wines under $20 use Mega Purple. (Its production facility is in California.) Wineries are obviously reluctant to admit their use of Mega Purple and similar additives, as it makes the wine seem inferior (and, well, it’s hard to argue otherwise). The producer of Carnivor (wine behemoth E. & J. Gallo) didn’t respond to my inquiry about whether or not they use Mega Purple in Carnivor, but they absolutely must. There is no way that wine came by its hue naturally.
The reason most commonly cited for the widespread use of Mega Purple is that consumers equate darker red wines with higher quality. That’s bullshit – some of the world’s most delicious red wines are transparent: Burgundy, anyone?
Despite my queasiness upon discovering the ubiquitousness of Mega Purple and other additives – not to mention wineries’ complete lack of transparency for their use – I initially came to the conclusion that there’s nothing inherently wrong with wine additives, so long as they are safe and used judiciously.
I have since revised that opinion: I want to know what’s in my glass, dammit, especially when it has such a profound effect as Mega Purple does. I’m not necessarily advocating for a laundry list of additives on the back of wine labels (though wouldn’t that be very telling), but I’d like to have the information readily available on winery’s websites. Consumers are a lot smarter than corporations give us credit for – and we learn fast. So come clean, list your additives, and explain why you use them. I dare you.
In the meantime, I’ll be striving even harder to avoid mass-produced labels and especially cheap wines: drink less, drink better is my 2015 motto.
(A slightly different, earlier version of this article appeared in Vue Weekly.)