Controversy over SA’s amazing coffee-mocha pinotage wines

In the past few years, prominent coffee-mocha flavours are being found in certain styles of pinotage wines, to much consumer and critical acclaim/disclaim. These emanate from a specific oak regime used during the vinification process – or do they?

A press release from WOSA (Wines of SA) said this on the matter:

A letter published in the Sunday Times on the August 7, 2011, refers to high levels of caffeine in pinotage wines tested by a research team at the University of Pretoria.

The first pinotage wine of this style was produced by Bertus Fourie at Diemersfontein in 2001. Currently a lecturer at Elsenburg Agricultural College, Fourie explains that, from a technical point of view, the aromatics that give roasted coffee beans their aroma are also found in wine and are in fact a result of alcoholic fermentation in contact with toasted oak.

“The interesting fact is that although coffee or chocolate nuances are common descriptors of some wine aromatics, no other varietal emphasises the intensity as significantly as pinotage. And of course a number of variables play a role – the ripeness, the type of yeast (and particularly its sulphur metabolism) and the type of oak, as well as the degree of toasting.”

The South African Department of Agriculture confirmed that where coffee flavours are derived naturally from the use of allowed oak products during vinification, the product is not in contravention of relevant South African and international wine legislation. T

he Department has been testing a range of Pinotage wines with pronounced coffee flavour profiles, using the liquid chromotography mass spectrometry method, and has not found any traces of caffeine. This is a dedicated and highly specific methodology for the detection of caffeine in wine, unlike the University of Pretoria`s small-scale study, which used a different methodology, designed to detect and identify wine aroma compounds. Caffeine was not a targeted analyte and different results could thus have been yielded.

In other words, the coffee aroma and caffeine will only have a relationship with each other if artificial products have been added to enhance the flavour, which the Department of Agriculture has not found to be the case.

This particular style of pinotage wine has been hugely successful in certain export markets, as well as domestically, and seems to really appeal to consumers.

Wine writer Michael Fridjhon commented in his Business Day column:

COFFEE Pinotage has proved to be more than a five-minute wonder. “Created” by Bertus Fourie when he was still employed at Diemersfontein, it has been widely emulated.

No longer a practice to disguise the aromatics and textures of poorly made pinotage, the vinification strategy is now being applied to several other cultivars. Despite a recent announcement by a researcher at the University of Pretoria that caffeine has been identified in at least one of these wines (implying the use of coffee as an illegal flavorant), the coffee/mocha/chocolate aromas usually come from the oak treatment applied to the wine.

It is a worldwide anomaly that the flavours arising from exposing wine to wood are legal and legitimate even if the wine has never been stored in a barrel. You are not allowed to macerate cassis fruit with fermenting Cabernet — a strategy that would certainly enhance some of the varietal characteristics — but you are allowed to suspend oak staves in the fermenter…

It’s not impossible that some producers are using (illegal) oak flavorant, though chips are cheap enough. It’s unlikely they are actually using coffee, which is vastly more expensive than the various legal and illegal alternatives. In fact, a tasting of several recent releases — mainly from newcomers to the coffee segment of the wine market — suggested that, if anything, the oak aromatics are actually being toned down……

Business Day: Read the full article here