some image

Having fun, writing about the stuff I like

Pallet-Friendly Wines

Oscar Foulkes September 17, 2009 Wines No comments

I have a friend who says Puritan when he means to say purist, and penultimate when something is the best ever. The depth of our friendship is such that I would never point out his error; I do, after all, know what he means. Nevertheless, my purist heart cringes very slightly every time he mangles his mother tongue.

To purist coffee drinkers, Starbucks is the devil incarnate. I’m not going to get into an argument about the merits of various coffee chains, but I will say that the Starbucks in Qingdao was a very welcome sight when I was there in April last year. For all the brand’s ills it succeeds in delivering a consistent experience wherever one goes.

Given the ubiquity of Starbucks it is not unexpected that The Widow, who used to write a column for, used it as a slightly pejorative nickname for Bertus Fourie, the winemaker who created “the original coffee Pinotage”, Diemersfontein. Fourie thereafter moved to KWV, where he made Café Culture, and has since moved on to Val de Vie, for whom he is making Barista (the names, clearly, are broadcasting the coffee-ness of the Pinotage in the bottle). For the record, I’m sure The Widow was a purist – she was too interested in wine to have been a Puritan.

Similarly, I am too much of a purist wine drinker to be able to like any of these coffee concoctions. Firstly, despite my addiction to coffee I cannot abide mocha flavours. Secondly, every coffee Pinotage I’ve tasted has been clumsy and sweet on the palate.

Oak, of course, is the only external flavouring agent permitted during winemaking. The coffee flavour in these Pinotages comes from the mocha-type flavour of the toasted oak staves used during fermentation. On the other hand – in an apparent contradiction – the influence of oak on the great wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy, or just about anywhere else in the world is very much more acceptable to aficionados.

I’m not a big supporter of the flavour wheel (read my previous comments here), but I do find it rather amusing that purists (many of whom do taste by flavour wheel) object to a winemaker going to great lengths to make a wine taste more like a specific part of the flavour wheel. The style clearly sells extremely well, but I can’t help thinking that this kind of winemaking has more to do with the contemporary popularity of cocktails – most of them overly sweet – than with the finest traditions of winemaking.

The problem for Pinotage is that it’s a variety that is desperately struggling for some kind of cohesive and sustainable expression. Is it suitable for making what the French call vins de garde, suitable for long term cellaring? Is it better off as an attractively fruity wine to be consumed in its youth? Or is the market vote – of which there clearly is one – for coffee Pinotage going to trump all others?

It is at this point that I can imagine The Widow postulating that if Starbucks (the winemaker) were to change employers sufficiently frequently he could single-handedly be responsible for an entire industry changing the way it vinifies a grape variety. An effect no different to globalisation, perhaps. She might even go on to say that it’s a wine made for pallets (as in the type that the cartons get loaded onto for shipping to the market), rather than palates.

In the same way that Starbucks (the coffee brand) is preparing the Asian market for future commercial endeavours by operators that make better coffee, is it possible that coffee Pinotages could play a role in switching consumers from cocktails to wine? Is coffee Pinotage made for people who may write a tasting note along the lines of “gr8t!!!!”? Would they ever be able to drink a Pinotage made in any other style? So many vexing questions.

A bottle of coffee Pinotage is a vinous malapropism of sorts. It’s a red wine made from Pinotage grapes, but it conveys a very different meaning than a more conventional Pinotage (whatever that may be). My commercial and marketing side can understand what they’re doing. Now I need to work on my taste buddies.

Add your comment