Coffee Pinotage – fashion or fad?

After spending some time pouring a coffee Pinotage at a consumer wine event over the weekend, my attitude towards this style of wine may have shifted a bit…

The coffee Pinotage phenomenon has received a lot of attention in the past few years, from bloggers and mainstream wine writers alike. What started out as an experiment and subsequent product launch by Bertus Fourie, during his time at Diemersfontein, has developed into a trend that seems to be collecting fans faster than Justin Bieber at a girls’ boarding school.

The so-called coffee Pinotage is made by utilising a certain yeast strain during fermentation and using a lot of heavily toasted oak staves* in the tanks. This combination with Pinotage creates wines with a distinctive coffee / dark chocolate character. Of course there are differing quality examples of this style. Similar aromatic results have also been achieved using other varietals, but the character is most pronounced on Pinotage.

This style of wine has become very popular in South Africa and is spreading internationally. The arguments for and against the style have been discussed at length and I won’t do the same here. Proponents see it as a choice that consumers have, and a style that is bringing new wine drinkers into the market or encouraging more people to try Pinotage. Opponents are typically from the more traditional school of thought and see it as a dumbing down of the potential of Pinotage and one-dimensional ‘recipe’ winemaking. I think that both points of view have validity.

I don’t really like these wines. My opinion has little to do with the righteousness of the self-appointed purveyors of all that is good in the wine industry. I just don’t particularly enjoy them They’re interesting to have a sniff and a mouthful, but I would not want to drink a glass. I have been critical of the wines in the past, as I feel that many of them are pretty poor quality and simply rely on the oaking. But that does not mean I have anything against those who choose to drink them. To be fair, I should be trying to understand these consumers more.

It’s wine. Variety and choice is the whole point.

Up until now I have only read about the wines and tasted them myself. But this past weekend I had the opportunity to pour a coffee style Pinotage, The Grinder, at the Sunday Times Wine Club event in London.

Talk about a different perspective.

It became very clear to me why producers are hopping onto the bandwagon. This wine is like catnip for wine consumers. Luckily the wine that I was pouring was closed with a screw cap, because I don’t think that I’d have been able to get the corks out quick enough. The stand was constantly busy, with many saying that their friends had recommended the wine. This was not a surprise to me, as the popularity of coffee Pinotage has been well reported. But the level of  enthusiasm and interest in the wine was incredible.

Coffee style Pinotage is just starting to become known in the UK and making a snap judgement based on my few hours pouring a pretty good example of one, I’d say that there is a lot still to be written about it here.

I’m hoping that it proves to be a ‘gateway wine’ and an introduction to more complex and better quality Pinotage and wines from South Africa in general. The wine industry needs to attract new wine drinkers and if coffee Pinotage is one of the ways to do that then I guess it’s not fair to be too precious about it. The responsibility lies with producers to make the most of the opportunity it presents.

*staves are just large flat planks of the same oak that is used to produce wine barrels. They are somewhat cheaper as they aren’t crafted into barrels and take up a lot less space when being shipped.

3 Responses to “Coffee Pinotage – fashion or fad?”

  1. harry says:

    Well the Grinder takes the medal for best Coffee Pinotage Label. Easily.

    I agree that the arguments for and against this style of wine have become a bit tedious, although I still think they are about as good an example of spoofulated wines you can get.

    Wines in this obvious and easily accessible style will always have commercial success; just like can’t-put-it-down paperbacks, with the authors’ names in massive print typically known to be sold in airport lounges, will have better commercial success than, say, Finnegans Wake. But there is no doubt that Finnegans Wake is a better work of literature than something by Clive Cussler.

    Simple, easily understood wines, “hawt-dawg, I can taste coffee, you can call me a So-mel-y-yeah!” will always have this attraction in a wine world where the most exciting wines are imprisoned by an exclusionary language and system of rituals.

    This is OK by me because if the whole (wine drinking) world joined in there would be a lot less exciting wines to go around. So we are stuck with these spoofy, ‘made’ wines. They are there to keep the masses at bay.

    Good to see the labels are getting better though.

  2. Kevin Ecock says:

    Good blog. The debate re this phenomenon receiving a ‘lot of attention’ has not been a populist one. It’s way beyond time it became more inclusive so we can hear what the masses think. (By your account of the reaction to the Grinder its clear what the answer will be.) Gallo likes to style wines for the masses and the masses are not wrong when they express their appreciation. Gallo is not attempting to keep anyone at bay by producing wine that the masses actually like. Just so with something like the Grinder. I can remember trying Diemersfontein’s example of the style at it’s first release. It was a welcome addition to the stable of pinotage styles available – most of which I might add were unpredictable, unstable and distinctly ‘wrong’ in their makeup. Coffee Pinotage is as good a style development as Late Bottled Vintage was for Taylors. Its not the real deal but it is better than most ruby’s and something the masses/wine drinkers everywhere can access and appreciate.

  3. harry says:

    Kevin I really like the comparison between Coffee Pinotage and Taylor’s LBV. So not the real deal, but better than rusty nails, acetone and banana.