Craving java? Pour some South African red wine

The Globe and Mail

A wine’s flavour can suggest many things besides grapes: blackberries, vanilla, citrus, chocolate, herbs, even tar or hay. It’s all in the mind (and sometimes merely in the crazed craniums of wine critics). But there’s a new style of South African red that leaves little doubt as to what’s on offer. It has been dubbed coffee pinotage and the flavour has Starbucks written all over it.

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In fact, the labels on most brands provide the first not-so-subtle clue. There’s Barista, Cappuccino Pinotage, Café Culture, Coffee Pinotage, The Bean and The Grinder, to name a few. The last two even feature images of a coffee bean and an old-fashioned hand-crank grinder, respectively. It’s enough to make you reach for an espresso cup in lieu of fancy stemware.

Several brands were recently launched in various provinces across Canada, ramping up the coffee-wine buzz that has been building since the launch of the first such example, Diemersfontein Pinotage, a decade ago.

Based on South Africa’s signature red grape, pinotage, the phenomenon is the accidental brainchild of Bertus Fourie, Diemersfontein’s former winemaker. A master’s graduate in oenology from the University of Stellenbosch, Mr. Fourie had specialized in the effects of wood aging on wine. By lining steel tanks with heavily charred French-oak staves (the secret is in the temperature and duration of toasting) and fermenting with a special strain of yeast, the wine developed an uncanny essence of espresso as well as chocolate. (A similar thing happens with other varieties, but not to the same degree as with pinotage.)

That first wine was an instant hit in South Africa, earning Mr. Fourie the nickname “Starbucks.” Each year, it’s celebrated with an annual rock-festival launch party attended by thousands on the Diemersfontein estate in Wellington near Cape Town. “It has a kind of a life of its own in the marketplace,” David Sonnenberg, the winery’s owner, says on the phone from South Africa.

The cult soon spread far beyond the Cape. Mr. Sonnenberg’s Ontario importer, Dan Rabinovitch of Azureau Wine Agency, says a man called from Texas recently asking if he could purchase a case on a visit to Toronto. (It’s available only in five U.S. states.)

After six years at Diemersfontein, Mr. Fourie moved to a larger winery, KWV, to produce Café Culture. Now, he’s at Val de Vie, where he recently launched Barista, competing in an increasingly crowded market of coffee-cats and choc-offs.

Hoping to build on the success of its $20 original, Diemersfontein recently expanded its portfolio with the more explicitly named, and affordable, Coffee Pinotage for select markets (not yet available in Canada). The Swedish liquor monopoly instantly placed an order for 30,000 cases, a huge purchase for a single wine. “They felt there was a real consumer interest in that style of wine,” Mr. Rabinovitch said. “It’s fuelling our optimism. We think this style has broad appeal and has the potential to elevate the profile of pinotage.”

To be frank, it’s a grape that could use some elevating. Developed in the 1920s as a cross between pinot noir and cinsault, it’s a love-it-or-hate-it variety. The best wines are vibrantly fruity, with rich berry-like flavour and a gutsier attack than pinot noir. Imagine pinot as a welterweight with fancy footwork and pinotage as Smokin’ Joe Frazier with a solid left hook.

In fact, smoke could be a euphemism for one of its more contestable attractions, less generously described as burnt rubber or, if you’re a mechanic, overheated rad hose. When the grapes are picked too early, the wine can be pungent and acidic, with an aroma suggesting acetone or nail-polish remover. But many of the more expensive renditions steer clear of those qualities, and I enjoy the more refined pinotages, which still possess the punch to spar with gamey meats, even spicy wings and chili.

Mr. Fourie’s approach, which includes assiduous stirring during fermentation to amplify the fruit against all that oak, essentially helps to mask unbecoming nuances. The resulting wines are creamy and succulent enough that many people might be inclined to enjoy them between meals, although chili and barbecued ribs can be fine companions.

Predictably, the coffee craze has sparked controversy. Starched-shirt guardians of wine’s romantic allure are quick to dismiss the chemistry-set approach as an insult to an agricentric beverage. In snobspeak, coffee pinotage may be the ultimate anti-terroir wine.

As a collector with a passion for earthy, simply made Burgundies, I should find myself in the detractors’ camp, but I don’t. Many of the world’s great wines are treated with prolonged exposure to new, toasted oak, including $2,000-a-bottle Romanée-Conti. They may not pick up much coffee, but they acquire other foreign flavours, such as vanilla and spice.

Taste Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, a $70 Napa Valley red available in Ontario, British Columbia and Nova Scotia, and you would almost be justified in wondering whether it had been pressed directly from vanilla, cocoa and coffee beans. It’s a mocha bomb, and collectors love it – at 3½ times the price of the Diemersfontein. But, of course, the Caymus shrewdly displays a grape leaf on its label rather than a coffee cake with vanilla icing and chocolate sprinkles.

Mr. Sonnenberg describes his coffee wine as “fun,” a gateway beverage that is attracting new, and especially younger, consumers to the fermented grape. I’d take it over a java chip frappuccino most days, even in the morning.

Dark-roast delights

Diemersfontein Pinotage 2011

SCORE: 89 PRICE: $19.95

The first and perhaps still best, it shows elegant fruitiness along with espresso, chocolate and smoky bacon. ($25.49 in N.S.)

The Grinder Pinotage 2010

SCORE: 88 PRICE: $14.95 Ont. (available after March 3)

Espresso joined by raspberry, lifted by juicy acidity to balance the sweet core. A “coffee” for unwinding after the daily grind. ($14.99 in B.C., $16.29 in N.S.)

Barista Pinotage 2010

SCORE: 87 PRICE: $15.95 in Ont.

A chocolate-covered espresso bean crossed with maraschino cherry, infused with vanilla and caramel. Happy wine.

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