Lifestyle / Food And Drink

Michael Fridjohn
2 minute read
9 Apr 2019
4:18 pm

A little wine in your coffee, sir?

Michael Fridjohn

Using oak as a coffee or chocolate flavourant has transformed the sales of Pinotage, delivering instant gratification to consumers of what used to be the least accessible of reds. Could this be anything except a good thing?

image: stock.xchng

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 which would certainly enhance some of the varietal characteristics – but you are allowed to suspend oak staves in the fermenter.

Traditionally barrels were used because they were the best available repositories for wine in its bulk state. Before the widespread use of cork as a closure, wine went from barrel to carafe and to the table. Even once cork changed the way wine was stored and aged, bottling was generally done immediately prior to sale. New barrels were rare – and were only introduced as part of a storage replacement programme.

When I was studying the Burgundy wine industry in the mid-1970s, the proprietor of one of the major houses told me he never budgeted for new barrels. He had a full-time cooper in his employ whose job it was to keep the old casks in good condition. “The only new wood we use,” he told me proudly, “is the occasional new stave inserted into a leaky barrel.”

The Californians popularised the use of oak aromatics in young wine. Emulating the top growths of Bordeaux (which used new barrels more extensively than anyone else), they found that the charry, toasty vanilla notes of new wood enhanced the saleability of current releases. The improved cashflow made the investment in oak more affordable. By the 1980s producers everywhere were using wood flavours to mask poor fruit and the characteristics of adolescent wines.

It didn’t take winemakers long to figure out that it was more cost efficient to put the wood (as staves or even oak chips) into the wine, rather than the wine into the wood. Enter coffee pinotage in all its manifestations. Depending on which wood you use, how much the staves or chips have been charred before adding them to the fermenting must or the maturing wine, you can get vanilla, butterscotch, toffee, caramel, coconut or chocolate notes.

Let’s hope they remember they need to start the production process with the fermented juice of fresh grapes.


– Michael Fridjohn is one of South Africa’s most highly regarded international wine judges and wine writers. Visit his