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Is there Coffee in my Pinotage?

New suggestions that there may be more than just grapes in our wine - Cathy takes a look.

by: Cathy Marston | 15 Aug 2011

One of the most popular and successful styles of wine in recent years has been the chocolate/coffee Pinotages. Started by Bertus Fourie at Diemersfontein and then widely copied throughout the country, it seems as if people love the combination of such strong flavours in their wine.

Legislation states that you cannot add any flavourant to wine apart from those which come naturally from wood. In the case of these 'choc/coffs', the wood used is generally toasted staves and this is the main cause of the flavours with particular aromatics produced during fermentation to give it its distinctive smells and aromas.

But is that all?
A letter in the Sunday Times on 7th August from Yvette Naude from the chemistry department of the University of Pretoria states that when she was investigating aroma profiles in several ‘choc/coffs’ she wondered if there was also any caffeine in there – something which should not be present if the only additive was wood. And in one of the wines, she did indeed discover caffeine – the implication being that there must be some ground up coffee beans in there and that is where the flavour is coming from as opposed to anything to do with grapes or oak.

Where do the flavours in wine come from anyway?
It has always seemed confusing to non-wine-fundis that wines can smell of fruit, flowers, coffee etc etc without any of those things actually being present in the wine. What you really smell is identical flavour compounds to those within the fruit/flowers and it is those which you are recognising ie. there are no lemons in your Chardonnay, but the same chemical compounds which make up that aroma and flavour are to be found both in the grapes and in the citrus fruit itself. Some years ago, two winemakers were found to be enhancing flavours in their wine by actually adding things to it (in their case it was green peppers to their Sauvignon Blanc). This was discovered, the wine recalled and destroyed and the winemakers disciplined accordingly. So if someone has been adding actual coffee to their wine as the University of Pretoria suggests, then this is a very serious problem indeed.

Can it be true?
A statement from Wines of South Africa (WOSA) which was issued on Friday says the following:

“The South African Department of Agriculture 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.”

A separate email from communications manager of WOSA, Andre Morgenthal, confirms that the same wine which gave rise to the University of Pretoria’s suggestion was also tested by the Department of Agriculture and that caffeine was not found.

So now what?
Coffee Pinotage is an emotive subject. For some, it is a ‘fake’ wine, pandering to the masses, cheapening the industry as a whole and ruining the work of non-coffee Pinotage winemakers who are attempting to get the world to see this variety in a more serious light. For others, it’s an acceptable style which appeals to the consumer and those who choose to stifle it are out of touch and snobbish.

The fact remains that probably no style of wine since Cloudy Bay Sauvignon first hit the shelves has caused quite such a revolution as the ‘choc/coff’ Pinotages. And with success you will always find jealousy and suspicion. I’m no chemist, so I see little to gain in continuing to doubt the words of those who are – if you say they haven’t added caffeine and tests confirm that, then that is good enough for me. To those who may have been tempted in the past, perhaps the best thing to come out of this almost-scandal is that it is clear that you won’t get away with it if you do. Because not just the Big Brother of the Dept. of Agriculture is watching you, but seemingly the rest of the wine-drinking world as well.

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