COFFEE CULTURE – Ernie Whalley finds a Pinotage he can actually drink

Sophia Pritchard, winemaker at Clos Malverne, with 'Le Café'


Until yesterday I’d always thought that offensive Pinotage and inoffensive Pinot Grigio were two grapes that should have been strangled at birth. Now, after a tasting of Dunne’s Stores current and proposd South African range, I’m prepared to grant the former at least a stay of execution.

I’ve always hated Pinotage. If I wanted to smell smoking rubber I’d have become a Formula One tifoso. Were I that fond of elastoplast I’d have become a paramedic. Every wine I’d ever tasted that was fettled from this grape seemed, however well-made, utterly charmless. The worst were savagely aggressive –  a mad axeman in a bottle. I’m not lacking company in my dislike of this varietal. Many wine writers have dissed Pinotage, to the extent where one of the fraternity called it “the punchbag of wine criticism”.

Yesterday, though, I found a Pinotage I could actually finish a glass of. And maybe a tad more.

According to Clos Malverne winemaker Sophia Pritchard what’s become known as ‘Coffee Pinotage’ is trending among South African wine drinkers, particularly among the younger set. The style, now around ten years in existence, was ‘invented’ by a winemaker called Bertus Fourie at the Deiemersfontein winery. Subsequently he was lured away by the giant KWW to create a Pinotage called Café Culture. The people at Diemerfontein were, apparently, not impressed, even going as far as to contemplate litigation, reckoning he had nicked the recipe. Bertus Fourie, having gained the nickname of ‘Starbucks’, left KWW in 2008 for a boutique operation called Val de Vie who also run a Polo Club and an estate agency. Val de Vie were Rhone varietal specialists, producing an iconic, for South Africa, Syrah. Curiously, what they didn’t have was Pinotage or at least it was never listed among their varietals on the website. However ‘Starbucks’ and his brother Martin, also a winemaker, set to and produced what was aimed at being the cream of the coffee Pinotages, a wine named (flourish of trumpets) ‘Barista’.

So, what’s the secret of the kick in ‘The Coffee’? According to Sophia the key ingredient is top-notch fruit, ripe in similar vein to the Merlot of the Bordeaux ‘garagistes’. Hand-sorting too, the motto being “If you find anything green, get rid of it.”  Plus cosseting  soft pressing. The main difference, however,  is in the wood employed – usually staves but there is some matured in new French barriques. The wood is toasted to a high ++ specification. I doubt you’ll find oak this charred elsewhere. This subdues the trademark vanilla and coconut of oak aged wine, replacing it with coffee sensations. The effect simulates someone tipping a few gallons of double espresso into the vat. The high toast also contributes, along with the premium fruit, to taming the weird things that go on in the typical Pinotage and making the wine more relaxed, more joyful. I found  the Clos Malverne ‘Le Café’ very decent. Full-boded, rounded and balanced with roasty-toasty aromatics announcing a heap of plum and Morello cherry fruit. Some South African winemakers seem bent on making a ‘Pinotage Light’, more in the manner of a New World Pinot Noir; I think the ‘Coffee’ route may present better opportunities of getting the grape worldwide acceptance.

That said, in all honesty, I couldn’t detect much of a taste of coffee. I roast coffee and my nose and palate are pretty well attuned to picking out the nuances. The smell of roast coffee is one of the great sensory myths. Initially, after roasting, there’s no smell at all until the CO2 generated by the process has dispersed. And during roasting what you are getting is the smell of…. yes, ‘roasting’. If I loaded my HotProg roaster with acorns it would smell much the same. Coffee, cocoa and chocolate flavours show up in a lot of red wines, particularly in New World Cabernet and Shiraz. Wolf Blass President’s Selection, to name but one, is a veritable chocolate factory.

Footnote: Clos Malverne ‘ Le Café is on the ‘maybe coming soon’ list at Dunnes Stores. I don’t have a price. Other wines that showed up well at the tasting were the clean, crisp Clos Malverne Sauvignon Blanc (€9.99); the well-balanced Clos Malverne Cabernet/Shiraz 2008 (€10.99); and the Bellingham Basket Press Syrah 2006, another hopefully en route from the Cape. There’s a Chardonnay, Heron’s Nest, on promotion at €6.99.