Lunch with Starbucks Fourie

I do hope that Grape’s longest-lasting contribution to the Cape wine industry is not the fact that the late, sometimes lamented Widow gave Bertus “Starbucks” Fourie his now established nickname. Bertus is, of course, famous (or notorious) as the inventor of “coffee pinotage” when he was making wine for Diemersfontein. Which he soon afterwards left.

In November 2005 the Widow wrote: “KWV has been, of course, feeling miffed at having been forced by scandal to lose the services of two winemakers… who knew clever ways of making sauvignon blanc taste of greenpepper. Anyway, thought the leaders of this venerable Cape institution, here was a good way (probably completely legal, too!) of making their red wines taste of coffee. ‘Go out and hire Bertus ‘Starbucks’ Fourie at any price’ was the directorial demand!”

A few years later the old bag reported that the owners of Diemersfontein had been planning on suing Bertus for taking his recipe for coffee pinotage elsewhere! They saved themselves legal expenses and lots of mockery by abandoning the action. And during Bertus’s few years at KWV he created Café Culture, another coffee pinotage – which sells by the millions of bottles.

There are now dozens of versions of the drink, surely accounting for a substantial portion of the pinotage crop (with the support of critics like the cruel Brit Jamie Goode who is relieved because at least it doesn’t taste like pinotage). And Starbucks himself is involved with one of the most recent versions: the unembarrassedly named Barista, a joint venture between Val de Vie (where Bertus is MD of the wine side of things and his younger brother Martin is the winemaker) and the ever-enterprising Vinimark.

Val de Vie is a vast, embyronic estate for the very rich on the outskirts of Paarl and I will write more about its wines, but it is where I caught up with Bertus. Of course coffee pinotage was one of the topics of conversation over a long and cheerful lunch at Marc’s Restaurant in Paarl (with winemaking  Martin and PR Heidi Kritzinger – who has a much more respectable relationship with pinotage in her background, having spent many years at Beyerskloof and also at Bellevue, one of the historic homes of pinotage).

First of all, let it not be thought that the clever and rather charming Bertus (a lover of good food and wine, as one can tell at a glance) is a mere cynical machine, a sort of vinous Gaggia. He has a deep and wide-ranging interest in wine, and has travelled widely exploring the field; and clearly one of the reasons for his involvement in Barista (apart from wanting to get rich, presumably) is to help fund some other more serious ambitions for the wines of Val de Vie. Not to mention his pious and comforting belief that coffee pinotage is going to be, for the unwashed masses of the world, a first step to aspiring to drink pinot noir, shiraz and cabernet in their most august forms. Yes, well. Let’s hope so.

In fact, the coffee pinotage thing started by accident, when Bertus was experimenting, for his academic researches, with the effects of different sorts of woods and yeasts. To cut a medium story short, he noticed and developed the unusual and very pleasing (hmmm) effect of a particular combination of one kind of oak stave plus one kind of yeast – plus fermenting pinotage. At which point history said “OK, Bertus, you win”, and this ghastly trend was started. Nothing works as well as this combination, says Bertus – who has been refining the recipe, and has now even patented a part of the process of toasting the wood staves involved.

Bertus and Martin burst out laughing when I gingerly sipped at the Barista 2009 I’d politely agreed to try and said with genuine surprise “It’s not so bad…”. Which it isn’t. The coffee is undoubtedly there (that’s the point, after all), but there’s also plenty of good red berry fruit, a bit of decent structure, and it has a good fresh balance. A very well manufactured product, and a valid weapon with which to take on the world and convert it to serious red wine – and those who refuse to climb any higher up the ladder will at least have fun resting on this rung.

Later, back at the Val de Vie cellar (a conversion and extension of an old building into a fine modern facility utilising gravity flow as much as possible) I was pleased to see all the staves (planks of wood we could call them if we wished) used in making Barista being screwed into place as a ceiling for the barrel cellar, after much cleaning and shaving. Some 350 000 litres of the 2009 Barista were made, which means a lot of toasty oak. If Bertus’s dreams of mega-success for Barista start coming true, they’ll be able to supply floors, ceilings and wall-cladding for the whole of Val de Vie, and eventually most of Paarl too.

Footnote

At Cape Town Winex this evening (Thursday), there was a rumour that KWV had kicked up a fuss when they saw that Café Culture had originally been allocated a stand next to Barista. I didn’t have the strength to also try any of the other coffee pinotages on offer, but I tasted these two one after the other, and could easily see why KWV marketers would have wanted to avoid immediate comparison.  The Café Culture 2009 – overt espresso aromas, thick textured and squishy – had me rushing for the nearest spittoon. I don’t know if the versions made by Bertus for KWV before he decamped to Val de Vie were better than the latest vintage, but the Barista 2009 is much better. At R60 it’s a bit more than the KWV one, but at least it smells and tastes of wine. As well as coffee.

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