Coffee & Wine – Part One

If you read this weekly, you probably know my alignment chart for good and evil flavours in coffee. Nothing beats the unique expressions of sweet, fruity, juicy, and floral inexorably tied to a coffee’s origin. Nothing worse than the easily-replicated sours and hallow bitters of a green or dark roast. The question this week riffs exactly on my entrenched position covered over the last two ‘this things I believe’ emails: do your opinions of good and bad flavours (i.e. herb-like versus floral) extend beyond coffee? Specifically are there flavours in good wine that you hate in coffee or vice versa?

I love this question! On one hand, we have spent several emails establishing how the sensory experience of taste is very personal and subjective. And on the other, there are definable criteria or standards for evaluation within every industry. Given we are talking about wine, I turned to the biggest wine expert I know: Keaton Ritchie! He runs show at Larry’s, which is easily one of my all-time favourite restaurants. Below is his amazingly insightful response:

For Keaton, the key flavours in this discussion are herbaceous and vegetal. According to him, these “are the things in coffee that – before I even had a basic understanding of the idea of roast development or of ideal extraction – bothered me a lot”. Keaton states, the “culprit is underdevelopment” and “perhaps what makes these aromas so off putting in coffee is that they cannot coexist with ripe or developed sweetness”. They are disappointing because “if they’re present, there’s usually a potential for more developed flavours that is probably going unexploited”. Amen!

So how does this relate to wine? Keaton says unlike coffee “herbaceous or glaringly vegetal aromas can be present in wines that also present ripe fruit aromatics”. He argues, “I think the presence of these sort of ‘green’ aromas in wine can be desirable because it’s otherwise a much more obvious ‘fruit’ dominant product aromatically”. For example, a wine with a high concentration of green aromas and underripe acidity, translates to an unpleasant “bell pepper characteristic” akin to an “underdeveloped Colombian” coffee. Yet, if this wine is balanced with co-existing “riper fruit aromatics, riper acids, and lower concentrations of green, the perceived aromatics tend to lean more toward savory herbs (menthol, tarragon, basil)”. This “balances the dominant fruit characteristics and often provides an impression of freshness”.

Here is point one: while coffee and wine share sets of flavours and aromatics, they exist in completely different ratios, relations, and associations. Keaton summarizes this perfectly: “The elements of what we consider balance in wine are also different than what we’re looking for in coffee. In wine, a balance of acidity, sweetness, alcohol and fruit is the ideal (where that balance is to be found is of course up for debate), while in coffee we’re seeking a balance of acidity, sweetness, bitterness. Wine can taste unbalanced when there’s too much fruit, I don’t think I’ve ever had a coffee that was ‘too fruity’ (except naturals that aren’t so much fruity as fermenty)”.

This point of overlap and difference is not restricted to ‘green’ vegetables or herb notes. Keaton states, “there are lots of common flavour descriptors in wine and coffee that I find pleasant in one but not the other”. For example, “some wines will have smoky aromatics, or hints of meatiness or char”. Intensity matters as if “they dominate they’re unpleasant, but when in balance they can be delightful both as a complication to the more primary fruit flavours and for the way they interact with food”. He jokes that tar works in an aged Nebbiolo” because it is a “really subtle nuance amongst a whole lot of dried floral and fruit flavours”. However tar in coffee? “Not as nice!”

This leads to the second key point: food pairing! Keaton points out that “a lot of these aromatics don’t make much sense when tasting wine in a void (the way we drink and taste coffee 98% of the time!) but when combined with the acid, fat and flavours in food they are experienced differently”. To illustrate, he recalls a staff tasting last week, in which “a really young red Burgundy made with a sizeable percentage of new barrels was, on its own, dominated by some toasty flavours and baking spice, a musty earthiness, and tannins that were quite harsh and drying, with the fruit quality coming across a little bit subdued” Not the best. However, “a bite of smoked sausage later (it’s what was around), most of the tasters reported a heightened perception of fruit and better integration of tannins, with the harsher toasty notes fading to the background”. Keaton’s final thought on the topic is “Coffee and food, for reasons I don’t have the knowledge to explain, just don’t interact this way!”

We will continue more on this topic next week – but let me close with a sincere thank-you to Keaton for this articulate and thought provoking response! If you are in Montreal, visit Larry’s – you will not be disappointed.