Coffee vs. wine – The cherry and the grape compared

They punctuate any good meal, lubricate social gatherings and are blessed with a cornucopia of flavour – but coffee and wine are worlds apart when it comes to production, trade, and consumption

Main image: Photo credit: Maja Petric | Inset: Morten Scholer, Author of Coffee and Wine – Two Worlds Compared

With the potential for notes of curry, tobacco, or even soil, coffee is one of the most chemically complex foodstuffs we consume. Comprised of more than 1,000 compounds, chlorogenic acids (CGAs) deliver many of coffee’s infamous bitter notes, while furan and furanones are associated with caramel, and pyrazines relate to the perception of nuts.

In wine, some 800 aromatic volatiles are identifiable, with terpenes found in grape skin delivering the beverage’s vast bouquet. Linalool is associated with lavender and orange blossom, geraniol evokes rose petals and hotrienol smells like elderflower.

With so much olfactory potential, it's no wonder coffee professionals have borrowed from wine’s esteemed lexicon to better market the beverage’s incredible diversity to consumers.

The last decade has seen the specialty coffee industry champion many concepts more commonly associated with wine, such as terroir, tasting notes, and variety blends, as it seeks to cultivate the prestige of wine appreciation.

Originally developed in 1995 by Ted Lingle (now Executive Director at the Coffee Quality Institute) the coffee tasting wheel has become the industry standard for navigating the vast world of coffee flavour.

A later version was developed by the then SCAA and World Coffee Research in collaboration the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) to identify 110 flavour, aroma, and texture attributes present in coffee.

However, the original flavour wheel format used to chart the sensory landscape of coffee, and other products, including chocolate, honey, tea, and whisky, owes its existence to sensory chemist Ann Noble, who developed the wine aroma wheel at UC Davis in the 1970s.

"There are next to no options for improving coffee quality once it has been harvested and processing has begun"

“Around 90% of American wine is produced in California and thatʼs where most of the research happens. In the 1980s the University of California in Davis developed standardised sensory terminologies and the colourful wine aroma wheel, which has been copied by the coffee sector,” says Morten Scholer, a senior advisor on coffee-related projects at the UN and author of Coffee and Wine – Two Worlds Compared.

Scholer also highlights the development of a wine quality scoring system in the US during the 1970s, a model subsequently adopted by the coffee industry in the 1980s and also used in the whisky industry.

Even historically speaking, coffee is still catching up to wine. While the earliest coffee consumption can be traced to around 800 years ago in Ethiopia and Yemen, there is evidence of grape domestication and wine making as far back as 8,000 years ago around today’s Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Turkey.

While coffee and wine share many sensory similarities, they also have distinct manufacturing and supply chain realities that result in very different dynamics when doing business with the berry or the grape.

The coffee flavour wheel | Photo credit: via Shutterstock


World’s apart?

In Coffee and Wine – Two Worlds Compared, Scholer identifies more than 100 key differences, encompassing value chains, options for quality enhancement, the relative size of companies involved in production, and sustainability standards.

Developing countries dominate coffee production, with Brazil and Vietnam producing a combined 50% of the circa nine million tonnes of coffee produced worldwide annually. Wine is produced commercially in more than 70, mostly developed, countries. Major producers Italy, France, and Spain account for nearly half of the 270 million hectolitres produced worldwide every year.

While coffee cherries are exclusively produced for roasting, just half of the 76 million tonnes of grapes produced worldwide annually are used to make wine, with around 35% consumed as fresh table grapes and 9% as raisins, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV).

“A significant difference between the two sectors is that coffee’s value chain is very long and has a lot of people involved in several countries. Wine is completely different – it is one of the few products where everything happens at the same place. You grow the grapes and take them to the winery nearby where also processing, fermentation, aging, filtering, bottling and sale to some of the final customers takes place,” says Scholer.

Scholer adds that while some of the world’s largest coffee traders handle up to 10-12% of the world’s coffee supply, none of the world’s major wine houses control more than 2.5% of the world’s production.

Scholar identifies that another fundamental difference lies in quality control. “There are next to no options for improving coffee quality once it has been harvested and processing has begun – although you can ruin it in many ways through incorrect roasting or improper storage,” he says.
Wine makers, on the other hand, have a few tricks up their sleeves when it comes to quality improvement.

“Youʼve got more than a dozen options of how you can enhance the quality of wine. Among them are different technologies where you can add or remove sugar, acids and alcohol to improve the flavour. For coffee you can hardly do anything,” says Scholer

"Wine could really learn something from coffee on the harmonisation of sustainability certifications”

Consumption patterns also differ for the two beverages. While global wine production has fallen from a peak of around 334 million hectolitres in the 1980s, coffee production has steadily increased. In Europe, where 65% of the world’s wine is still produced, consumption has also declined.

“In the 1960s, the French, Portuguese, and Italians consumed more than 100 litres of wine annually per capita. Now all three countries have more than halved their consumption to around 40 litres,” says Scholer.

One common goal both the wine and coffee industries have in common is a focus on China, where both consumption and production of coffee and wine is growing fast. In 2020, China’s Yunnan region produced around 138 million kg of coffee, with the country also among the top ten largest producers of wine by volume worldwide – an astonishing development in a nation where neither beverage has an entrenched heritage.

While coffee has clearly learned much from the wine playbook, sustainability is one area where the reverse could be true. Scholer highlights that consumer-facing coffee standards, including Rainforest Alliance, Organic, and Fairtrade each account for around 2-4% of the world’s traded coffee.

In 2016, sustainability standard UTZ (which merged with Rainforest Alliance in 2018) accounted for 870,000 tonnes of coffee, 10% of global production, from more than 10 major producing countries with a certified land area of 567,000 hectares. Sustainability codes established by major coffee brands, such as Starbucks’ C.A.F.E. Practices and Nespresso’s AAA, which are verified by third parties, also capture coffee produced around the world.

In contrast, every major wine producing country worldwide has developed its own ethical and sustainability certification standard. From Australia’s Sustainable Australia Winegrowing (SAW) to South Africa’s Sustainable Wine South Africa, Chile’s Sustainable Code, and the US California Code of Sustainable Wine Growing, wine industry certifications have all been developed by producing countries, whereas the opposite is almost exclusively true in the coffee industry.

While the challenges facing sustainability and farmer profitability are well documented in the coffee industry, itʼs global outlook, cemented by membership organisations such as the International Coffee Organization (ICO), gives coffee an advantage when it comes to the efficacy and consumer comprehension of sustainability standards.

“Coffee supply chains are global and, regarding standards for sustainability, adhere to largely the same conditions worldwide. Wine is completely different as every country has its own standards, which is quite confusing. Wine could really learn something from coffee on the harmonisation of sustainability certifications.”

It is clear that the climate emergency is having a detrimental impact on both industries. While changing weather patterns are causing drought in Ethiopia, erratic rainfall in Brazil is damaging flowers and impeding fruit maturation. Meanwhile, higher temperatures, flooding and subsequent increase in exposure to fungi and bacteria are creating hardship for wine producers in California, Australia, Spain, and Italy.

As coffee continues its ascendance from functional pick-me-up to highly appreciated beverage, it could do worse than to borrow from wine’s esteemed lexicon. Meanwhile, as consumers grow ever more conscious about their environmental impact, it seems the wine industry could profit from a more holistic approach to sustainability.

They may share the limelight as vital components on any restaurant dining table, but coffee and wine are worlds apart in terms of production, quality control and sustainability standards. These globally savoured beverages are close companions travelling very different paths.

Coffee and Wine – Two Worlds Compared, by Morten Scholer is published by Matador, priced at £30

This article was first published in Issue 8 of 5THWAVE magazine.

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