Coffee vs. Wine - The cherry and the grape compared
They punctuate any good meal, lubricate social gatherings and are blessed with a cornucopia of flavor – but coffee and wine are in different worlds when it comes to production, trade and consumption.
Main image: A winemaker holding a grape | Photo credit: Maja Petric | inset: Morten Scholer, Author of "Coffee and Wine – Two Worlds Compared"
With the potential for curry, tobacco or even soil notes, coffee is one of the most chemically complex foods we consume. Comprised of over 1,000 compounds, chlorogenic acids (CGAs) provide 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, around 800 aromatic volatiles are identifiable, with terpenes found in the grape skin delivering the drink'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 that coffee professionals have borrowed from the cherished lexicon of wine to better market the beverage's incredible diversity to consumers.
The last decade has seen the specialty coffee industry champion many concepts most commonly associated with wine, such as terroir , tasting notes and varietal blends, as it seeks to cultivate the prestige of wine appreciation.
Originally developed in 1995 by Ted Lingle (current Executive Director of the Coffee Quality Institute) the coffee tasting wheel has become the industry standard for navigating the vast world of coffee flavor. A later version was developed by the then SCAA and World Coffee Research in collaboration with the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) to identify 110 flavor, aroma and texture attributes present in coffee.
But the original flavor wheel shape used to chart the sensory landscape of coffee, and other products including chocolate, honey, tea and whiskey, owes its existence to sensory chemist Ann Noble, who developed the wine aroma wheel at UC. Davis in the 1970s.
"There is almost no option to improve the quality of the coffee once it has been harvested and processing has started"
"About 90% of American wine is produced in California and that's where most of the research takes place. In the 1980s, the University of California at Davis developed standardized sensory terminologies and the colored wine aroma wheel, which was copied by the coffee sector", says Morten Scholer, senior adviser 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 later adopted by the coffee industry in the 1980s and also used in the whiskey industry.
Even historically speaking, coffee is still catching up with wine. While the earliest coffee consumption can be traced back around 800 years to Ethiopia and Yemen, there is evidence of grape domestication and wine production around 8,000 years ago, around 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 grape.
The Coffee Flavor Wheel | Photo credit: via Shutterstock
In Coffee and Wine – Two Worlds Compared, Scholer identifies more than 100 fundamental differences, covering value chains, quality improvement options, relative size of companies involved in production and sustainability standards.
Developing countries dominate coffee production, with Brazil and Vietnam producing a total of 50% of the approximately nine million tons of coffee produced annually worldwide. Wine is commercially produced in over 70 countries, most of them developed. The main producers Italy, France and Spain account for almost half of the 270 million hectoliters produced worldwide each year.
While coffee cherries are produced exclusively for roasting, only half of the 76 million tons of grapes produced annually are used to make wine, with about 35% consumed as fresh table grapes and 9% as raisins, according to the Organization for Food and Agriculture (FAO) and the Vine and Wine Organization (OIV).
" A significant difference between the two sectors is that the coffee value chain is very long and has many people involved in different countries. Wine is completely different – it is one of the few products where everything happens in the same place. grapes and takes them to the nearby winery, where they also process, ferment, age, filter, bottle and sell to some of the end customers ," says Scholer.
Scholer adds that while some of the world's biggest coffee traders handle up to 10-12% of the world's coffee supply, none of the world's biggest wine houses control more than 2.5% of the world's production.
The academic identifies that another fundamental difference lies in quality control. “ There is almost no option to improve the quality of coffee once it has been harvested and processing has begun – although you can ruin it in many ways through incorrect toasting or improper storage ,” he says. Winegrowers, on the other hand, have a few tricks up their sleeve when it comes to improving quality. " You have more than a dozen options on how you can improve the quality of the wine. Among them are different technologies where you can add or remove sugar, acids and alcohol to improve the taste. For a coffee you can hardly do anything ", he says. Scholer
"Wine can really learn something from coffee about harmonizing sustainability certifications"
Consumption patterns also differ for the two drinks. Although world wine production has declined from a peak of around 334 million hectoliters 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 liters of wine per capita annually. Now, the three countries have halved their consumption to about 40 liters", says Scholer.
One of the common goals that the wine and coffee industries have in common is the focus on China, where both consumption and production of coffee and wine are growing rapidly. In 2020, China's Yunnan region produced around 138 million kg of coffee, with the country also among the top ten wine producers by volume worldwide – a surprising development in a country where no beverage has an entrenched heritage.
While coffee has learned a lot from the wine game book, sustainability is one area where the reverse can be true. Scholer points out that consumer-facing coffee standards, including the Rainforest Alliance, Organic and Fairtrade , account for around 2-4% of the world's traded coffee.
In 2016, the UTZ sustainability standard (which merged with the Rainforest Alliance in 2018) represented 870,000 tons 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 leading coffee brands, such as Starbucks CAFE Practices and Nespresso's AAA, which are third-party verified, also capture coffee produced around the world.
In contrast, all major wine producing countries around the world have developed their own ethical and sustainability certification standard. From Australia's Sustainable Wine (SAW) to South Africa, South Africa's Sustainable Wine, Chile's Sustainable Code and California's Sustainable Growing Code, wine industry certifications have been developed through producing countries, while the opposite is almost exclusively true in the coffee industry.
While the challenges facing farmers' sustainability and profitability are well documented in the coffee industry, its global perspective, cemented by membership organizations such as the International Coffee Organization (ICO) , gives coffee an edge when it comes to the effectiveness and understanding of sustainability standards by consumers.
"Coffee supply chains are global and, as far as sustainability standards are concerned, they adhere to largely the same conditions all over the world. Wine is completely different as each country has its own standards, the which is quite confusing. Wine could really learn something from coffee about harmonizing 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 rains in Brazil are damaging flowers and preventing fruit from ripening. Meanwhile, higher temperatures, flooding and subsequent increased exposure to fungi and bacteria are creating difficulties for winemakers in California, Australia, Spain and Italy.
As coffee continues its rise from functional pick-me-up to highly prized beverage, it could do worse than borrow from the prized lexicon of wine. However, as consumers become increasingly aware of their environmental impact, it appears that the wine industry could profit from a more holistic approach to sustainability.
They may share the spotlight as vital components in any restaurant dining table, but coffee and wine are in different worlds in terms of production, quality control and sustainability standards. These globally enjoyed drinks are close companions that travel very different paths.