One of the most fascinating stories fuelling the current South African wine revolution is the rise of Cinsaut, or Cinsault. The latter is the French spelling and refers to its Languedoc-Roussillon origin, while the former seems to encapsulate its modern day renaissance.
The first new-wave Cinsauts hit the market no more than five years ago and much of the industry was astonished by the enthusiasm of its promoters. Cinsaut has always been seen as a large cropping, simple variety that could never produce a long-aging fine wine. But, from just a handful of Cinsauts on the market a decade ago, we have already seen 10 new versions this year and there could now be as many as 40 bottlings. Most are lighter, easy dinking styles, but more serious Cinsauts at serious prices are starting to push the status quo.
Chenin Blanc and Cinsaut formed the backbone of our 20th Century wine industry and were favoured by the KWV for brandy and wine production. Cinsaut could be picked early, was easy to manage and its big berries added lubrication to pea-sized Cabernet Sauvignon during crush. Cinsaut was in fact the ultimate blending partner, by convenience and economics.
When pushed to high yields, the wines were indeed frivolous and unexciting. Dryland, older vineyards and lower yields present a different side of this misfit variety however and many of the great reds of the 60s and 70s contained a significant portion. Chateau Libertas, Zonnebloem Cabernet Sauvignon, Alto Rouge and Rustenburg Dry Red were all made to be consumed young, but their Cinsaut infusion has paradoxically allowed them to age with grace. Even varietal Cinsauts from Oude Libertas and Swartland Co-op are still drinking well at 40 years of age. For me, this is undeniable evidence that Cinsaut can produce profound, long aging wines, on its own or as part as part of a blend.
With the rise in demand of richer reds and international varieties in the 70s, Cinsaut was ripped up in place of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage, Merlot and later Shiraz. The new certification system in 1973 also favoured single varieties and cross blending became more difficult. Cinsaut dropped from over a third of our plantings to just two percent today and old vines have become highly sought-after. Forgotten vineyards that were being sold to the co-op for box wine just a few years ago are now scrummed over by the winemaking elite. This is the modern revival of our ugly-duckling grape.
Chile, the Languedoc and California have also started producing sexy old-vine versions, reflecting a pure-fruited, honest style that sommeliers gush over. The 95 points from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate for Eben Sadie’s Pofadder 2012 however, is by far the highest ever international recognition of this variety. Today’s styles range from early-picked, cherry-fruited, pinot noir-like versions, through to riper, oaky Cabernet Sauvignons styles. Not all winemakers have found their mark, confronted with a new challenge to decipher this historic grape and express its true, potentially dazzling character.
Cinsaut could offer a much needed foot-soldier to the Wines of South Africa’s arsenal, much like how old-vine Chenin Blanc leads the revolutionary charge. Its drought tolerance and Mediterranean roots suggest that it could be well suited to large scale wine growing in the Cape.
South Africa has never produced a bankable Chianti, Beaujolais or Côtes du Rhône that reflects the culture, lifestyle and heritage of its region. Except for Tassenberg perhaps, and in its heyday it was almost all our darling Cinsaut.
Roland Peens is MD of winecellar.co.za