Whether you call it Cinsault or prefer the variant spelling Cinsaut (both are OK, but I like the former best), there’s no doubt that this once-neglected red variety is flavour of the month in South Africa. Back in the 1920s this grape variety made 75% of South Africa’s red wines, but until recently it had been gradually diminishing in importance. From the 1970s onwards, winegrowers’ heads were tilted by the Bordeaux varieties Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, and these grapes were increasingly planted while Cinsault became unfashionable. Although not fantastically suited to the warm Mediterranean-style climate of the western Cape, these Bordeaux varieties produced dark-coloured, sweetly fruited wines that met the expectations of consumers, as the wine world became seduced by big red wines. 30 years of decline in Cinsault followed.
But fashions change, and now people are beginning to celebrate somewhat fresher, lighter, more elegant red wines, even though there will still be a market for the bigger, riper reds. This is good news for Cinsault, and the 1900 hectares of this variety that remain. One of its strengths as a variety is that it performs so well in hot, dry conditions. I remember walking through a block of different grape varieties at Nederburg in Paarl, in a break between judging wines. It was March, and normally this block would have been picked in early February, but as it was a demonstration block showing lots of different varieties, the grapes had been left on the vine. The grapes on most of the vines were all dehydrated and shrivelled, but one vine still had lovely bunches of large, plum red grapes. This was Cinsault, which for some reason can deal well with hot conditions well. The large berries, slightly lighter in colour, show why Cinsault has a talent for making lighter, more refreshing wines.
Eben Sadie’s Ou Wingerdreeks Pofadder is a varietal Cinsault from 50 year old bush vines growing on the western side of the Kasteelberg in the Swartland. This is the wine that started to change the fortune of Cinsault, and there are now quite a few ambitious varietal Cinsaults emerging in its wake.
‘Some people call it the poor man’s Pinot,’ says Donovan Rall, ‘but it’s not. It’s complex because we have lots of old vineyards.’ Donovan, who makes one the best Cinsaults out there, began working with the variety because he was drinking a lot of Beaujolais and lighter reds, and wanted to make something in this style. ‘Pofadder inspired me to try Cinsault, and it’s a good grape for a white wine maker,’ he says. ‘They handle it softer. It is what it is.’ He thinks that Cinsault expresses regionality, and it’s not all the same. ‘Stellenbosch tannins are very different: they are much more square. In Swartland and Darling you have to work to get tannins.’ Mick Craven also thinks it’s sensitive to site. He suggests that Swartland makes more savoury and earthy examples, while Stellenbosch gives more prettiness and aromatics.
Adi Badenhorst is also a fan. ‘I love Cinsault,’ he says. ‘We have planted quite a lot. We’re planting 7 hectares of it, as bush vines, individually staked.’ Adi says that he sees a huge difference in expression between young vines and old vines, but one thing he really appreciates is that Cinsault gives decent yields.
Perhaps no one takes Cinsault as seriously as Alexander Milner of Natte Valleij, who makes five different examples. He recalls how as a student his viticulture professor told him not to bother reading the section in the text book about Cinsault, ‘because it is not important to us.’ And when he started working with Cinsault in 2011 no one could tell him much about the variety. He became so interested that in 2014 he started working with seven different blocks. ‘Cinsault expresses itself very differently according to the site,’ he says. ‘We use eggs and large format old oak because we don’t want to influence the wines too much.’
And Thinus Krüger of FRAM thinks that Cinsault should be allowed to express its own personality. ‘I don’t think people should make too big of a thing about it. Don’t over complicate it,’ he advises. ‘They shouldn’t try to make 100 serious Cinsaults and mess up 90, but rather make 100 drinkable ones, and in the process makes some great ones.’ Mick Craven agrees with this sentiment. ‘It’s an extremely important variety for South Africa. It won’t always make the most profound wines, but it makes great drinking wines. The best are serious but in a fresh way.’
Welgegund Cinsault 2017 Wellington, South Africa
This is the first vintage of this small-production (1768 bottles) Cinsault, from a vineyard planted in 1974. It’s 80% whole bunch with 20% destemmed and then the stalks added. It shows vivid, intense raspberry and cherry fruit with lovely brightness. This is a concentrated wine with lively, bright fruit and good structure.
Leeu Passant Lötter Cinsault 2015 Franschhoek, South Africa
From 90 year old vines, this is very fine and expressive but shows good concentration. Supple and intense with herb/tea complexity under the bright fruit. There’s both depth and finesse here.
Sadie Family Wines Pofadder 2017 Swartland, South Africa
Supple and fine grained. A lovely lighter-style red with some softness of texture to the strawberry and red cherry fruit. Has fine spiciness and real elegance with a hint of liquorice. So fine.
The Blacksmith Prince of Bones 2017 Swartland, South Africa
This is a single vineyard Cinsault from the Paardeberg. 36 year old dryland bush vines. 100% destemmed but not crushed, so whole berries. Fermented cold at 18-19 C then matured in old 500 litre barrels. Very fine and elegant with pure sweet red cherries and some strawberry. Elegant and smooth, but has a bit of structure.
Craven Wines Cinsault 2017 Stellenbosch, South Africa
Craven made some Cinsault in 2016 but switched vineyard for this 2017. It’s from 30 year old vines in sandy granitic soils, and it’s 100% destemmed. Juicy, bright and supple with lively red cherry fruit and some plums. Very fresh and detailed with grainy structure. Lovely stuff.
FRAM Cinsault 2017 Citrusdal Mountain, South Africa
Tank fermented and matured. Very fresh and supple with lovely raspberry and red cherry fruit. Elegant and fresh with lovely purity, but also a bit of structure. Very fine and expressive in a juicy, linear way.
Savage Follow The Line 2017 Darling, South Africa
This Cinsault has 8% Syrah in the blend. Very fine grained, pure and expressive with supple red cherry fruit. Real finesse, with lovely texture. So fresh and fine with amazing purity.
Blackwater Zeitgeist Cinsault 2017 Darling, South Africa
40% whole cluster used here. Floral and fine with nice purity and a lovely texture. Shows red cherry and redcurrant fruit with complexity, focus and finesse. Really fine.
Lukas von Loggerenberg Geronimo Cinsault 2017 Western Cape, South Africa
This is a blend of 60% 42 year old Helderberg Cinsault with 40% from the Break a Leg vineyard in Paarl. 80% whole bunch ferment, then aged for 9 months in 500 litre barrels. Lukas bottles early to capture the fruitiness because he thinks Cinsault can dry out. Floral and detailed with lovely cherries and spice, and nice finesse. Delicate and sappy with bright linear fruit on the palate. Grippy finish. So lovely.
Rall Cinsault 2017 Western Cape, South Africa
Donovan Rall started working with the Darling vineyard that is used by so many winemakers that Adi Badenhorst christened it the ‘whore vineyard’. Donovan has since found a Swartland vineyard of similar age which he uses in addition, because he wasn’t getting enough, planted in 1982. This wine is 60% Swartland (aged in concrete) and 40% Darling (aged in old oak). It is 100% whole bunch, and spends less than 7 days on skins with one pigeage per day. Floral and supple with lovely cherry and raspberry fruit. Has good structure with fine cherries, raspberries and some lovely spicy notes. Supple and focused with real precision.
Badenhorst Family Wines Ramnasgras Cinsault 2017 Swartland, South Africa
Adi Badenhorst says that he loves Cinsault, and is planting more. This is a stunner. Grippy and peppery with lovely weight. It has intensity with raspberries, cherries and plums and some spiciness. Real concentration here. Smashable yet serious with lovely detail and complexity.
Bosman Twyfeling Cinsault 2016 Wellington, South Africa
This is from a single site high on a hill. Quite deep coloured. Fresh, pure and linear with elegant raspberry and cherry fruit. So expressive and pure, showing brightness and elegance.
Natte Valleij Swartland Cinsault 2017 South Africa
1986 plantings on Malmesbury shale on the Paardeberg side of the Swartland. Supple with some richness. Grainy raspberry and cherry fruit with some structure. It is pretty but also grippy with a serious side. Quite profound.
Natte Valleij Darling Cinsault 2017 South Africa
This is from a vineyard planted in 1978, and it’s aged in concrete egg. So exotic and floral with amazingly expressive red cherry fruit and some green hints. Fresh, open and supple with bright red cherry fruit and good acidity. Such prettiness and freshness.
– By Jamie Goode