Cinsaut re-discovered

Douglas Green Paarl Vallei Rouge, Tassies*, Rustenberg Dry Red – names from the past (*and the present), all linked by one variety, cinsaut. The first two undisclosed blends producing light, uncomplicated drinking, the last an elegant, medium-bodied two-thirds cabernet, one third cinsaut, co-fermented, ageworthy but never needing age and a much missed member of the range by all, myself included, who knew and loved it.

Cinsaut bottlesIn its heyday, cinsaut covered a third of the Cape’s vineyard; by the end of 2012 that figure had fallen to 1.9%, but what isn’t revealed is that many of those vines are old and there’s a resurgence of interest among winemakers at the cutting edge of quality and styles.

Judging by the speedy uptake of places at the recent South African Sommeliers Association tasting of 20 cinsauts, such interest extends to the wine drinking fraternity – well, perhaps just the more involved end.

Before more details on that event, I dipped into the first, 1980 edition of Platter, to see the state of play with cinsaut 33 years ago. It was clearly a workhorse grape, making a frequent appearance, either as a varietal wine or as part of a blend, accompanied by the equally frequent Platter description along the lines of ‘light, dry red’. In his notes on various grape varieties, cinsaut receives the following comments: ‘[It] Bears too prolifically to produce reasonable reds, unless very severely pruned and expertly handled in the cellar. … Under normal conditions, by itself, makes a light, very ordinary red. Very few cinsaut wines rise much above that level.’

Our voyage of discovery at the SASA tasting took us back much earlier than 1980; we started with a 1974 KWV. From arguably the best red wine vintage of the 1970s, it was very much alive with an aged clean leather bouquet, light sweet fruit and despite low acid, good length. It also held well in my glass for the roughly 15 minutes before the next flight was poured. The much younger, 1997 KWV Cinsaut with 12% alc still showed some typical cinnamon spice but, for me and others, was spoilt by an excess of gravelly acid. These two were tasted sighted, the rest were presented blind.

I won’t give a tedious list of my notes, just some overall impressions, but the full line-up will appear at the end of this piece.

One of cinsaut’s appealing features is its limpidity; it might range from youthful purple, via ruby to mature garnet, but unlike so many of today’s red wines, it isn’t dense, or shouldn’t be. One reason it’s often used for rosé in the Languedoc. Most of the wines showed that limpidity with only the Bosman being atypically dense.

Fruit purity seems a natural consequence to such brilliance. Cinsaut is not a loud wine; its aromas – often cinnamon spice, strawberries or other red fruits, unless it’s over ripe, when it becomes raisiny – may be well-defined, but are gentle.  Oak, especially new, is definitely enemy #1; NB Landskroon 2012 and 2003 – why, when you hadn’t been so heavy-handed with it in the other vintages we tasted? – and Bosman 2012.

Freshness and a modicum of lively tannins round off what seems to be the perfect cinsaut. Over-extraction, like over-oaking is an unnecessary sledgehammer approach.

The wines that met these parameters for me were Landskroon 2009, Peter Walser’s Blank Bottle My Koffer 2011, (ambitiously priced at R250!), but not his 2012, which seems over-extracted, Stellenrust 2011, Badenhorst Kalmoesfontein Ramnasgras CWG 2011, Mount Abora Saffraan 2012, Howard Booysen Pegasus 2012 and, in a slightly bigger style, Sadie Family Pofadder 2012.

Rosa Kruger brought a viticulturist’s view to the tasting. She explained the vine is heat tolerant and needs to be grown as bush vines rather than trellised, when the bunches become too big; harvesting should be completed before the fruit develops raisiny characters. Better quality will be achieved with lower yields, but even around 15 tons per hectare, Kruger says cinsaut will provide perfumed wines good for blending. She also advised that of the Cape’s 3500 hectares of vineyard over 35 years old, cinsaut accounts for 200 ha, which is good news.

So, where do we go from here? A good moment to get a French perspective: apart from being one of the 13 permitted varieties in Chateauneuf du Pape, cinsaut is a regular feature in the Languedoc. I asked my friend, Rosemary George MW, who spends much of the year there, wrote the 2001 book, The Wines of the South of France, and has a blog about the area, for her views on cinsaut’s role there.

Cinsaut vines in Southern France
Cinsaut vines in Southern France

The only producer George can think of who makes a ‘serious cinsaut, along the lines of Lebanon’s Chateau Musar, which has a high percentage of cinsaut’, is Patricia Domergue at Clos Centeilles in the Minervois. In fact there’s a nice quote from Dombergue’s husband, Daniel, in George’s book, where he confirms cinsaut withstands drought conditions. ‘.. indeed, ‘it has the sobriety of a camel and will cross the desert without a drop of water!’ Domergue is equally adamant about oak. ‘You must not put it in wood or else it will lose its fruit.’ Capital de Centeilles is 100% unoaked cinsaut, with sufficient depth not to need any such support.

Otherwise, George says cinsaut is normally found in a red blends, where it adds freshness and fruit; it is also particularly used for rosé.

While the current interest in cinsaut here has led to several varietal wines on the market, my feeling is that this is a voyage of discovery for producers, as well as offering something different, of course. Once they’ve learned more about the variety and how it responds, I believe most will incorporate it in blends, which I can see becoming of importance both for style and quality; maybe some will stick with a varietal wine, others do both. I hope those who do continue along the varietal route will heed its attractive limpidity, quiet fruit, freshness and fine, lively tannins that provide enough distinction to make it more than a curiosity but lacking the complexity to become mainstream.

SASA tasting 9th September at Burrata, presented by David Clarke

KWV Cinsaut 1974

KWV Cinsaut 1997 12% alc

Landskroon Cinsaut 2003 14% alc

Landskroon Cinsaut 2005 13% alc

Landskroon 2009 Cinsaut 14% alc

Landskroon 2010 Cinsaut 14% alc.

Mullineux Cinsault 2010 14.5% alc

Blank Bottle My Koffer 2011 14% alc

Landskroon Cinsaut 2011 14% alc

Collaboration Cinsaut 2011 14.5% alc

Stellenrust Old Bush Vine Cinsaut 2011 13.5% alc

Badenhorst CWG Kalmoesfontein Ramnasgras 2011 12.5% alc

Blank Bottle My Koffer 2012 13.5% alc

Landskroon Cinsaut 2012 14% alc

Osbloed Openbaring 2012 13% alc

Waterkloof 2012 13% alc

Sadie Family Pofadder 2012 14% alc

Mount Abora Saffraan 2012 12% alc

Bosman Cinsaut 2012 14% alc

Howard Booysen Pegasus 2012 13% alc.

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One thought on “Cinsaut re-discovered

  1. Have to agree on both the bushvine topic and especially the camel through the desert one. Our bushvines are dryland decomposed granite vineyards and barely seem to suffer when picked latest of all our reds at the end of March, beginning of April. Lots yet to learn from them though.

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