I’ve been drinking (after tasting) quite a lot of cinsaut (cinsault, if you prefer), recently and thoroughly enjoying the experience. It’s very much the variety du jour, at least among cutting-edge winemakers; twenty-one are listed as producing varietal wines in the latest Platter, with an increasing number of others who include it in blends.
This all represents a revival rather than introduction to the variety, which, as Tim James notes in his excellent Wines of the New South Africa Tradition and Revolution: ‘Cinsaut is of great historical significance in the Cape. It has been grown here since the middle of the nineteenth century…’ At one stage it occupied the majority of the Cape’s area under vine, until overtaken by chenin blanc, consequently becoming a workhorse and filling any role producers deemed necessary.
Leaving aside (never, but please understand the context) Reg Nicholson and Etienne le Riche’s wonderful Rustenberg Dry Reds (a mix of co-fermented two-thirds cabernet, one-third cinsaut) of the 70s and 80s, cinsaut probably began its return to proper attention at the same time the Swartland was being re-discovered in the late 1990s.
According to 2015 figures, cinsaut in the Swartland accounts for 174 hectares, by no means the most-densely covered area, that credit belongs to Paarl where you can find 387 ha. One can imagine most of that going into those innocuous blends, as surely must most grown the other side of the Du Toitskloof mountains. Cinsaut isn’t just a black grape either, there’s a blanc version; a very few hectares squeeze into the Swartland, Paarl and, I’ve been told, Wellington, though that’s not reflected on SAWIS’s records.
Other less likely areas cinsaut can be spotted are Upper Hemel en Aarde, Elim, Tygerberg, Groenekloof and Franschhoek.
But as with other varieties, the main aim is to spot old vines, 35 years and older, of which, Rosa Kruger’s invaluable iamold.co.za website informs there are close on 179 ha, spread mainly across Swartland, Paarl and Stellenbosch. Small as it is, that represents one of the most populous of varieties over 35 years.
Enough of figures, what should make cinsaut desirable and you crave it for your next purchase? Forget any example that’s been treated like a cabernet with a dense wall of tannin and layers of new oak; cinsaut needs as gentle, understanding a hand as pinot noir; it’s about subtlety, freshness and finesse. The fruit – wild strawberries, spice, sometimes with a dusting of earth – at best can offer up enchanting fragrance when paid carefully attention; cinsaut doesn’t give instant gratification – at worst be a jammy mess. I hope that explains why an overdose of new oak is just plain wrong and picking too ripe as well.
Then how should a good cinsaut feel? Tap dance rather than pinot’s glide? It’s that fresh acidity, finely-honed structure and moderate alcohol, around 12-13%, that suggests such analogy.
I know of people who would find such a wine wimpish, their preference being for bigger, richer, oakier. A pity as a top-quality cinsaut with real fruit concentration can offer so much more dimension and satisfaction, holding its own with fare our current wintry conditions call for.
Sadly, due to lack of discipline, my experience with ageing cinsaut needs some work. The problem is all the nicest cinsauts I’ve had recently are so enjoyable and fit the bill on so many occasions and with so many foods that ageing any remains a future goal.
Cinsaut currently offers remarkably good value; Eben Sadie’s latest Pofadder will sell ex-cellar for R1364.99 for a case of six. There, you’re paying for the farmer, his workers and Eben’s expertise, not that of the new oak barrel producer, which is as it should be.
While I subscribe to the view that scarcity breeds desirability but doesn’t always deliver quality, in cinsaut’s case the limited quantity made by the majority of those 21 producers belies that view.
Now is as good a time as any to try cinsaut, alone or in a blend: it produces wonderfully different, authentic wines.