The next big thing

If there’s anything that irritates me about South African wine, it’s when people, whether local or foreigners, announce; ‘….. is going to be the next big thing’ (You fill the gap, there’s plenty of choice). It sounds good, it sounds exciting but it’s used rather too frequently and hastily. The only word I can think of which couldn’t fill that gap sufficiently often is ‘Quality’ but that’s another matter.

Nowadays, cinsaut often crops up in this sort of conversation. As Tim James reminds in his Wines of the New South Africa, cinsaut is a variety with a long association at the Cape, being ‘grown here since the middle of the nineteenth century’ and, at one time was ‘South Africa’s most planted variety, occupying nearly a third of the vineyard and used for everything from brandy, through rosé, to sweet, dry, and fortified red wines.’

Three shades of cinsaut
Three shades of cinsaut

As the 1980s progressed so cinsaut began to be uprooted in favour of the growing popularity of the classic varieties. Today there are 1863 ha or just under 2% of the area under vine, with nearly 179 ha in the highly-valued ‘old’ or over 35 years old category.
But the wheel is turning as the curiosity of the new generation leads them to explore the old, neglected varieties, including cinsaut, grenache, clairette blanche, bourboulenc and palomino, as well as those more recently introduced to our vineyards, such as touriga nacional, roussanne, marsanne and albarino. Take note of the word ‘explore’, perhaps the best way of describing what many winemakers are doing currently.

As Tim James wrote on http://www.winemag.co.za about palomino as a varietal wine: ‘I do hope Sout van die Aarde isn’t going to be one of Adi’s (Badenhorst) once offs – it’s too attractive and interesting to abandon.’ Before going on to admit ‘It’s not a great grape …’
But it’s not just a question of the variety’s status in the hierarchy but the winemaker’s own involvement, which takes me back to cinsaut.

During the recent WOSA Sommelier Cup, Wine Cellar’s Roland Peens organised a #TalkingCinsaut event with a panel made up of local cinsaut producers, Eben Sadie (Ouwingerds Pofadder) and Ryan Mostert (Silwervis), the three international judges for the Somm Cup (Ronan Sayburn MS, James Tidwell MS and Will Predhomme, winner of the cup in 2013) and David Clarke representing Sommeliers Association of South Africa. An invited audience was encouraged to participate and ask questions; nine cinsauts were tasted, including a 1974 from what was then Stellenbosch Farmers Winery and Le Riche cabernet/cinsaut blend.

Three more shades of cinsaut - SFW 1974 far right
Three more shades of cinsaut – SFW 1974 far right

They were, to coin a phrase, nine shades of cinsaut, each offering a different attribute of the grape but all reflecting in one way or another the small, if growing trend for lighter, fresher wines (one, which Tidwell confirms is also happening in the US). But more than that, most reflected the winemaker’s enthusiasm to accurately reflect and make the best wine possible from the vineyard he/she takes the fruit. Ryan Mostert stirringly declared he wants to ‘make cinsaut for the rest of my life’; this desire certainly rubs off on his wine.

For others, the talk around cinsaut merely offers an opportunity to follow a trend; maybe their fruit would do better justice to a blend – think of Duncan Savage’s Follow the Line, where cinsaut enhances the delicacy of its grenache and syrah partners.

The understanding but even more the enthusiasm of the winemaker has so much to do with the wine’s quality and success – whether it’s a single variety, blend or even a style. Tidwell backs me up in that view.

Someone who has shown the way as far as dedication, knowledge and enthusiasm are concerned is Graham Beck’s Pieter Ferreira, whose journey in search of the perfect bubble continues after 26 years. Now, it’s his only focus given the Beck stable has sold off all their still wine labels and valuable vineyards around Firgrove.

Graham Beck Cuvée Clive in flute (l) and Lehmann Jamesse glass
Graham Beck Cuvée Clive in flute (l) and Lehmann Jamesse glass

Actually, that’s not absolutely correct; it’s not only how to create the perfect bubble but how to show it, and the array of flavours within it, off at its best. Enter the world of glassware. I’ve long been aware the difference a glass can make to a wine but from the recent experience of tasting the Graham Beck Brut NV, Blanc de Blancs 2012 and Cuvée Clive 2009 first from the traditional flute, then, respectively from Riedel Ouverture Champagne Glass, Riedel Veritas Champagne glass and Lehmann Jamesse Prestige Grand Champagne glass, made it abundantly clear the flute is a non-starter. Each of the Riedel and the Jamesse glasses turned its wine into a fresher, more complex swan.

For any who want proof, tasting from these glasses is possible at the Beck cellar door in Robertson. If your pocket runs deep, they’re also available for sale. The wines are certainly worth the best, but if you do baulk at the prices, a decent white wine glass will do.
So what matters more is the winemaker’s long-term dedication and enthusiasm, rather than the possibly more short-term, ‘….. is going to be the next big thing’.

I’m a big Roald Dahl fan; this quote seems an appropriate conclusion: ‘I began to realize how important it was to be an enthusiast in life. If you are interested in something, no matter what it is, go at it full speed ahead, embrace it with both arms, hug it, love it and above all become passionate about it. Lukewarm is no good.’

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