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The Grape that defined South African wine Without us Knowing It

I had barely turned 18 - the first of my friends - when we booked a weekend away at a friend of a friend’s grandad’s empty beach house.


The Grape that defined South African wine Without us Knowing It

Entrusted only with a 125cc motorbike and an ID that said I could legally procure alcohol, we set off to the local liquor store ready to spend our combined savings on a plethora of sugar laden alcohol delivery devices.

Tassenberg

At the checkout, with a mixed sense of pride and disgust, I surveyed the wealth of simple carbohydrates infused with industrial alcohol now towering on the counter in front of me and thought to myself: “This is missing some class, I’m not a savage after all." And went in search of a bottle of red wine. The cheapest I could find - of course - with a name I felt familiar with; Tassies… I had just purchased my first bottle of wine.

My story is not unique. Although the details might differ, many South Africans, most even I would guess, our first experience with wine had some connection to vryburger Adam Tas. And whether that be the aromatic off dry blanc de noir “Oom Tas”; the easy drinking “Tassenberg”; or more austere and historically long lived “Chateau Libertas”;  they all owe their unique flavour profile, in greater or lesser extent, to Cinsault.

A Journey from the South of France

Originating from the South of France, Cinsault made its way to South Africa somewhere between 1850 and 1880, most likely due to its tolerance of heat and ability to produce record high yields, thanks to large berries and good sugar accumulation. However exploited to the limit of its yielding potential the resulting wines were often thin, dilute and lacking character.

Quickly gaining popularity in a market driven by tonnage, this versatile varietal was soon used to produce everything from blanc de noir, brandy, fortified wines - and, not surprisingly, reds. By the 1960s, due to a steady decline in Semillon plantings, Cinsault had become the most planted grape in the Cape.

Light, fresh, easy drinking and approachable, Cinsault provided a perfect canvas on which to add a splash of Cabernet or Merlot for a daily quaffing wine like the now famous Tassenberg. Alternatively tannic reds, like Cabernet, historically harvested much earlier than what they are today could be made a little more approachable, dare I say a little more interesting even, by adding some of the blue collar grape. This - a recipe famously employed by stalwarts of old such as Chateau Libertas. Or less famously so, by historically great Cape reds like the Rustenburgs of the 80s, as well as (as this sommelier embarrassingly learnt), internationally renowned cult wines, such as Lebanese superstar Chateau Musar.  

A Steady Decline

Alas, no sooner had Cinsault secured the top spot on the SA wine radar, when it started its slow and steady decline. Varietal labelling didn’t favour a grape known as ‘Hermitake’ by farmers, a mispronunciation of Hermitage, itself an erroneous colloquial term inferred from assumed origin. This all on top of SAWIS’s insistence it be labeled Cinsaut.  Or was that Cinsault with an “L”?

With a confusing name, a bad rap for producing overcropped, thin, dilute bulk wine and a growing global obsession for big, rich, voluptuous wines comprising of only a handful of easily recognisable and acceptably pronounceable names, Cinsault’s fate was sealed, forgotten, relegated and blended away into equally declining stuffy old bulk wine brands.

But many vines lived on!

Forgotten Vines

Unhurried by the passage of time, thousands of thick, old, gnarled and pruning shear calloused Cinsault vines weathered the Cape winter storms and dry summers. While roots dug deeper and deeper into the hard earth in search of precious water. Patiently waiting for a revolution - for a market ready to appreciate the lighter side of wine…

Rediscovery

From obscurity to new found proliferation, this month’s social takes a closer look at the myriad of styles produced from this versatile, multifaceted grape.

“Often crafted in impossibly small quantities from vineyards old and forgotten to time. Now in March and the release of new vintages we had to exclude some of the better-known names in the industry. Would their wines have stacked up? Who knows? But we certainly were not lacking in quality! Perhaps a second tasting will be in order.”

We kick off the evening with a characteristically pale purple 2018 Seriously Cool Cinsault from Waterkloof Wines. Aromas reminiscent of hops and cloves abound, with ripe juicy raspberries backed up by dusty, grippy, stemmy fruit tannin.

Staying in Stellenbosch the next wine in the flight captures the essence of what this grape can produce. A blend of mostly Cinsault with a touch of Pinotage, planted in the early 70s, on sandy soils, close to the ocean, on the lower slopes of the Helderberg. Beautifully light, pale ruby in colour, with a mere 11% alcohol and not a touch of green. Aromas of rose, raspberry, mulberry and that, characteristic of the Rhône heritage, touch of lavender jump out of the glass. The 2018 Scions of Sinai Nomadis by Bernhard Bredell stands as an ode to the contrast of easy drinking quality wine. Light, fresh, crunchy and unencumbered by adulterations like oak, this is wine at its most drinkable.

Thanks to Alex Milner from Natte Valleij producing a variety in Cinsaults from various small parcels scattered over the Cape, the next three wines give a rare insight into just how terroir expressive this varietal can be. Swartland shows bright ripe red cherries, with depth, softness and quite some body due to ripe woody stalks. Over in Darling it’s all tart red fruit, perfume and lip-smacking acidity, while Simonsberg Paarl displays the earthier, beetroot and sour cherry spectrum. All three stunning wines and all three very different.

One of the pioneers of the Cinsault revolution, Mount Abora Saffraan Cinsault broke ground for the “Pinot of The Swartland”, and  continues to show lovely earthy savoury aromas with jasmine, fynbos and raspberry at a very quafable 11% abv.

Paarl next with the Fairview Bushvine Cinsault 2017, showcasing the darker broodier side of Cinsault with black cherries, red current, still that thread of lavender and perfume and a juicy crunchy finish.

Darling, Blackwater Hinterland Cinsaut. Comparing the wines fact sheet to our own organoleptic assessment we quickly see a pattern forming here, you can see what works and what doesn’t. Old vines, planted in the 1982, dry land, 60% maceration carbonique, 40% de-stemmed, pressed into old large barrels, left to its own devices.

Primary aromas that scream Cinsault, riper and darker than some with mulberries and blackberries overlaying the classic redcurrant, savoury wild garlic and herbs. Very Rhône-like, a touch of mint, a little bit of earth, and just a hint of smoky toast. This is a serious Cinsault with a lovely crunchy finish of red apple skins.

It’s always very telling when you have a “cult’ wine in your blind tasting, and you think to yourself, “Will it stack up?”. But Duncan wasn’t worried…  One of the shining stars of the flight: a little lighter, more restraint, requiring a bit more focus,. Follow the Line Cinsault 2017, which shows incredible perfume, raspberry, sweet limes, rose and apple skin, lip smacking acidity and long juicy, crunchy finish of lychee and apple skins. So fresh, it feels as if it were bottled yesterday. Outstanding.

But the star of the show must have been Wade Metzer’s 2017 Cinsault. Alluring aromas reminiscent of medicinal iodine and earth give way to a complex bouquet of floral perfume, rose, and an almost Nebbiolo-esque in character, bolstered by freshly peeled orange, just a touch of lease to give it depth, velvety tannin, juicy acidity and a long satisfying finish of cranberry and rose petals. Wow.

We end off with a homage to the reds of the past, and hopefully a sign of things to come. Perhaps there exists a future where we no longer market our competitors by slapping Bordeaux on our beautiful Cape reds.

A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsaut, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Cabernet Franc & Malbec, the 2015 Richesse from Le Riche shows classic aromas of young Stellenbosch Cabernet in red currant, mulberry, graphite and just a touch of mint, overlain on juicy red fruit, with a hint of oak and toast, tight dusty tannin and that beautiful juicy finish of red fruit and orange peel thanks to the Cinsault. This I can drink more of.

With over a hundred years of ups and downs Cinsault has left an indelible mark on the SA wine industry, raising an eye to anybody who calls its resurgence a fad. Sticking out as one of the most enjoyable, drinkable and unique tastings we have done to date, with the only real critique to those not making the final flight being over working in the cellar killing the fruit and that characteristic Tiger Wheel and Tyre aroma of sunburn, probably where Pinotage got it from. Cinsault is here to stay and we’re excited about it.

Published On: 03/13/2019

Barry Scholfield

Twitter @somm101

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