Once the Poor Man's Pinot, This South African Red Is Back — in Time for the Weekend

Once the Poor Man's Pinot, This South African Red Is Back — in Time for the Weekend

Why you should care

Because big, bold reds are so last season.

The plight of South Africa’s rhinos and elephants is well-known, but the near demise of one of its iconic wine grape varietals is less well-documented. Once the most widely planted red grape in the Western Cape, the country’s wine-growing region, cinsault (often spelled “cinsaut” in South Africa) vineyards were ripped up by the thousand in the second half of the 20th century as the inward-looking apartheid-era wine industry focused on darker grapes. In 2009, just when extinction was starting to feel inevitable, a band of rock-star winemakers breathed new life into an old, long-maligned grape.

Detailed data collected by the South African Wine Industry Information & Systems goes back only to 1989, when the uprooting was already well underway, but the statistics show the area of cinsault vineyards plummeted from nearly 6,000 hectares that year to a mere 2,100 in 2009. That was when Eben Sadie, 2017 winner of the international Winemakers’ Winemaker Award, produced his first vintage of the now-legendary Sadie Family Wines Pofadder (after the deadly puff adder) — the wine that started the cinsault revolution.

[Cinsault] fills in the cracks and gives incredible fabric, or substance, to the wine.

Chris Alheit, Alheit Vineyards

Today, only eight years later, 36 cinsault and cinsault blends are included in Platter’s South African Wine Guide, the country’s definitive annual publication. What’s more, the leading vine nursery in South Africa reported steady sales in the past five years, and Sadie tells OZY that “all my neighbors are planting.” Adds Roland Peens of online retailer WineCellar, “When we first started marketing cinsault to our customers, we received hate mail in response. Now we sell it on allocation before it even makes it onto our site.”

In many ways, says Sadie, the grape is its own worst enemy. When planted in vigorous, well-watered soils, it yields fantastic quantities of fairly uninteresting wine, especially when the vines are young. But grown in marginal soils and given time to mature, says Kent Scheermeyer, a broker in the Cape Town area who specializes in South African wines, this heat-resistant varietal gives winemakers in hot climates the ability to make “elegant, delicate wines” that aren’t too fruity or heavy in alcohol.

In the early aughts, when Sadie and other enthusiasts started looking into the history of South Africa’s finest wines, they discovered that many of the best reds contained huge amounts of cinsault (laxer laws at the time allowed a wine labeled cabernet sauvignon to contain as much as 70 percent cinsault). By scouring the Cape’s archives and traipsing forgotten corners of the winelands, the folks behind the I Am Old project identified more than 2,000 hectares of vineyards older than 35 years. Nearly half of those were chenin blanc, but there were also 180 hectares of mature cinsault. “We got there late,” says Sadie, “but not too late, thank heavens.”

Since cinsault is “as tough as nuts,” according to Alheit Vineyards’ Chris Alheit, it’s better equipped than most grapes to deal with the ravages of climate change in drought-prone regions such as South Africa. While the grape is “sensitive to sunburn,” says Sadie, this can easily be managed by ensuring a decent leaf canopy exists. In fact, the real challenge with cinsault is holding the vines back when they receive too much water.

Cinsaut grape

Cinsault, a drought-resistant varietal that’s “tough as nuts.”

Source DEA/A. DAGLI ORTI/Getty

On the international stage, Turley Wine Cellars in California makes a delicious single-varietal cinsault from 140-year-old vineyards. And according to Alheit, the Itata Valley in Chile is home to many of the world’s best cinsaults, including De Martino’s exciting Viejas Tinajas, which is fermented and aged in century-old clay amphorae, or tinajas, which impart a delicately earthy flavor. Perhaps more important, cinsault’s resurgence fits in well with the global trend toward lighter-bodied wines that are lower in alcohol and made with fewer preservatives.

And yet the jury is still out on cinsault’s future as a single varietal. U.K.–based wine importer Richard Kelley thinks it may be a hipster fad that could run its course; Alheit sees it as a fantastically fun table wine that can seldom be as haunting as pinot noir, and Sadie thinks it’s the real McCoy. There is little doubt, though, of the role it can and will play as a blended component in high-end South African reds. Many famous French wines contain portions of cinsault, and the iconic reds from Chateau Musar in Lebanon rely heavily on the grape. Not to mention those legendary old Cape blends that Sadie and company unearthed …

Used in a blend, Alheit explains, “it fills in the cracks and gives incredible fabric, or substance, to the wine.” And extremely stable tannins mean that it ages exceptionally well. Leading South African wine producers Andrea and Chris Mullineux have just paid top dollar to secure the oldest block of cinsault in the country — a 130-year-old slice of South African heritage — for their flagship blend, the $140-a-bottle Leeu Passant. While this is wonderful news for the quality of South African wines, it may have a cruel upshot: The people who pioneered fine cinsault in South Africa may be “elbowed out of the market by the high grape prices,” says wine importer Kelley.

After the success of South African chenin blanc at home and abroad, there is a lot of pressure for cinsault to be “the next chenin.” All the experts OZY consulted warned against this expectation. First, the wine is still quite geeky and ahead of global trends; second, there simply aren’t enough old vines to meet demand if it is does take off. That said, it definitely has the potential to provide a point of difference for South African reds.

“Right now, it’s a poor man’s pinot,” says Sadie. “But my advice is to buy whatever you can get your hands on now.” And he should know.

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