The return of Cinsault: it’s all about South Africa
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Writing about drinks has taken me all over the world – but few adventures are seared in my memory as vividly as the week I spent in Swartland, South Africa’s red-dust wine wilderness in the Western Cape.
By European standards, the wineries here are isolated: many lie at the end of long, axle-breaking tracks, on plots dwarfed by hazy-blue mountains. But the sense of community is strong. Whatever time I turned up, it seemed, there was always room for one more at the long refectory table at the heart of every household – and it was rarely long before someone was reaching for a corkscrew.
One night the maverick winemaker Adi Badenhorst organised a braai (barbecue). Soon neighbours from all over were rolling up in battered trucks, brandishing wines made from sun-parched bush vines. As the bonfire blazed and Led Zeppelin boomed from the record player, barefoot children ran around dispensing drinks to the grown-ups, and farm dogs rolled in the dust. One moment I was saying grace with someone’s elderly mother; the next I was dancing by firelight to The Doors. People cursed in Afrikaans and talked about wine like it was religion. To my untrained ears they might as well have been speaking in tongues.
Three wines . . . .
It was on that trip that I fell in love with Cinsault: the red-skinned grape now emerging as an unlikely hero of South Africa’s New Wave. Native to the Languedoc but increasingly found in arid regions around the world, it has a reputation for making pale, easy-drinking reds with gentle tannins and an attractive red-berry perfume. High-yielding and drought-tolerant, Cinsault has historically been treated as a bit of a workhorse by winemakers – something for bringing fruity “lift” to red blends or making mass-market rosé. For a time, it was the most-planted grape in South Africa. But as the trend for big-hitting Cabs gathered steam, its style fell out of favour, and many Cinsault vineyards suffered neglect. It’s those same gnarly old vineyards that are now being resurrected by winemakers in Swartland – and producing Cinsaults, in their old age, that are more complex, delicious and interesting than ever before.
The first Cinsault that really bit me was Pofadder, the renowned single-vineyard Cinsault by Swartland guru Eben Sadie. Deep-ruby, and silky textured, it has all of Cinsault’s immediate charm – but with a slight air of menace, too. It’s a wine that’s so enjoyable up front you don’t notice it putting hooks in your heart.
At a recent blind tasting of 37 Cinsaults in London, organised by Wines of the Rhône author Matt Walls, I and several colleagues sized up wines from Lebanon, France, Chile, South Africa and the USA. There was much to love – the Vieilles Vignes Cinsault from Domaine des Tourelles in Lebanon will always be a favourite. But overwhelmingly in this tasting, it was the South Africa Cinsaults that shone brightest. Top scorer was Adi Badenhorst’s single-vineyard Ringmuur Cinsault 2019 – a beautifully turned yet characteristically uncontrived wine with notes of almond blossom, cherry and a minty tannin. “For me, the ideal Cinsault is fragrant and pure and beautiful,” says Badenhorst. “Good examples are a pleasure to drink.”
More self-contained but no less affecting was Follow The Line 2018 by surfer-turned-star winemaker Duncan Savage. Made from a vineyard in the west-coast town of Darling (a vineyard that Savage could only find after the owner snapped, “Follow the effing phone line”), it had more classical structure and aromas of rosewater and soft spice.
Cinsault can also be electric. The high-scoring Pseudonym 2020 from enigmatic négotiant Blankbottle absolutely crackled with freshness: alpine strawberries, bitter mint, wet earth and astringent sloe. Labelled, like all Blankbottle’s wines, with an artwork by winemaker Pieter Walser, it had a vitality, a wildness to it that I really loved. And great Cinsault isn’t confined to Swartland. Second place in the tasting went to Leeu Passant’s Old Vines Basson Cinsault 2017, a gorgeously complex wine from a vineyard in Wellington. Planted in 1900, it is the oldest red vineyard in South Africa – and that age expressed itself in a beautifully structured, lengthy wine with notes of smoky pot pourri.
“I love working with Cinsault – when planted in the right place it can be so complex and layered,” says Leeu Passant winemaker Andrea Mullineux (who is also one half of Swartland’s garlanded Mullineux Wines). “It maintains a succulent, fresh and bright character that ages surprisingly elegantly.” And on the basis of this latest tasting, I sense the best is yet to come.