Cin­sault: into the spot­light

Re­garded for decades as sim­ply a use­ful blend­ing grape, is hardy Cin­sault find­ing favour again? Alis­tair Cooper MW feels its wines are de­serv­ing of a reap­praisal

Decanter - - DECANTER -

Once widely planted, then con­signed to blends, Cin­sault de­serves a chance to shine, ar­gues Alis­tair Cooper MW

IT Is of­TEN said that wine trends are cycli­cal, mir­ror­ing the fickle beast that is the fash­ion in­dus­try. Wine styles and grapes come and go, just as flares and beards just keep on com­ing back. And if ever there were a grape that has ex­pe­ri­enced a wild swing in its for­tunes over the past cen­tury, it’s Cin­sault. once widely planted, then much ma­ligned and bru­tally grubbed up, this in­her­ently hardy and tena­cious grape has ex­pe­ri­enced a wel­come mini-re­nais­sance in re­cent years.

His­tor­i­cally Cin­sault has played a piv­otal, yet of­ten un­der­stated role in the de­vel­op­ment of sev­eral lead­ing wine in­dus­tries. These in­clude france, south Africa, Le­banon and, to a slightly lesser de­gree, Chile. In­trin­si­cally Cin­sault is a drought-re­sis­tant grape, ca­pa­ble of tol­er­at­ing ex­treme tem­per­a­tures. Cou­pled with this it is a ro­bust va­ri­ety, largely dis­easere­sis­tant in warmer cli­mates. When you add to the mix its ex­tra­or­di­nary abil­ity to yield co­pi­ously, its at­trac­tion to wine-grow­ers be­comes clear – par­tic­u­larly given the time pe­riod in which its pop­u­lar­ity peaked.

The french an­nex­a­tion of Al­ge­ria and Morocco in the 19th cen­tury saw Cin­sault thrive in the blis­ter­ing north African heat. Al­ge­rian wine flooded phyl­lox­era-rav­aged france to slake the Gal­lic thirst. In an era where quan­tity trumped qual­ity, Cin­sault also be­came a favourite in south Africa – where it was known as Her­mitage, then as Cin­saut.

By the 1970s, Cin­sault was the most widely planted grape in south Africa – both as a work­horse grape and for dis­till­ing into brandy. In­di­rectly Cin­sault also left a deep im­pres­sion on the south African land­scape in the form of Pino­tage. A cross of Cin­sault and Pinot Noir de­vel­oped in 1925 by Pro­fes­sor Abra­ham Perold, its suc­cess as a va­ri­ety is ques­tion­able, yet Cin­sault’s DNA re­mains firmly en­sconced in the Cape winelands.

It’s fair to say that Cin­sault’s role has largely been be­hind the scenes. It ful­fils a vi­tal yet un­her­alded part in the rosés of Provence and Tavel, and is even a per­mit­ted grape in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Thus far, it may sound as if Cin­sault is a solid yet unin­spir­ing va­ri­ety with lit­tle chance of land­ing a star­ring role as a red mono­va­ri­etal show­stop­per. Yet there is a grow­ing band of wine­mak­ers who are bang­ing the Cin­sault drum, and un­equiv­o­cally be­lieve in its po­ten­tial. Mark sav­age MW re­calls mav­er­ick wine­maker Daniel Domer­gue (of Clos Cen­teilles in the Min­er­vois) quip­ping more than 20 years ago: ‘Mak­ing rosé wine with your Cin­sault is like tak­ing the goats to mar­ket in your Jaguar!’

All in the soil

The Itata re­gion of cen­tral Chile is home to 650ha of Cin­sault. In­tro­duced of­fi­cially in 1940 to bol­ster the colour of País and add to the yield, it has gar­nered con­sid­er­able in­ter­est over re­cent years. ‘Cin­sault is in­cred­i­bly ter­roir-ori­ented,’ ex­plains glob­ally re­spected ter­roir guru Pe­dro Parra. ‘In a bad site, the wine is bad – much like Gre­nache and Carig­nan. But in Itata, the de­com­posed gran­ite and quartz of­fer ideal con­di­tions for Cin­sault.’

‘Unir­ri­gated and old Cin­sault vines of­fer the best abil­ity to trans­mit ter­roir’ Leo Erazo, Rogue Vine

Dis­cussing Cin­sault’s flavour pro­file in Itata, Parra states: ‘It tastes like a brother of Pinot Noir, del­i­cate with beau­ti­ful, com­plex per­fumed aro­mas, great min­er­al­ity and also fresh­ness. Some­where be­tween Pinot Noir, Gamay and Mencía.’

On the topic of site ex­pres­sion and ter­roir in Itata, Derek Moss­man Knapp of Garage Wine Co ex­plains: ‘Over four vin­tages we’ve worked with Cin­sault planted in three dif­fer­ent places, mak­ing a Sin­gle Fer­ment Se­ries wine. The three el­e­ments all bring very dif­fer­ent things in­deed.’

Lo­cally Cin­sault is known as Car­gadora (‘the loaded one’) and the vines are all dry-farmed bush vines, with the best sites lo­cated on the rolling hills – fac­tors that all help to nat­u­rally re­duce yields. Leo Erazo of Rogue Vine also stresses the im­por­tance of vine age to pro­duc­ing good Cin­sault wines: ‘It is ab­so­lutely cru­cial for bal­ance in the vines. Unir­ri­gated and old vines of­fer the best abil­ity to trans­mit ter­roir. Young, ir­ri­gated vines will show very lit­tle or no ex­pres­sion.’

For me, it is the min­er­al­ity and tex­tu­rally dense yet soft tan­nins found in Itata’s Cin­sault that re­ally shine through. Cin­sault pro­duced here tends to be medium-bod­ied with

mod­er­ate acid­ity, show­ing both red and dark fruits along with a beau­ti­ful liqourice spiced el­e­ment on the mid-palate.

Mod­ern ex­pres­sion

Eben Sadie of The Sadie Fam­ily Wines is also con­vinced of Cin­sault’s po­ten­tial; this time in South Africa. ‘Cin­sault is by far the grape that is best suited to the Cape,’ he says. ‘It has a great affin­ity and just loves the soil here.’ In 2009, he re­leased South Africa’s first sin­glevine­yard Cin­sault: Po­fad­der. ‘This is a grape that ex­presses ter­roir in­cred­i­bly – the only other sim­i­lar grape is Pinot Noir.’

His vine­yard on the Kas­teel­berg moun­tain in Swart­land is com­posed of slate and gran­ite, and the ten­sion and vi­brancy in the wine is re­mark­able. Sadie be­lieves Cin­sault fits per­fectly into mod­ern wine cul­ture: ‘We live in a time where peo­ple don’t age wines and Cin­sault is per­fect for drink­ing early – but it can also age.’

South African wine ex­pert Richard Kel­ley MW is less ef­fu­sive: ‘As a stand­alone va­ri­ety, Cin­sault doesn’t have the in­trin­sic qual­i­ties to de­liver any­thing par­tic­u­larly age­wor­thy or com­plex.’ How­ever, in the con­text of blends, he is up­beat: ‘When one con­sid­ers the great­est his­tor­i­cal bot­tles from the early 1960s un­til the post-apartheid era, Cin­sault plays a good part in many of them: Rusten­berg Dry Reds, Rozen­dal and the wines made in the late-1960s at Stel­len­bosch Farm­ers’ Win­ery. It still has a role to play in blends, where it can add fresh­ness, acid­ity, min­er­al­ity and fra­grance.’

Stem sell

When it comes to wine­mak­ing prac­tices with Cin­sault, the use of both stems (whole-bunch fer­men­ta­tion) and oak are re­cur­ring themes. Alex Mil­ner of Natte Valleij in Si­mons­berg, says: ‘I like to call Cin­sault the “work­ing man’s Pinot”. One needs to treat it with huge re­spect. I don’t be­lieve it needs oak – per­haps the en­vi­ron­ment of a sea­soned bar­rel, but lash­ings of oak is un­sym­pa­thetic to­wards the wine, and to French forests!’

Mil­ner fo­cuses on four dif­fer­ent ter­roirs (Si­mons­berg, Dar­ling, Stel­len­bosch and Swart­land) for his Cin­sault Col­lec­tive wines. A com­par­i­son high­lights just how ter­roir­driven Cin­sault can be – from soft-per­fumed, rasp­berry fruit in Dar­ling to tex­tu­ral, saline mul­berry fruit in Stel­len­bosch.

On the use of stems in fer­men­ta­tion, Pe­dro Parra says: ‘Stems are a use­ful tool, de­pend­ing on the vin­tage. I’m ex­per­i­ment­ing with be­tween 10% and 50% stem in­clu­sion.’ Mil­ner has adopted an in­no­va­tive ap­proach: ‘We play around with the rein­tro­duc­tion of stalks that we al­low to dessi­cate in the hot sun. We find this im­parts an or­dered and balanced struc­ture to the wine.’ Some of the most ex­pres­sive ex­am­ples of Cin­sault I’ve tasted have had a per­cent­age of stems (mostly less than 50%), adding pu­rity, silk­i­ness and per­fume to the wines, along with a firm­ness to the tan­nins.

Re­newed ap­proval

In Le­banon, Cin­sault has been grown in the 1,000m-high Bekaa Val­ley since the mid-19th cen­tury. In par­tic­u­lar, Cin­sault makes up an im­por­tant part of the blend in the cel­e­brated Chateau Musar, and the late Serge Hochar once said: ‘If I could only have one grape va­ri­ety in the Bekaa Val­ley, it would be Cin­sault.’ In 2017, Do­maine des Tourelles re­leased its first sin­gle-vine­yard Cin­sault from 50-year-old vines, and wine­maker Faouzi Issa is con­vinced of the sin­gle-va­ri­etal ex­pres­sion: ‘Our al­ti­tude is key – it gives the right bal­ance and fresh­ness in the wine. We can make very el­e­gant ex­pres­sions of Cin­sault here.’ Af­ter tast­ing this wine, I would love to see more wine­mak­ers ex­plor­ing sin­gle ex­pres­sions of Cin­sault in this unique ter­roir.

Cin­sault’s for­tunes have dra­mat­i­cally im­proved over the past decade, and rightly so. The once-ne­glected ugly duck­ling has blos­somed, per­haps not into the prom queen, but into a strik­ing fash­ion­ista. Clearly it is a grape with great abil­ity to trans­mit and ex­press ter­roir, a grape that – when han­dled cor­rectly – can pro­duce quite beau­ti­ful wines. The ques­tion may re­main, can Cin­sault ever pro­duce truly great wines? When prom­i­nent in­dus­try fig­ures such as Eben Sadie and Pe­dro Parra give their stamp of ap­proval, it is a brave soul that’s will­ing to con­tra­dict them.

Old-vine Cin­sault will, I hope, be given the re­spect it de­serves, and con­tinue to thrill and tan­ta­lise for many years to come – both in blends and in the lead­ing role.

Be­low: Cin­sault vine­yards planted by the lo­cal wine co-op in cen­tral ChileÕs Itata Val­ley re­gion

‘Cin­sault is some­where be­tween Pinot Noir, Gamay and Mencía, del­i­cate with beau­ti­ful com­plex per­fume’ Pe­dro Parra (above)

Right: har­vest time at Chateau Musar

Alis­tair Cooper MW is a wine writer, judge, con­sul­tant, ed­u­ca­tor, and reg­u­lar De­can­ter con­trib­u­tor

Above: Cin­sault grapes at Do­maine des Tourelles. Right: har­vest­ing Cin­sault in the Do­maine la Bar­roche vine­yard, Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Be­low: Eben Sadie of The Sadie Fam­ily Wines

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