Cinsaut – a part of Cape history, past and future

When benchmarking classic varieties grown in South Africa, reference areas and wines are easily pinpointed. Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc? Look to the Loire; Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – Burgundy; Syrah – Rhône; and Cabernet – Bordeaux. But Cinsaut? Does anywhere and any wine readily spring to mind?

Turning to Jancis Robinson et al’s ever-informative Wine Grapes, Cinsaut is described as an ‘Underrated Mediterranean-loving variety making characterful rosés and flirtatious reds.’ DNA confidently places its origin in southern France with Languedoc-Roussillon a more specific possibility. Although Robinson singles out two varietal wines, neither of them household names, Cinsaut is more commonly found in blends, including the baker’s dozen of varieties permitted in Châteauneuf du Pape. Ironically, possibly the best known wine featuring Cinsaut is Château Musar from Lebanon!

Positively for South Africa, Robinson describes Cinsaut as coping ‘well with heat and drought’ and being ‘ideally suited to the warm, dry soils of southern France’.

Indeed, Cinsaut has been around in the Cape since the mid-19th century and, in good old workhorse fashion, was once the most planted variety, destined for easy drinking reds and a variety of Port-styles. Fortunately, not all the old vineyards – the oldest dating from 1900 – were uprooted as more fashionable varieties were introduced. Stellenrust’s Tertius Boshoff points to an interesting reason for this. ‘In the days we were co-operative grape suppliers, we could afford to replant only higher-paying varieties, into which bracket neither Chenin nor Cinsaut fell. What a blessing in disguise this was,’ Boshoff reflects. However, reviving these old vineyards to produce quality takes five years of care, including three years of production to determine whether the effort is worthwhile or not.

Stellenrust’s Bush Vine Cinsaut is one of several I’ve been drinking and enjoying recently, which prompted some enquiries from their winemakers about the variety and its future.

Mount Abora Saffraan and Stellenrust Bush Vine Cinsauts are among the newer players in this particular scene. Newer players but using fruit from old vines: Saffraan from a 1981 vineyard grown on decomposed granite just outside Malmesbury in the Swartland; the older Stellenrust planted in 1964, on similar soils in the Bottelary Hills. Everyone I canvassed agrees that for quality, dryland bush vines are preferable with yields well curbed – Cinsaut is naturally a generous producer with large berries. Boshoff corroborates Robinson’s assertion that Cinsaut copes well with drought, claiming ‘it is like a camel, going through the desert without a drop of water’ but even as one of the last varieties to be harvested, Cinsaut achieves phenolic ripeness at lower sugar levels with great pH levels and natural acidity.

Leeuwenkuil’s Pieter Carstens does add the proviso that they prefer using fruit from younger (19-year-old) virus-free vines, despite having older vineyards (but these are virus infected). This Swartland producer has very recently risen to prominence by taking the first trophy ever for Cinsaut on the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show. The ±R150 price tag shows their serious intent.

While each of these three producers aims for elegance, pure fruit, fine fresh tannins and lower alcohols, their wines are satisfyingly different: Saffraan enjoys an abundance of fresh, bright juicy red fruit; Stellenrust is less gushy but has winning charm in its authenticity and freshness; while Leeuwenkuil is the most sophisticated, aromatic, silkily fresh and with sufficient fine tannic structure suggesting it will achieve Carstens’ goal of ageing well.

But if there’s one word that encompasses these and other varietal Cinsauts as well as many blends, it is elegance. As Eben Sadie of Sadie Family Wines unequivocally notes: “It does elegant wines, full stop.” His Old Vine Series Pofadder, from an old vineyard on Riebeek Mountain, remains a modern standard bearer for the variety, a variety Sadie describes as keeping Cape history alive. It’s also known by Swartland producers as ‘the Pinot Noir of the Swartland’.

Gentle vinification is as important as curbed yields in viticulture. No overworking the skins, even some whole bunch fermentation, with more soaking than punch downs and minimal oak describe some techniques employed.

Elegance, as well as medium body and approachability, was Etienne le Riche’s goal when he crafted the much-loved, co-fermented, large oak-aged two-thirds Cabernet, one-third Cinsaut Rustenberg dry reds in the 1970/80s. Today, his son, Christo, and daughter, Yvonne, are again blending this pair, but keeping Cinsaut to a maximum of 25% and using some new, small oak. Their goal is ‘a wine with the structure and class of top SA Cabernet’. Christo maintains: “This creates a wine that’s different yet recognisable to the traditional Cabernet market.”

While varietal wines have in the main created the buzz around Cinsaut, Landskroon’s Paul de Villiers believes blends will quantitatively dominate, a view with which I concur. Landskroon has produced a varietal Cinsaut since 1974 and now also a Cinsaut-Shiraz blend. Adi Badenhorst of AA Badenhorst Family Wines’ red blend is already well regarded but Cape Point winemaker Duncan Savage’s own wine under his new Follow the Line label, a Cinsaut-led blend with Grenache and Syrah, impresses with its greater complexity while holding to an elegant profile overall.

Cinsaut’s roots and lack of international profile may be viewed as a negative but I see the positive side in that it affords us the opportunity to create our own benchmark wines, without comparison to others. It might currently be fashionable but Cinsaut’s worth reaches deeper than mere trendiness (or ‘flirtatious reds’!), especially through its compatibility with our climate. A versatile grape, and, thanks to its fresh appeal, an excellent summer/lunchtime drink, Cinsaut’s future looks promising. It’s early days yet but I agree with my colleague, Cathy van Zyl MW, who suggests, in Yvonne le Riche’s CWM Thesis 2014*, that Cinsaut “could even be elevated to the red grape status of Chenin Blanc”.

*Yvonne le Riche wrote her Cape Wine Master’s Thesis on Cinsaut. This comprehensive and interesting work may be downloaded from

– Angela Lloyd