At the beginning of the 20th century, then, plantings of cinsaut in the Cape were on the rise (as described here). Bad times it was for winegrape-growers but in the great South African tradition it didn’t stop them planting, and only the formation of the KWV in 1918 looked likely to bring some sort of stability to the market. The KWV became increasingly concerned with quantity over quality, so no doubt did little to encourage the planting of, say, more modest-yielding cabernet or syrah … and plantings of high-yield cinsaut continued apace.
Cinsaut had the added advantage of being, says Professor Perold in his Treatise on Viticulture of 1927/8, “practically immune to anthracnose and not very susceptible to oidium”. It was Perold who had by then made the first identification of “hermitage” as cinsaut. I said in my last blog that I couldn’t remember why I had 1880 as the date of its first planting here – going back to this Perold book now, I see it was he who makes the claim there. He speaks of its extraordinary high yield – citing unirrigated trellised vines in Durbanville yielding nearly 292 hectolitres per hectare! He suggests this might be a world record for the grape and points out the resulting wine was, unsurprisingly, thin and light, “with little character”. Generally, however, the yield of bushvine cinsaut in the Cape was closer to 60-90 hl/ha – high, but not excessively so.
Perold does say that “fully 75 per cent of the red wines [in the Cape] are made from it”. Professor Orffer, in his 1979 little book on Wine Grape Cultivars in South Africa, says that cinsaut had become the most widely cultivated of all cultivars, with “27% of all plantings in 1960”.
What was cinsaut used for? Just about everything, it seems, including brandy. (There are still some brandies using it to some extent, including Uitkyk, where it’s part of the varietal mix, and Mons Ruber’s quirky buchu-infused version, which is entirely from cinsaut.) Orffer mentions that “some highty outstanding ports were made from 100% Cinsaut grapes” – which is on the face of it surprising, not least because of the pale-ish colour and modest tannins of cinsaut wine.
And, certainly not least, cinsaut proved itself an excellent blending partner (is this its most illustrious future as well as its most illustrious past, I seriously wonder?) with more intense, complex varieties like cabernet and shiraz. Undoubtedly some of the great blends of the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s (Chateau Libertas, and many wines called Cabernet Sauvignon) included greater or lesser percentages of cinsaut. As a blending partner, it can add freshness and perfume – I reckon I can think of a great many grand Cape Cabernets of the present generation which would make better wines if they were blended with a good dollop of cinsaut!
This is all, of course, not to mention what many consider cinsaut’s great moment, when it was crossed with pinot noir to produce pinotage. So let’s continue to not mention it. It’s a well enough known story.
At some post-WW2 stage, cinsaut started declining in the Cape vineyard. White wine – fruity and fresh thanks to the possibilities open up by cold fermentation (first prosecuted, strangely enough, by the Germans, I believe) – was in the ascendant. Chenin blanc was being planted increasingly to serve the Lieberstein revolution (as well as the brandy industry and the slowly dying “sherry” industry).
Let me quote my own book again: “A historical chart of the two most commonly planted varieties after World War II shows a rather gratifying X shape, with Cinsaut’s line plummeting downward and Chenin Blanc’s inexorably rising: the lines cross at approximately 22 percent of total plantings in 1968, From roughly this period we are in early modern times….”
(I have to confess that is just about my favourite passage from my book, the one of which I’m proudest – I don’t know of anyone having made this point before, and it seems to me a beautiful and significant one!)
That’s the end of my modest history of cinsaut in South Africa. Part III done. But Part IV – which might be the most interesting yet – is being written right now. The focus seems to be on single-varietal cinsauts, but I look forward to a renaissance of those magnificent cab-cinsaut blends, in a genuine Cape tradition. How about it, Stellenrust et al?