How often do you get to taste 20 cinsauts, in a range spanning four countries and four decades? Not often (me – never before, undoubtedly), and no doubt the reason is that we don’t take cinsaut seriously enough.
Fortunately, some winemakers now do and they, like us, are learning what delicious pleasure can be taken from this usually rather despised grape. There are now a half-dozen and more really good cinsauts being made, with sensitivity and grace, in South Africa – mostly from the few (?) old cinsaut vineyards that survive.
Perhaps it is not unfair to point out – to anticipate a tentative conclusion too quickly – that the most remarkable, complex wines in this remarkable tasting were, in fact, blends including cinsaut. Chateau Musar 2004, the famous wine from Lebanon, mixes cabernet sauvignon, cinsaut and shiraz – probably not a vast distance from the other Chateau wine on this tasting, Chateau Libertas 1970. Both showed very well – the Musar cleaner and fresher than Musar sometimes is, and with all of its usual characterful interest and class.
Much has been written about these old Chateau Libs, and more will be while surviving bottles continue to amaze with their longevity and quality. Suffice to say that the 1970 was drinking beautifully: certainly a little rustic (but we’re not in Margaux here); forceful, earthy and meaty, but with some fresh fruit still to deal with the slightly drying tannin. A tribute to Cape terroir, and to the presumably unirrigated cinsaut bushvines that played a vital role in this wine.
And no less the two (slightly different) bottles of Swartland Cooperative Cinsaut 1975. How many current South African wines, I wonder (and not just co-op wines!), are going to be bright, rich and fresh like this cinsaut in 40 years? I don’t really wonder. Precious few, and it’s about time wine producers and winelovers started caring about that and wondering why! This 1970 had a little bit of sweet, toffee character, suggesting some age, but the fruit was still in control, and the acidity was in balance, as were the subtle tannins. (I’ve said it before and no doubt will again – the greatest joy of Swartland reds is the structure of the tannins!)
Unreformed South Africa was also represented here by two KWV Cinsauts (though of a crucially later decade, when Cape wine had already moved backward before taking the great leap of around 2000): 1990, the better and more elegant of the two, and the more developed, jammier 1992. In both of them, the tannins were drying out somewhat, though both were undoubtedly still alive.
I haven’t mentioned that we begun the tasting with a pair of rosés – a Californian saignée wine, Phoenix Ranch 2011, which was a bit alcoholic but nice, and the lovelier-perfumed and –balanced, flavourful Mount Abora Safronne 2013.
We tasted the foreigners after the old South Africans (which we did first as we mistakenly were a little worried that they might be fragile). There was the already-mentioned Musar, and a Minervois from south-west France, Clos de Centilles Campagne de Centilles 2000. On the latter, very ripe fruit, a lot of tannin, but it was a bit short; and unmemorable in this context. Sadly, the other French wine, Clos Martinet Cinsault Exorde Mathelisse 2011, from Roussillon, was disappointing too. A lotl of brett, and somewhat overextracted I thought. Biodynamics didn’t help it – or certainly not enough.
Fascinatingly, we had (not counting Phoenix Rosé) three wines from one ancient Californian vineyard: the Bechthold vineyard in Lodi, planted on its own roots in 1886 – probably the oldest cinsaut vineyard in the world.
Continuing my brutally brief summarising; the three Lodi wines: Scholium Project 1 MN 2011 was very ripe and tannic, with a touch of obvious volatile acidity – a waste of these ancient vines! Overdo cinsaut at any point, and you’ve lost most of what it does best. Also intense and a trifle ripely lush, but full of charm and perfumed poise, was the excellent Onesta 2011.
My favourite – and my joint top favourite of the contemporary wines – was the Turley El Porron 2010. It would be a total surprise for those who associate Turley with Parkerised, hugely powerful Zinfandels; the delicacy, vital freshness and vibrancy of this wine set it apart.
I’m running out of energy and perhaps my readers’ patience (if any have survived this far). Briefer still, in a crescendoing order of preference:
- Blank Bottle ‘My Koffer’ 2011 (Breedekloof). A lot of easy charm, slightly sweet finish.
- Stellenrust 2011 (Stellenbosch) First bottling of these old vines’ fruit. I reckon this label will improve as understanding grows. Nicely dry and elegant, attractively sweet fruit.
- Mt Abora Saffraan 2012 (Swartland). I’ve enthused about this wine before. Fresh, delightful. Subtle tannin. Could be a bit more generous?
- Badenhorst Ramnasgras 2011 (Swartland). Sweet raspberry softness. More fruity than some, but beautifully structured.
- Mullineux Cinsault 2010. Their last bottling off the old Riebeekberg vineyard that Eben Sadie draws cinsaut from. The deepest-coloured of the wines; fairly powerful, but beautifully balanced, and really delicious.
- Sadie Family Wines Pofadder 2012. Along with the Turley, my top modern cinsaut of the tasting. A tremulous quality of excitement to it, perfectly integrated tannins of the highest order, vibrant, and a touch of profundity that cinsaut doesn’t often intimate.
We also tasted two too-young 2013s (Silvewis and Natte Valleij) but enough’s enough.
Some interesting discussion happened – not least about pinotage, cinsaut’s local spawn, but that must wait to be recounted. The important thing is that there are (I hope) going to be more cinsauts made each year (a few weren’t represented here). Lovers of charming, drinkable wines should seek them out, especially when made by winegrowers with a light touch. I suspect we’ll never get “great” wines made from cinsaut, but we will get some marvellous and exciting drinking.
Thanks to Chris and Andrea Mullineux for organising this fascinating tasting in their cool Riebeek-Kasteel barrel cellar (on a wonderfully warm, sunny midwinter Swartland day); and thanks to those who contributed wines.