Up until things started getting a bit more sophisticated towards the end of the 19th century, there’s not much reliable contemporary information about the grape varieties planted during the mid and latter 19th century as the Cape vineyard diversified away from a recent near-monoply by groendruif/greengrape, later recognised as semillon). It has been estimated by some that cinsaut arrived here around the mid 19th century – I can’t remember why, right now, but I found evidence that it was here only from the 1880s.
Where it came from, I’m not at all sure (I don’t know if anyone is – I’d love more info if anyone has any, about all these matters). If by any chance cuttings came from Australia rather than France, it would perhaps help explain why the locals gave it the name hermitage (or hermitake/hermityk, as it is still known by many Afrikaans grape-growers, says viticulturist Rosa Kruger.) That’s because (I speculate) there could have been a mix-up with shiraz, which was widely known in Australia as hermitage. Calling shiraz hermitage involves a more reasonable association than calling cinsaut by that name – cinsaut is very much a southern French, Languedoc, variety.
But although there were definitely many varieties that did come here from Australia (including mourvedre, for example, and, I suspect, shiraz itself), this was mostly late in the 19th century, when one or two intelligent and aware viticulturists were about (especially at the state-owned farm, Groot Constantia). Who knows? (As I say – if anyone does, please tell me.)
Anyway, by the turn of the century, cinsaut was well established – if anything could be called well-established while phylloxera was still wreaking havoc, and adding to the huge woes of a very depressed industry.
Those woes were such as to lead to various governmental commissions of inquiry into the wine industry (remember: this was the Cape government; the Union of South Africa came only in 1910 – at which point the significance of the wine industry was to dwindle in governmental eyes). When I was researching for the history chapter of my book on South African wine, I read these commission reports and they give some fascinating insights into our vinicultural history.
For example, the rapid growth in plantings of cinsaut was explicitly linked (in a 1909 commission report) to the gold mines of the Transvaal. Apparently, “a large demand existed among the Natives on the mines in that country for Hermitage, sweetened and slightly fortified”.
Note the past tense: “a large demand existed” – by 1909 it no longer existed. Why? Because of another interesting factor that tends to go unmentioned (I must say that hardly anyone ever seems at all interested in the fascinating history of wine in South Africa). The commission specifically links over-production/under-consumption of Cape wine to “the imposition of restrictions on the sale of liquor to Natives in the Transvaal”.
This racially-based prohibition (which was to linger on for many, many decades) was not confined to the Transvaal: the commission notes that “the sale or supply of liquor to any coloured person is prohibited” in the Orange River Colony too, and an essentially similar situation applied in Natal. Even “in most districts of the Cape Colony itself restrictions prevail against the sale of wine and spirits to the original native”.
Perhaps we should remember this bit of the past when we note how alien wine is to the culture of the majority of South Africans!
At this stage, of course, all of these little countries with their racist prohibition were British colonies. As I say in concluding my discussion of this in my book, “it hardly needs pointing out that racism did not leap forth new from the head of the National Party when it came to power in 1948”.
So, at the beginning of the 20th century, there was already a significant amount of cinsaut about. Greengrape still dominated with around 40%. Steen (chenin blanc), white French (palomino) and red muscadel were also important, and now sauvignon blanc and cabernet featured too. But cinsaut was already in third place – and certainly the leading red variety. In time it was to become the most planted of all.
But I see that I digressed too much into social matters, and this blog is getting too long. The fascinating story of cinsaut in South Africa will be concluded next time.