Best forgotten, infamous, characterless. These are just some of the descriptions used for the red grape variety Cinsault by Master of Wine Benjamin Lewin in his 2010 book, “Wine Myths and Realities.”
He’s not the only one. Patrick J. Comiskey, in “American Rhône,” damns it with faint praise by calling it, “a very serviceable component in blends.” Until recently, in Cinsault’s home in the Languedoc, it was thought to be only good for rosé. Consultants would advise vineyard owners to pull it up and replace with Syrah. Poor unloved Cinsault!
Now, however, things are looking up for this Cinderella grape as wine makers in countries as disparate as Lebanon, France, Chile, and South Africa are discovering how to get the best out of it. Cinsault shall go to the ball.
South African wine writer Tšepang Molisana says: “Cinsault went from overlooked to overbooked in the 2010s.”
Cinsault’s home might be the south of France, but the real impetus for its revival has come from South Africa’s Western Cape. The country has a lot of it.
“In 1980, it was the most widely planted red variety in South Africa,” says Molisana. But it was just considered a workhorse variety, used for making everything from red wine to brandy.
But in the last ten years, Molisana explains how pioneering producers in the Swartland region like “Mullineux Leeu Family Wines, BLANKbottle, Sadie Family Wines, Landskroon Wines and Neil Ellis,” discovered that something sublime could be made from old vine Cinsault.
She compares it to Pinot Noir and she’s not the only one. Lebanese writer Michael Karam has long flown the flag for Cinsault, calling it the “Pinot Noir of the Bekaa Valley,” Lebanon’s viticultural heartland. It’s always been a component in Lebanon’s greatest wine, Chateau Musar, but Karam believed that it could work well on its own.
He convinced one young winemaker, Faouzi Issa at Domaine des Tourelles, to bottle some. In 2016, Issa released a spicy, heady wine made entirely from Cinsault, with extraordinary flavors of rose petal, cinnamon, and almond. Tourelles Vieilles Vignes Cinsault has gone on to become a cult wine.
What took so long?
So why was this grape variety neglected for so long? Karam puts it down to snobbery. When Lebanon’s wine industry was revitalized after the Civil War ended in 1990, producers wanted to emulate Napa and Bordeaux, and planted Cabernet.
It was the same all over the world. Because there were no famous wines made from 100% Cinsault, it wasn’t valued. Maverick Californian winemaker Randall Grahm from Bonny Doon Vineyard explains: “Nobody gets too excited about supporting characters in movies or in wines.”
Plus, if you’re brought up on big oaky wines, then Cinsault takes a bit of getting used to. “There’s very little about Cinsault that appeals to the American taste/obsession for power and concentration,” says Grahm. “Cinsault doesn’t have a lot of tannin nor color and there has never been a movie made celebrating its subtle charms.”
Nowadays, however, tastes are changing and people are appreciating wines that are more delicate. But you do have to be careful with Cinsault, or you end up with the kind of wines Lewin was describing. Grahm explains: “One of the biggest challenges to successfully growing Cinsault is keeping the size of the bunches and ultimately the yield under control. Vigorous sites, rich soils don’t work well.”
Matt Walls, author of the “Wines of the Rhône,” agrees: “It has a natural propensity for high yields, and the wines tend not to be very deep in color. It can be a bit insipid when young vines are cropped high, but old vines with lower yields can produce some beautiful wines.”
It also thrives in the heat, retaining acidity and freshness, so it’s a grape that suits a warming climate. “It’s resistant to heat and drought, so it’s gaining fans in the Rhône and Southern France more broadly,” says Walls.
There are also some great Chilean examples, Walls is a fan of Pedro Parra’s Imaginador. But it’s still somewhat neglected in its home country of France, though this is beginning to change. Clos Centeilles in Minervois has long flown the flag for Cinsault, and under $20 a bottle. At the other end of the scale is the 100% Cinsault Châteauneuf-du-Pape from Domaine Isabel Ferrando, available at the eye-watering price of $750.
To highlight the brilliance of this still underrated variety, Walls is organizing a Cinsault Olympics in London this September. It will be a blind tasting to determine the world’s best example. The smart money’s on South Africa but when it comes to wine, you can never discount the French.
3 Cinsault to try:
This comes from the highly regarded Saint-Chinian region in the Languedoc, and shows Cinsault at its most fun and frivolous. How does this producer do it for the money?
Bursting with flavors of cinnamon, rose petal, and baklava, this demonstrates how an originally French variety can be the authentic taste of Lebanon.
Cinsault can be a serious grape, too. This premium bottling from one of South Africa’s greatest producers is good now but with its rocky, mineral edge, will repay a few years in the cellar.