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Call it a Comeback
Issue 29: The return of South Africa's most famous grape variety.
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In 2018, I was in Cape Town and I met David Cope, a winemaker, bar owner, and distributor who is at the forefront of South Africa’s natural wine scene. He invited me to a warehouse party where he introduced me to Alex Milner, winemaker at Natte Valleij, who is focused on making wine from the once mighty Cinsault grape.
Driving out of Cape Town towards the country’s famous Winelands, it doesn’t really seem like a place that is hospitable to grapes. But as you get about an hour outside of town, the landscape changes sharply and it becomes clear you’re in the right place. The sharp cliffs are flanked by grape vines as far as the eye can see, the air becomes cool, and everything is more lush.
South Africa’s wine industry is young by wine industry standards and is considered “new world.” Most of the country’s wine growing regions are located in Western Cape, with the majority of vineyards within 90 minutes of Cape Town. Stellenbosch and Franschhoek are the best known regions, and vineyards there produce most of their wine using big ticket grapes: Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Shiraz, but also produce a fair amount of Pinotage, a distinctly South African grape that’s a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault.
As a parent to Pinotage and a filler for red blends, the Cinsault grape was the original workhorse of the South African wine industry. It was imported from France and planted in the mid 1800s because it could handle the hot, arid climate around Cape Town and produced a high yield of large, juicy grapes. At its peak, Cinsault was the most-planted grape in The Winelands, but like any industry, wine is driven by trends. By the 1970s, the industry trended toward dark, rich reds, and the bright, light-colored wine that Cinsault produced fell dramatically out of fashion, forcing growers to stop planting the varietal.
Today, it still has something of a lowly reputation, and the grape is fairly inexpensive and abundant. Tapping into a modern wine drinking audience, young, enterprising winemakers have begun to use this grape in new, more exciting ways. One such winemaker, Alex Milner of Natte Valleij, is betting that with the right techniques and a little grit, you can teach an old grape new tricks.
Despite Cinsault’s fall from grace, there remain many unused “blocks” of the grape scattered around The Winelands. “It was not long after I graduated from Stellenbosch University that I was on a farm that had some Cinsault,” Milner told me over the phone, “So I asked ‘what do you do with this?’ The farmer shrugged and said they take it to the big corporate wineries and allowed me to take some. I was blown away at how nice the first wines we made were.”
Milner saw an opportunity here, a way to experiment with grapes other than the Cabernet and Shiraz wines that the market wanted. Cinsault produces a light, fruity, and bright wine that a younger generation of wine consumers are more receptive to drinking. “Young drinkers,” Milner said, “are not sitting around with a bold red eating a fat steak. We don’t really do that anymore.” Cinsault wines are approachable and versatile; you can “drink it chilled or with dinner and it can hold its own.”
Most of Milner’s lineup leans on the fact that Cinsault has a really great ability to express where it was grown and takes to the terroir so nicely. “I realized that Cinsault has an incredible ability to express its site. That excites me. All the blocks offer something different,” Milner said. Making what he calls single-site Cinsaults, Milner pulls grapes from Simonsberg, Paarl, Darling, The Swartland, and Stellenbosch and uses these grapes to make unique wines that express a different sense of place depending on where they’re from. Each bottling tells a story, yielding incredible variety between the different sites. These wines aren’t influenced by the cellar, Milner says, “I want it to express the vineyard.”
And express the vineyard they do. “The Stellenbosch block is closest to the sea and we find that that creates a lighter wine. With the hotter sites like The Swartland, we ferment the grapes with some of the leftover vines to add a little more balance to the wine,” he said. “You have Cinsault planted on these fantastic sites that secretly make great wines that originally no one knew about; they were being blended away into a much bigger system.”
Cinsault’s comeback is hard to quantify because the planting, production, or bottling of Cinsault isn’t tracked closely. But it’s something that Milner has noticed. “When I first started there were maybe 5 of us making it. Now I don’t even know how many. It’s kind of like a feather in my cap because I was the first one that did it,” he says. South Africa is a beer-drinking country, but “wine is a lot cooler than it was 10 years ago.” Brands now are pushing wine into the craft sphere and forcing the South African wine industry to be more creative. “Cinsault made wine drinking more trendy. Pinot Noir is expensive so a lot of restaurants are featuring Cinsault on their wine lists because it’s interesting and cheaper than a Pinot,” Milner says.
Cinsault won’t necessarily increase the popularity of wine in the country overall, but it is getting a younger generation interested in a more exciting type of wine. “Cinsault has stolen a little space from Pinot Noir and that’s how we’ve gotten our foot in the door. The growth we’ve seen is phenomenal. It’s certainly here to stay.” Another way to judge Cinsault’s rise in popularity? “I used to be able to buy Cinsault for nothing. Now? The grapes have tripled in price.”
Cinsault may never become the star of the South African wine industry, but because of the grape’s history in the country, it gives off a distinct point of view; something that is uniquely South African. “That’s what makes Cinsault so fun, there’s a story behind it. I’d rather like to know about the vineyard and the chickens that live on the farm.” Under Milner’s direction, Cinsault is poised to become something that a younger generation of South African wine drinkers can appreciate as truly local.
Other things ~
My brother is a recent-ish resident of New Mexico so I sent him this article about the piñon nut harvesting across the state. He’s seen people harvesting the nuts across the state and the article is a really interesting look into the booming roadside economy for the Navajo Nation and other Indigenous Americans.
I have generally struggled in the last nearly three (!!) years to make anything fancy or pull from complicated recipes. Taste makes the case for cooking normal food.