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Tim James: How seriously to take very light reds?

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There’s a bit of debate around cinsaut these days, with the proliferation of bottlings alluded to by Christian in his recent article. Can one make serious, complex, long-developing wines from it? Is it best as a grape for rosé and light, perfumed fruity reds?  For adding charm and complexity (and early approachability) to splendidly serious grapes like cabernet sauvignon? Such questions are rightly being asked.

To an extent, similar questions are also being asked about grenache noir – at least when it’s made in that lighter style, as it often is in modern South Africa. But with grenache there is no doubt that it is a grape that is capable of making very fine solo wines, as well as working well in blends: various parts of Spain and the southern Rhône valley have conclusively shown that.

Grenache has enormously increased in the Cape. Christian mentioned the growth in varietal bottlings of cinsaut over the past ten years, as evidenced in Platter. For grenache the growth has been even greater. That’s reflected in increased plantings, though the total hectarage is less than a quarter of cinsaut’s. The fact that there are nonetheless more varietal wines made from grenache than cinsaut is pretty significant. 

Sadie and not so light reds
Sadie and not-so-light light reds.

Eben Sadie makes wines from both varieties in his Old Vineyard series: Soldaat from grenache, Pofadder from cinsaut. Last Wednesday he presented both at a tasting of his forthcoming releases for, mostly, some retailers and restaurateurs. They were from 2017, a very difficult vintage for West Coast dryland vineyards (though clearly easy and rewarding compared with 2018), and were pretty good – but I’ll come back to judgements on another occasion. I’m mentioning them here because Eben made some remarks about some lighter-styled reds that I think worth sharing. The wines that he and his winemaker Paul Jordaan make are not in that style, of course: somewhat riper and fuller, with some darker notes, than the currently fashionable “hipster” style, though no one could say that they are overtly powerful or lack freshness.

Eben was emphatic about why this is their choice. “There’s a limit to how early you can pick if you want to show terroir in your wines.” Pick very early, and “the vineyard doesn’t have time to get terroir into the grapes”. In fact, he added, pick too early and there’s no real expression of variety, let alone terroir. And he linked grenache and cinsaut, as the grapes that he thinks most frequently get treated this way in the Cape at present; it’s hard to disagree with his point that many of these grenaches and cinsauts tend to taste and smell very similar – all that brightness and freshness and simple red fruit and perfume. Sometimes, Eben suggested, what’s being bottled is not variety or terroir or vintage, but simply a winemaking philosophy.

I think this is true. And it’s a fascinating mirror-image of what happens when grapes are picked over-ripe. Very ripe grapes tend to also lose specificity – certainly of terroir, but also sometimes of variety. I recall being told by a British dealer highly experienced in Bordeaux that with the “Parkerisation” of Bordeaux, terroir distinctions had become so blurred that he could now seldom distinguish between the appellations.

Well, we’re coming to the end of that winemaker, critic and consumer fascination with wine made from very ripe grapes. While for me there’s much more pleasure to be got from very light reds than from very heavy ones, we must be careful of reactively going too far and too easily in that direction. It’s not a question of greenness, but of vinosity, substance and character. Choosing a picking date is absolutely crucial – which is why the best winemakers are always lurking in the vineyards as harvest approaches: they want to respond to the grapes, not to a winemaking philosophy abstractly conceived in the cellar.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.

13 COMMENTS

  1. I very much agree with Tim on the above.
    Personnally, I do not see the point of having grapes like Cinsault, Grenache Rouge or Grenanche Blanc flying solo. Well surely they not my taste taken on their own.
    Funny you bring the example of SOLDAAT from Eben Sadie as I have had 2 horrible experiences in a row (in a space of one year) with SOLDAAT 14 and SOLDAAT 15 which were both undrinkable, funny bad smell and biting the tongue. I am actually very upset I still have more of these in my cellar and this is adding to my complete loss of faith in drinking Grenache rouse on its own.

    • Hi, PINGLO. Is this the first time that you’ve had these Soldaat vintages, or have you had them before and liked them then?

      • Good question Kwispedoor! Yes it is the first time indeed. I must say I had the same disapointment with the Poffader. The Skurfberg Chenin is ok but nothing special. I can really taste these wine are most likely vinified without additional sulphites and no filtration which is making the reds very difficult to digest for me besides the “funny” taste. I guess I should stay away from the Eben Sadie style of winemaking.

      • One option would be to let the wines mature (in a suitably proper environment, of course) further – they do need some time to show their best.

        Otherwise, I’m first in line to do some swapping with you. I like it when those Soldate and Pofadders bite my tongue! ;-)

    • Thanks, PINGLO!
      Alas, I’m almost two thousand clicks away, so it’s not really practical. Please make contact with Ryanthewinegeek?

  2. I do spot a very real attempt at “re-positioning” here, coming from a great winemaker, a thinking-dreaming-adorable-greatguy-EbenSadie. Nothing wrong with that: what’s the point of having a mind if you cant’t change it!. Sadie cut his teeth on new barrels and way-out extraction, and then change to terroir and old vine. All good. All respect: what’s the point of having a mind if you can’t change it? And now, trying to subvert the new so-called “hipster style” of cinsault. In the 70s no one thought about hipsters among the pressures of old men trying to please Anton Rupert or not – depending on your independence from mainstream market forces. Yet, in today’s term, high acid (always a challenge with cincaut, while no one had known about grenache as they were stuck in “green’ cabs, which they tried to juice up with cinsaut. Meanwhile, back at the run down (Swartland) Independent cellar, cinsaut as a big flat table grape variety, is stradled with low, unresponsive acids and high pH levels, and quite reputation destroying spontanious VA peaks. Which in wine maker terms means, simply put: pick early, if not, add acid (a shitload), or ride out fermentation in pristine cellar cleanliness and then (clandistinely!!) blend with a suitable natural high acid, low pH variety such as, let’s assume carignan. Let’s be honest. Cinsaut is not a variety made for full ripeness at picking, let alone at “ripeness”, the concept as (mis)understood in wine making circles, errr.. intellectual cloud. It is not a cab. It is not shiraz. Not even, shit, perhaps it can be pinot if it weren’t for its low acids. It will never be Bordeaux, or Burgundy or even perversed SA shiraz. It always needs to be harvested (ask the hipster wine makers!!! yes do ask them, please) early, no, but f…..g early, to preserve its terroir. My point is, and hence the memtion of re-positioning: cinsaut from its mother, its terroir if you then so wish, needs to be low in alcohol to maintain a semblance of acidity (read structure) and allow for the minimum amount of natural and well, spontanious VA (as a single variet wine of course). Please, maybe icon winemakers protest too much, especially when the hipsters corner a specific taste poistioning. No surprise here as we saw it like seven, eight years ago when a hall mark pinot producer scoffed at tutti fruity pinots, just to himself emulate the same style six years later….

  3. In some recent Sadie vintages, including 2015, some of the bottles of the single vineyard red wines have been clearly contaminated with brettanomyces. Not all the bottles seem to be infected. Maybe Pinglo has been unlucky. Pinglo, do you know the character of brett? Usually a mousy or “animal” or “band-aid” sort of smell. Is that what you found?

  4. Great points and I agree whole heartedly, but the article does not emphasize enough the impact of 3 years of below average rainfall, which does exacerbate the situation of lighter reds. Especially considering a lot of these wines are coming from dry land vines and areas of the Cape that are already on the lower end of the rainfall spectrum. I think a discussion to have after 3 years of normal winter rain.

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