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Tim James: Dithering about Cinsaut and Cinsault

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Before anyone bitterly accuses me of being unable to write anything without mentioning cinsaut let me admit that it’s occupied more than its fair share of my attention in recent times. I can’t think when I last mentioned such other worthy varietal candidates as, say, hárslevelű or merlot or sauvignon blanc. (And I only mention hárslevelű now because I needed to take those Hungarian diacritical marks for a walk.) But I’m intending that this piece about cinsaut will be the last for at least a week or two – and as it’s actually going to be more about the word than the grape, let alone the wine, I’m not convinced that even if do have any devoted readers not all (neither?) of them are certain to get as far as the conclusion.

The word, then. Is it cinsaut or cinsault? If you’ve never bothered to notice that it’s easily found spelt both ways, chances are you are one of those who will be uninterested into delving into the why and the wherefor. (It’s also sometimes spelt ‘Pofadder’, but no more of that one now.

Both spellings are used in South Africa – with the L-version given as the synonym for primary cinsaut, which is undoubtedly the version most used in the past. Since 1973, that is, when it officially replaced hermitage (how it ever came to be called that, no-one seems sure). It’s L-less in all the books of the time, with the other version never even getting a mention as a possibility, so far as I can see.

At some stage cinsault became an official synonym (does anyone know when?), and that spelling is probably more widely used by the youthful new wave of wine producers that are bringing the grape to everyone’s attention again. Why they use the L, especially given their history-mindedness, I’d never understood, until Chris Mullineux told me that Professor Goussard used to tell his viticulture students at Stellenbosch University that using the L was correct. They all seem to have believed him.

No reason not to, really, except that in the official French list of varieties there is no L. So I’m informed by Julia Harding, explaining to me why cinsaut is the prime name in both the Oxford Companion to Wine and the magisterial Wine Grapes (Julia is joint author of the latter, assistant editor of the former). In Wine Grapes, the L-version is given as a synonym, explained as the version used in the Languedoc. I’d contacted Julia because, oddly, in a recent Wine of the Week article on jancisrobinson.com, she’d resolutely spelt the word throughout as cinsault – as indeed the label of the relevant wine had it – even when she referred readers to the Oxford Companion entry.

I followed up another suggestion of Julia’s article, and did a search on jancisrobinson.com for tasting notes on cinsault – and came up with a great many pages of references. Then I searched for cinsaut – and found a mere six wines mentioned, four from South Africa and two from California.

That gave me pause. Which I think means that it made me think. I started to doubt my own comfortable position of always, even aggressively, spelling the word without the L. I was then given further pause by a piece on decanter.com entitled “Cinsault: It’s not just a backing singer”, in which again L was the eclipsing version. (Incidentally, the author’s “pick of the best Cinsault buys” was packed with Cape examples, and headed by a wine called Pofadder, made by someone or other here.)

So, after pausing, what to think? Basically that, whatever non-Languedocian history tells us, we’re not really listening and cinsault (brandishing its archaic but now unuseful, arguably decorative L) seems to be winning the race. If even Julia Harding, who knows that the official version has no L, says that she sometimes dithers but that her “first instinct is always with the L, probably because … it is usually spelt with an L in the Languedoc, where it is most often encountered”, then who am I to differ?

For now I’ll continue to spell it as I always have, in accordance with local tradition. But I think I would recommend producers to go with the flow and include the L, if only because a wine name spelt that way is the more likely to be picked up by electronic searches.

  • 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.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Call me old-fashioned, but I smell the same snobby “otherwiseness” in this latest fad as when shiraz became “syrah”. Maybe I’m too sensitive to culture cringe, but there’s a subliminal duplicity to this parvenu game. For the bucks, no doubt.

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