Greg Sherwood MW: South African Cinsault starts to make an impact in the UK market
By Greg Sherwood, 25 January 2023
It probably won’t come as a massive surprise to most people that I drank more than a few bottles of South African Cinsault this Christmas. Now I know my last column presented the gourmet fine wine conundrum of whether to choose Pinot Noir or Pinotage with your Christmas turkey, but of course, I should have included Cinsault in that equation as well. Quite simply, in the past year or two, this variety has taken on a life of its own in the UK independent retail trade as well as in the UK on-trade, and the volumes of wines being sold at all levels of price and quality are quite astonishing. If my own consumption habits of premium Cinsault and those of my close friends in the UK wine trade are anything to go by, then the current shortage in the UK market is certainly easily explained.
I am of course a bit old school now and cannot mention Cinsault without recounting (yet again) my 1997 Cape Wine Academy prelim tasting experience in Pretoria with my then lecturer, Glyn de Jager, where we tasted an array of commercial Cinsault wines, all of which, in my honest opinion, tasted like rusty nails brewed in a jam jar tin. Certainly sweet and sour, undoubtedly tart and metallic, with curious layers of sweet raspberry fruit. The irony is that the wines we were tasting were probably produced by large co-operatives making Cinsault from exulted 30 to 40+ year old vines in either the Swartland, Darling or Stellenbosch. How they got it so wrong is any one’s answer.
Even today, when consumers ask me to explain the noted jump in quality from the early commercial 1980s to the current fine wine Cinsault quality available today, I struggle, and seem to be a bit at a loss to explain succinctly the genuine phenomenon. And it’s not like I haven’t quizzed my good winemaker friends like Ian Naudé, Duncan Savage and Eben Sadie about just what everyone was doing in the vineyards and winery back then, and what they are all doing so differently now. I certainly have asked this question repeatedly. The answers, however, simply do not explain the total lack of quality produced by some very large, commercially savvy wineries at the time… wineries that were, I might add, capable of some very respectable examples of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.
While some of the UK Cinsault buzz can perhaps be explained by the recent Cinsault rock star return visits at the end of 2022 by the likes of Sadie, Naudé and Lukas van Loggerenberg, this would only really explain the excitement in and among the wine trade cognoscenti, certainly not among mainstream consumers. The thirst and even tangible mania for top, old-vine Cinsault in the UK is real and utterly thrilling. It’s everything producers could have hoped for and more. If you think I am being a bit dramatic in my commentary, I suggest you speak to South Africa’s one and only Master Sommelier resident in the UK working at the illustrious 3-star Michelin restaurant, Core by Clare Smyth. Gareth Ferreira MS reassuringly informs me that he has, for the past several months, been paring the Naudé Werfdans 2016 Old Vine Darling Cinsault by the glass with one of his main tasting menus and the response has been simply astonishing. Speaking further to their importer Museum Wines for more background, they too seem to have been slightly caught unawares by the sudden rush for light, elegant, fresh, perfumed Cinsault-styled wines.
Museum Wines also happen to be the exclusive UK importer of another iconic proponent of Cinsault from the Cape, Alex Milner of Natte Valleij, and from my discussions with Alex and his importer, the scenario is hardly any different to that of Naude Wines. Massive shortages – despite plenty of forecasting and stock planning. So what is going on? Poor planning? Shipping delays? Uneven market demand? No, is seemingly the correct answer. Simply unbridled demand for a lighter, fresher, purer style of wine that can take the place of Pinot Noir when required to do so, and a wine style that can match a diverse array of foods, especially plenty of Autumnal fair including grouse, pheasant and of course Christmas turkey.
For a recent fine wine outing with my very good friend, Daniel Primack, the UK importer of Zalto glasses, I of course obliged and brought a bottle of his favourite wine… the Sadie Family Old Vine Series Pofadder Cinsault. Being invited to his private members club was more than enough incentive to dig deep in my cellar at home and salvage one of my last prized bottles of Pofadder 2012 Cinsault. Drinking this sought-after wine at ten years of age exemplified just why this wine is no longer in the ranks of Pinotage but more among the glitterati of Pinot Noir when it comes to prestige and trade placement. Eden Sadie and of course Ian Naudé have been massive proponents of the grape but there is a growing cohort of producers, some young and others old, that are increasingly pinning their colours to the Cinsault battlefield banner.
As for my Cinsault experiences recently, for what they are worth… the Naudé Werfdans 2016 remains a seminal wine for me in the evolution of high quality old vine South African Cinsault, and the Winemag editor’s high score (95/100) goes a long way to supporting my argument there. As for Alex Milner’s incredibly delicious expressions, perhaps I have learnt not to judge a mullet by its variety. This boy is cleaning up in the UK market and at the time of going to copy, his Cinsault was “very annoyingly every bit out of stock” according to his importer Daniel Grigg at Museum Wines. Inevitably, the Sadie Family Wines Pofadder, well, I am sure you can guess, that unless you have had the exceptionally good foresight or luck to secure an allocation in recent years, then you will unfortunately have to go thirsty when it comes to this rare old-vine Cinsault. This wine is still perhaps not at the rabid levels of demand that Eben Sadie’s Soldaat Grenache commands yet, and that has undoubtedly been riding high on the fame and growing international kudos of the high-altitude old vine Gredos region Grenache located West of Madrid, but rare and sought after the Pofadder Cinsault wines remain.
The forecast for the skies above London for the coming months ahead may be grey and icy, but I can tell you that the opportunities for South Africa’s top Cinsaults have never been brighter. The buzz in the general trade is unparalleled, the demand among the independent retail buyers has never been stronger, and the excitement, curiosity and intrigue among sommelier, chefs and restauranteurs is at an all time high. If I was a stock broker at the moment, I would certainly be investing a sizable amount of capital in Cinsault shares!
- Greg Sherwood was born in Pretoria, South Africa, and as the son of a career diplomat, spent his first 21 years travelling the globe with his parents. With a Business Management and Marketing degree from Webster University, St. Louis, Missouri, USA, Sherwood began his working career as a commodity trader. In 2000, he decided to make more of a long-held interest in wine taking a position at Handford Wines in South Kensington, London, working his way up to the position of Senior Wine Buyer. He became a Master of Wine in 2007.
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