Tim James: Cinsault is at its best cool
By Christian Eedes, 5 February 2024
Wolves make a modest appearance in Cape wine, though there are inevitably more allusions to the wolf in brands (five, by my count) than there have been wolves roaming the vineyards (none). But two are directly symbolic (Wolf & Woman Wines, Bruwer Vintners Lone Wolf); one is not really a wolf at all (Painted Wolf Wines – aka the African wild dog); one is avowedly foreign, not to mention bronze (the McFarlane Capitoline Wolf, referring to the sculpture in Rome depicting the wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus; the last (Wolftrap) evokes the puzzling find of something identified as a wolftrap on Boekenhoutskloof.
But that’s all admittedly pure digression, prompted by my writing here about two wolvish cinsaults: Bruwer Vintners Lone Wolf and McFarlane Capitoline Wolf Red, as well as two others, Marras The Trickster (it has a delightful fox on the label, but that’s not quite close enough to count) and Angus Paul Diapsalmata (explaining the names of Angus’s wines would require a lot more research, time and space than I have here, but there doesn’t seem to be a wolf involved).
It’s the cinsault bit that interests me. Cape Town weather has been hot and humid enough to suggest the usefulness of red wines that respond well to serious cooling at least and even to something approaching (but not reaching) a proper chill. Most modern Cape cinsaults are dead right for this purpose, with plenty of forward fruit, lowish alcohol and (vital for working well cold) modest tannins. In fact cinsault is probably the pioneer as well as hero of such light reds here, though other grapes have been called into service, notably grenache and pinot noir, occasionally syrah and carignan and a rare gamay, and, more recently, pinotage.
Light cinsault in fact has become a little too much of a cliché for my tastes – with too much of it offering overt perfumed charm with floral-fruity simplicity, and not much in the way of character, structure or depth. Pinotage is the least obvious contender in the light and light-ish red stakes and, for me, the most exciting (as I wrote about last year), and three of my cinsault producers here also make excellent light pinotages (similarly best served cold – like revenge, so they say). Their pinotages were, in fact, what prompted me to select these cinsaults to revive my interest in the grape. Because two of them are rather surprisingly expensive, I also included the less pricey Marras.
Should I have been surprised that the quality of the wines (all 2022) went pretty much according to their price? Perhaps I should, because that is not necessarily a rule with wine, as we all know.
Marras Trickster should please most cinsault fans – it’s perfumey, sweetly fruity but not excessively so, with no tannins to speak of and a little acidity for balance, though very softly textured. Quite ripe at a declared 13%, so not quite as light as most hipsters want. Totally pleasant, really, totally unchallenging – and, it occurs to me, pretty suitable for those who are not at all sure they like red wine (if you believe in the ladder theory of wine appreciation, you could consider this a valuable step between 4th Street and vaguely proper stuff).
The admirable Alex McFarlance makes two cinsaults in her range of minimalistic, fresh, light and pure wines: a more expensive one (R250) called Tuesday’s Child, with some pinotage beneficially added to the 2022, bringing in character and structure, and the Capitoline Wolf Red (there’s now also a fine rosé from the grape, with added semillon). The Wolf one is lighter than Trickster at 12% alcohol, and greatly more sophisticated and elegantly balanced, while not short on cinsault’s obviousness. At R150, it’s a good buy. I do prefer the slightly firmer, deeper Tuesday’s Child, but this is good.
There’s a jump in price to the other two I tasted here. From Angus Paul, who focuses on new-wave-style chenin, pinotage and cinsault, Diapsalmata has beneficially gained a bit of flesh and interest since I first tasted it six months ago, without losing its fragrant charm. A little more grippy and forceful than Capitoline Wolf. I actually wouldn’t have been surprised to learn of a pinotage component, but none is declared (Angus’s Transient Lands Pinotage is an excellent example of the style). This comparatively serious 2022 will benefit, I think, from a year or two or more in bottle. Ambitiously priced at about R330.
Bruwer Vintners Lone Wolf is just a little less (R315 ex-farm), but for me easily the pick of this selection, the one where I felt the variety was rather less overwhelmingly important: this is a very good lightish red wine (12.5% alcohol). From an old Stellenbosch vineyard (a year old than I am, even), it offers beautifully pure fruit, fragrant and juicy, with some weight, texture and structure all in fine balance. It could only gain in interest from a few more years. Impressive as it is, however, it’s not as good as the current Liberté Pinotage 2021 – but then, in my opinion, very few lighter reds can match that wine. Lone Wolf is so good, in fact, that I found myself wishing it had been made even better with a good dollop of cabernet (perhaps even cab franc, since this is a Raats wine). I remain convinced that, at a serious level, cinsault is best a blending variety. Nicely cooled, though, Cape cinsault undoubtedly deserves the honorable place it has found both at home and around the world.
- 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.
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