Tim James: Cinsaut, cinsault and Saffraan

By , 10 June 2024



Pieter de Waal.

“The report of my death was an exaggeration”, said Mark Twain, when an English journalist enquired, after hearing of the American writer’s serious illness. Words with a touch less drama than in the version of the observation usually quoted,though still pleasingly dry. And I last week undoubtedly got wrong the death of Mount Abora Saffraan, though it transpires that it had been in something of a coma for five years or so. The last one on the market was from 2017. My consequent exaggeration was corrected pretty quickly, however – and more spicily replaced by a comment about a legal squabble going on after someone else took a fancy to the name (untrademarked but in use since 2012) and applied to make it his own.

The happy result of this was that I met Pieter de Waal, who co-founded  the Mount Abora brand (there’s also Koggelbos chenin) with Krige Visser and makes the wines with him. Over a lunchtime pizza in suburban Cape Town last week we tasted four vintages of Saffraan: the maiden 2012, 2015, 2017, and the latest, 2022. The 2022 is the one in the photo on the right, without a label – though the labels should be on any time now and the wine made available (at approaching R200, Pieter says).

All four were of the same modest alcohol (no more than 12%); this was undoubtedly one of the forerunners of the fresh, “naturally made”,  light-reds movement, not to mention the revival of quality cinsault.

Pieter was quoted in Platter’s back then as saying that Saffraan was conceived as “the pinot noir of the Swartland”. That first 2012 wasn’t tasted for Platter’s, in fact, but of the 2013 I remarked that it was a “complete wine that takes modesty to a high level”. Last week I was even rather surprised how well the pleasingly modest 2012 was drinking now, its pure fruit more savoury, its elegant light tannins and freshness still beautifully balanced. A very good advertisement for the ageability of light reds (something I was wondering about in print just recently).

Even apart from the gaps in vintages, there’s been quite a bit of discontinuity in winemaker and place of production for Saffraan. The early vintages were made by Stompie Meyer, initially at what was then Meerhof, on the Swarftland’s Kasteelberg. A bit of moving around, and the 2022 was vinified at Arcangeli, where Krige Visser was winemaker (he’s now, I believe, primarily a happy restaurateur in Kleinmond). Very much in the same natural, light style as previously. The big difference, perhaps, is that access to the Swartland vineyards was lost, and the 2022 is from Breedekloof vines. It’s still a very attractive cinsault, with much fragrant charm but I do wonder if it has the inherent depth of that 2012.

As to the name and contention…. Well, it seems that the challenger, having applied to trademark “Saffraan”, is Francois Bezuidenhout. He’s a Cape Wine Master, and the CWM Institute website says he owns and manages a consulting and brokering firm, Bezuidenhout Family Wines. His own family-wine label, Leenders, has been available in the market since 2018.” A chenin and a syrah (causing the commotion) from 2022 were marketed under the label “De Saffraan Peer” (with the subsidiary words very tiny on the label), and referencing an ancient pear tree in Cape Town going by that name. I gather that these are mostly available in the Netherlands; the syrah at least was distributed in South Africa briefly, until the seller was informed of the situation and honorably declined to continue with it. We will have to see how the legalities are resolved – however obvious the rights and wrongs might appear to a lay person.

It’s actually a most appealing name for a wine like Mount Abora’s cinsault. To me, primarily  it pleasingly seems to slur “southeffrican”, while it also evokes saffon (it’s the Afrikaans version of the name of the hugely valuable golden spice – red gold, perhaps). Pieter de Klerk credits Krige Visser with conceptualising the name and the packaging, intended to be retro and “harking back to the heyday of cinsaut in the 1950s, when it was the most planted red grape variety in SA”.

On a minor note of nomenclature, it’s also worth noting that Saffraan is one of the minority (I’m pretty confident in claiming this) wines of this variety in the Cape, as well as in California, Chile, and France, that spell the grape’s name without an L: more often than not it is “cinsault”. Both are “correct”. The great Robinson et al tome Vine Grapes gives cinsaut as the primary name, with cinsault as an important synonym, particularly from the Languedoc in southern France (where apparently “cinq-saou” is also found, much to Pieter de Waal”s pleasure).

Historically, cinsaut-without-the-L was the name in South Africa, since Perold made the formal identification of “Hermitage” with the French variety. It’s the sole name of the grape as listed in the legislated permitted varieties, so I don’t know why the synonym is actually permitted by Sawis on labels. More interestingly, given the traditionalist claims of many of those now making cinsault and glorying in the link with the Cape’s past (when cinsault was the dominant grape variety, and also played a role in many of the great reds of the mid twentieth century), it’s pretty strange that the L has been such a successful intruder. And I don’t know who was the first to have such a label here If anyone can suggest when and why this spelling was introduced (a desire to be fancy, somehow?), I’d be grateful to hear.

Meanwhile, athough I eventually converted in my own writing from the older spelling to including the L simply because I felt it was the majority usage, really), I’m secretly rather pleased that Saffraan sticks to their retro principles. Probably so should I.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. His bookines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.


2 comment(s)

Please read our Comments Policy here.

    Lisa Harlow | 11 June 2024

    Maybe the added L helps when exporting or in an international market. For a non South African, it can look like a typo.
    In a similar vein, I see Spätburgunder more frequently replaced by Pinot Noir in Germany.
    I’m sceptical about the aging of some of the lighter reds, but not so much Cinsault. I’ve recently had a 2015 Naudé and a 2016 Erika Obermeyer and they are both aging beautifully

    Melvyn Minnaar | 11 June 2024

    The added ‘L’ is pure pretence…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Like our content?

Show your support.