Why are we stoked on Cinsault?
I'd like to write that our interest in Cinsault started with an obscure bottling from a tucked away Cru or a cliffside in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, but really we found it in an online nursery catalog. I'd never even tried the wine, but it called to me. Running through the inventory, we were researching varietals we'd never seen for something that had a chance of enduring Southern California summers. We had a vineyard (or two) to plant, and wanted to make the selection of varietal intentional. Everyone we knew was indiscriminately planting Cab, which didn't seem right for us.
Zinfandel was an early favorite for the job. It's also a favorite of ours in general (if you haven't had the chance, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Zinfandel: A History of a Grape and Its Wine by Charles Sullivan). There are ancient, dry farmed plantings of Zin from Rancho Cucamonga down to Temecula, and no grape is more Californian, but it didn't seem quite right (and the nursery was out of it). The search continued.
Sun-loving vines like Mourvèdre, Petit Syrah, and Alicante Bouchet were also contenders, but if we were going to commit to something and be excited about it for decades, we knew we wanted something a little more unexpected. The idea of making compelling hot climate wine to prove all the haters wrong would be worth a lifetime of investigation.
When I came to Cinsault, every descriptor seemed to offer either a promise or a challenge.
"Drought Resistance." Promise.
"Heavy Crops" Challenge.
"Appreciates a dry climate." Promise.
"Susceptible to disease." Challenge.
"Low-alcohol potential." Promise.
Cinsault is grown in Morocco, Lebanon, Algeria, and the hotter parts of Southern France and Southern Italy, we learned.
We'd recently bought an old house in Redlands (half way between LA and Palm Springs if that tells you anything about our summers) and had enough space for about 36 vines if I did high-density planting (which should help with the varietal's vigor). I starred the Cinsault page and did a little more searching for a counterbalance. The only other vine that had the same pull for me was Negroamaro. Also heat-loving. Also drought-resistant. Also esoteric. I placed an order for 20 of each (not a huge buy, but planting any vineyard in my front yard was already pretty ballsy).
On a trip to Mexico's Valle de Guadalupe, our favorite wines came from wineries surrounded by vineyards that were VSP trained (vertical shoot positioned), but that only came about 18 inches off the ground and had a single cordon. Because the climate is nearly identical to ours, we thought we'd emulate the best example we had to date of hot climate farming (we've since planted another vineyard of head-trained, individually staked vines because of the sunburn protection we've seen from vines managed this way).
Only after the vines were in the ground did the real research begin. Reading every article and book and watching every YouTube video we could find, we discovered we had serendipitously selected two of the most popular grapes allowed in wines produced in the Ostuni DOC in Apulia, Italy: Negroamaro and Ottavianello, which is what the Italians call Cinsault. I hadn't thought to blend them together, but now there's no way we can't try at some point.
We also started buying up every bottle we could find from every part of the world that grows Cinsault. At the time of writing this article, we've sampled 27 single-varietal bottles from across Lodi, Sonoma, Washington, South Africa, Chile, France, and Oregon. We've had rosés, reds, and pet nats. We've had bottles with ABVs ranging from 10.5% up to 15.2%. Some are conventional and some are natural. One glaring omission in our experience is a bottle from Ostuni (which only produces 1000 cases a year across the entire DOC). We'll find one, thought!
Across all the differences, we're getting a sense of the grape's character, the growing conditions, and cellar practices that make the most compelling bottlings for us. I list a couple of the most delightful bottles below.
2018 Birichino Cinsault Rouge - Bechtold Vineyard
Black tea and rose pedals. Those secondary notes are what rocketed this wine to the top of our list. At a very manageable 12.5% ABV, we were shocked at the elegance of a wine made during one of the hottest summers on record in one of the hottest growing regions in California—Lodi.
The wine was (seemingly) picked quite early, whole-cluster fermented, saigned, and aged in neutral oak. The tech sheet writers seem baffled by how practices that typically promote concentration would produce a wine with such a "civilized greeting."
This was not the first wine we tasted from the famed Bechtold Vineyard, but it was the first we had tried that made us believe in the site's magic. Planted in 1886 by a German immigrant, Joseph Spenker, some say these are the oldest plantings of Cinsault in the world, not just California. Not only is vineyard vivacious, and not only is it old, it has a great story, so obviously the fruit is purchased by a long list of winemakers, and we're set on trying every one of them.
Recently, we sampled the 2019 vintage and weren't quite as taken with it, but its companion (a Pétillant Naturel) was a surprising and wonderful take on the fruit. The 2019 summer was unseasonably cool compared to prior years, so maybe that had something to do with it. Perhaps we've found a grape that truly does like to sweat!
Some more wines we've had from Bechtold
2016 Sadie Family Wines Pofadder Swartland
Pofadder is Afrikaans for "snake," named after the tortuous Kasteelberg Mountains where this old vine Cinsault was grown. The grapes were sorted, placed whole cluster in an open-top wood tank and punched down by foot every day for a month before basket pressing to an old wooden cask for a "year or so" before bottling. Eben Saadie and Paul Jordaan, the winemakers, seem concerned about Cinsault's penchant for oxidation, so the 77 mg/L of total sulphur may have been introduced to keep acetaldehyde (with its notes of bruised apple) low. This may not please the more uncompromising among the natural wine crowd. The wine is unfined and unfiltered, though, and while we've never been to the Kasteelberg Mountains, this bottling seems to do an exceptional job of displaying its terroir and all that we've come to hope for in a well-crafted Cinsault.
We were fortunate enough to drink this with our wives as a part of a 3 vintage vertical tasting (2016, 2017, 2018) with the 2016 being the clear standout. The black tea that we found in the Birichino was back on display (which we're starting to attribute to properly lignified stems, included in the fermentation). With firm tannins and a lively energy, the bottle was gone far too quickly. This wine started our obsession with South African wines, focusing, of course, on Cinsault, a workhorse (often derided as filler wine) in a region with a rich history of cultivating bush vines of our adopted varietal.
Some more wines we've had from Swartland
2017 Bosman Twyfling Cinsault
2018 Natte Vallej Darling Cinsault
What about a Herrmann York Cinsault?
It's coming! While we've been on the hunt for bottles of Cinsault, we've also been on the lookout of vineyards that would be willing sell us some fruit. We don't anticipate making any in our inaugural vintage (2020), but we think the varietal is so special, it's worth waiting until we know everything is just right.
In addition to my front yard experimental vineyard, we've since planted a second block on a hillside in a cool little valley in Loma Linda, CA (not far from where we live). It will be years before it's ready to produce it's first viable harvest, but in the meantime, we'll reading, drinking, smelling, scheming, and preparing for what will be a wine that we've stewarded from bench graft to bottle. We hope you're as excited as we are to see how it turns out.