A problem facing many wine-producing countries is the lack of depth to their portfolio. Argentina and New Zealand are the most easily quotable examples with their wine industries heavily reliant on the continued popularity of Malbec and Sauvignon Blanc that account for approximately 33% and 72% of their total production respectively.
South Africa is less singularly in thrall to one specific variety with Chenin Blanc accounting for just 18% of total plantings and this leaves plenty of room for another cultivar to stake a claim as the quintessential vinous expression of South Africa. Some (I’m afraid the deluded amongst you) will say that South Africa already has this in the form of Pinotage but for every excellent example from the likes of David & Nadia Sadie’s Paardebosch label, Bellingham’s Bernard Series or Meerendal’s Heritage Block; there are tens of others that will do nothing except cause consternation to the majority of consumer’s palates world wide. A far more profitable exercise is for South Africa to continue to focus on the expansion of varieties that are evidently well suited to this country’s principally Mediterranean climate. In the coolest areas, Pinot Noir, Shiraz, Chardonnay and Sauvignon can thrive but this ability to perform well is not unique to South Africa ensuring stiff competition for those wines as they enter the export market. Arguably more interesting are varieties like Grenache and particularly the unheralded Cinsaut.
Wines of South Africa (WOSA) state on their website that Cinsaut used to be the most widely planted red variety (a supremacy usurped by Cabernet Sauvignon as recently as 1993) but it has been slowly ‘replaced by more noble varieties.’ This is a great shame as I was not moved by a single example of the ‘noble’ Cabernet Sauvignon when visiting in September but was genuinely enlivened by the quality of some of the Cinsaut. The likes of Natte Valleij and Donovan Rall are crafting wines of real juiciness and red-fruit perfume. These traits provide Cinsaut with a calling card that is difficult to resist yet it has enough tannin, especially when fermented with some of the stalks, to produce wine that is far from prosaic. But the real beauty is that this émigré from southern France, like Malbec, is not really appreciated on its home turf, certainly not as a named variety, leaving the door ajar for this bridesmaid of the grape world to establish itself as a worthy contender for the title of South Africa’s signature red.