Cinsault: An Ancient Grape Variety
ANCIENT CINSAULT—THE ORIGINS
This red wine grape (species Vitis vinifera) is also known as Cinsaut, Cinq Sao and Ottavianello. It is grown in the Languedoc-Roussillon region in southern France and in the former French colonies of Algeria, Lebanon and Morocco. It is also grown in the United States, Australia, Italy and South Africa. The vine produces large cylindrical bunches of noir (black) grapes with thick skins. The vine is capable of producing heavy crops but the quality increases if the yields are controlled. Cinsault grows well in a dry climate and is drought resistant.
The origin is credited to France but it appears to be an ancient grape variety. It may have originated in Hérault in the Occitanie region of southern France or in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The Eastern Mediterranean refers to the large historical geographic region of Western Asia. This region is also referred to as the Levant (the historical region of ancient Syria) and encompasses present day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Palestine and most of Turkey, southwest of the Euphrates. The historic reference also includes all the islands in the Mediterranean Sea from Greece to Cyrenaica in eastern Libya. Greek and Roman traders spread the vines of many varieties of wine grapes (Vitis vinifera) along their trade routes between 600 BCE and 400 ACE.
CINSAULT (BLACK MALVOISIA) IN SAN LUIS OBISPO COUNTY
In San Luis Obispo County, Cinsault was planted and identified as Black Malvoisia or Black Malvoisie. The earliest mention of extensive plantings of Black Malvoisia appears in an article written on June 17, 1876 for the local newspaper, The Tribune. The article states that “Mr. George Hampton planted over 1,000 grapevines that covered two acres on his farm just north of San Luis Obispo. He planted foreign varieties including Muscat of Alexandria, Chasselas Fontainebleau, Fiher Zagos, Black Malvoisia, Black Morocco, Rose of Peru, Flame Tokay, Early Victoria, and Black Hamburg.”
The first licensed commercial winemaker in the county was Pierre Dallidet. His son Louis Pascal Dallidet kept a diary that describes his trimming “Malvasia” vines on January 19, 1882. These vines had been planted previously and perhaps used in the wine he sold as Claret.
Another famous grower located in the upper Arroyo Grande Valley, Abram Hasbrouck, drew a map of his St. Remy vineyard, dated 20 April 1884, that is archived at the Wine History Project. He designed and planted his vineyard with Champagne, Muscat of Alexandria, Malaga, Black Hamburg, Rose of Peru, “Malvoisie”, and Lenoir grapes in delegated blocks. He purchased grapevines and rootstock from Pierre Dallidet over the years.
Today Sherman Thacher is cultivating Cinsault on 1.46 acres in his Homestead Hill Vineyard and experimenting with the production of Cinsault at Thacher Vineyard and Winery. He is interested in the early history of the grapes and their expression of the terroir of his vineyard. Very few acres of Cinsault are planted in California today but it is becoming a grape of interest as more growers are rediscovering the historic grapes of Europe and California.
According to an annual acreage survey of California grape growers conducted by the National Agricultural Statistics Service of the Department of Agriculture the total acreage of Cinsault grapes in San Luis Obispo County is tallied at 7 acres in 2017, 8 acres in 2018, 15 acres in 2019, and 17 acres in 2020.
CINSAULT IN CALIFORNIA
The oldest continuously farmed vineyard of Cinsault is the Bechthold vineyard in Lodi, California. This 25 acre vineyard of head trained old gnarled vines was planted as Malvoisie in 1886 by Joseph Spenker. Al and Wanda Bechthold continued to maintain the vineyards until 2008 when it was leased to new caretakers. Wanda is the great – granddaughter of Joseph Spenker.
In 2003 Al was considering pulling out the vines when his wife intervened. The price of Black Malvoisie or Malvoisier (which was how they identified the grapes) had dropped to a low of $200 per ton. Wanda decided to get advice from a professional, Kay Bogart.
Kay Bogart, who worked at the Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis, consulted with Wanda and received permission to test the leaves and grapes genetically at the Plant Foundation. The grapes were confirmed to be Cinsault by Andy Walker, professor and geneticist at the University.
Kay Bogart contacted Randall Grahm who had been looking for a source of Cinsault for Bonny Doon Winery. He brought a French biodynamic expert, Nicolas Joey, with him to see the vineyard. Joey declared “it was equal to any Cinsault plantings he had ever seen in France.” Grahm is the first winemaker to give the vineyard the recognition for the quality of the grapes. Wanda has written a book on the history of the vineyard titled Jessie’s Grove: One Hundred Years in the San Joaquin Valley.
According to wine historian, Charles Sullivan. Black Malvoise was imported into California in the 1860s but it’s origins are obscure. In the 1870s the grape became popular as a claret grape. It was often blended with Zinfandel. Charles Sullivan states that the grape lost popularity because growers did not harvest it early enough so the wine produced was often flabby and dull.
THE MANY IDENTITIES OF CINSAULT
Algeria: Cinsault is used to make large volumes of table wine and is popular due its drought resistance.
Australia: Cinsault is grown under many names including Black Prince, Blue Imperial, Oeillade and Ulliade.
Italy: Cinsault is known as Ottavianello. It is used in Apulian blends but is attracting winemakers who are interested in ancient varieties.
Lebanon: Cinsault is blended to make the famous Lebanese wine known as Chateau Musar.
Morocco and Tunisia: Cinsault is grown for its drought resistance and is used in table wines and bulk blends.
South Africa: Cinsault is recognized as one of the parents (the other is Pinot Noir) of Pinotage which is the signature grape of South Africa. It is an intraspecific cross of the two varieties of Vitis vinifera. It is often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Rhone varietals.
United States: Cinsault has been grown since the 1860s in California but fell out of favor in the 1890s. It was grown by a few Italian viticulturalists throughout the Prohibition era. It was sometimes described as Black Malvoisia, Malvoisie, or Malvasia Nera. It was rediscovered in the 1980s but by 1997 only 92 acres were under cultivation. Interest in the ancient grape has been revived as winemakers are using the amphora and ancient winemaking techniques in Europe and the United States. The acreage is increasing in California.