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Cinsault | The Pinot Noir of the South?

by Tara Q. Thomas
June 9, 2017

“If I could change the appellation regulations, I’d burn all the syrah and viognier,” says Benjamin Taillandier. A stocky, young guy prone to audacious statements, he insists he’s entirely serious. “Syrah isn’t from here; if we’re going to grow it, we might as well have pinot noir and chardonnay, too.”

Taillandier grew up in Carcassonne, and now makes wines nearby, in Minervois. His first ventures into wine were purely practical, he says—“I wanted to stay in the region, and to do that, there were two solutions: civil service or the vines.” A stint working with Jean-Baptiste Senat, an organic vintner in nearby Trousse, convinced him he’d made the right choice, and also inspired him to rethink what a Languedoc wine should taste like.

Taillandier came of age in a world where syrah was considered the best wine of the Languedoc; many of the top AOCs require it in their blends. But prior to the 1970s, there was hardly any syrah south of the Rhône Valley. It wasn’t until Jacques Chirac, then Minister of Agriculture, introduced a plan to modernize the wine region by replanting with what were considered “better” varieties. Syrah plantings went from 6,568 acres in the whole of France in 1968 to nearly 29,653 a decade later. Today, the Languedoc alone boasts 106,750 acres of syrah—which is more than half of all the plantings in the country.

Syrah hails from the Northern Rhône, where it thrives on granite soils and cool temperatures. Taillandier, working in the sunny south, prefers varieties that originated there, that retain their acidity in the heat and don’t get too ripe in the abundant sun. “I want wines with freshness and acidity,” he says, pouring a glass of his Laguezelle red over lunch one afternoon. Garnet-hued, brisk and juicy, it’s a far cry from the black-fruited, dense and ripe reds often bottled as Minervois, and it disappears quickly with the roast chicken on the table. What is it? “Mostly cinsault,” he says. “I love this grape.”

“I want wines with freshness and acidity.”
—Benjamin Taillandier
Cinsault, treated with indifference or disdain for more than a century, is now back in favor. Sylvain Fadat of Domaine d’Aupilhac has some of the oldest cinsault vines in Languedoc, planted in 1900. When he launched his winery in 1989, cinsault wasn’t even considered worthy of making into wine. “More than thirty years ago, cinsault was considered a table grape,” he explains. “It’s delicious to eat because the skin is very thin and the juice is well balanced between sugar and acidity.”

The variety, with its big, beautifully shaped grapes, was also exploited post-WWII for its ability to produce prodigious amounts of juice. In a region still reeling from the after-effects of phylloxera and the war, cinsault was a boon, easy to grow and readily bulked up with darker Algerian juice. The Midi thrived on producing billions of liters of workingclass red wine, until Algeria gained its independence in 1962. Left with tons of wan cinsault and carignan, many locals blamed the grapes and turned to syrah.

Yet, treated with care, Fadat says, cinsault is the Languedoc’s “other very great grape” next to carignan. His plot, which he purchased from two old vignerons who farmed it carefully, sits on a hillside of marl and limestone. “The wine ages well when you respect the yield and when it comes from rocky terroir,” he says. “And the weather has to be warm and dry ten days before the harvest because cinsault is fragile, thanks to the thin skins.”

Grown well, Fadat finds cinsault comparable to pinot noir in its elegance and ability to transmit a sense of the site where it’s grown. Fadat is in Montpeyroux, the northernmost extent of the Languedoc, where the vineyards climb up toward Larzac, a limestone plateau just south of the Massif Central. While the sea is in the distance and garrigue perfumes the air, it’s considerably cooler here than more coastal appellations, and prone to thunderstorms. He bottles the fruit from Les Servières, his 100-year-old cinsault vineyard, on its own, treating it like his other reds, with long maceration and aging in barrel. The result is unmistakably cinsault in its silky texture and mouthwateringly bright red fruit, but gains a darker mineral sense that grows as the wine takes on air. “It has more elegance and digestibility than other bodybuilding wines,” Fadat says.

Fadat’s reference to pinot noir gains more weight when I talk to Anne Gros, who started making wine in Minervois with her husband, Jean-Paul Tollot, in 2007. Both Burgundy vintners—Gros in VosneRomanée; Tollot at TollotBeaut in Chorey-lès-Beaune—they had no preconceived notions of the region’s grapes when they arrived; they were simply looking for a chance to make wine together. “At first, we had no idea about what it was or could be,” she says about the parcel of 50-yearold cinsault vines they found on the property. But it didn’t take long for them to recognize that cinsault could make good wine. “It is quite close to pinot in its very ripe tannins, medium body, color,” she says of the grape. “It’s also very interesting: it reaches complete ripeness at 13, 13.5 degrees alcohol, and can go to 14 degrees without losing balance—not like grenache.”

“Cinsault has more elegance and digestibility than other bodybuilding wines.”
—Sylvain Fadat
What was surprising was the difficulty in selling it at first. “We blended it the four first years because it was complicated to explain to the customers that cinsault could be interesting as a [red] wine.” Conditioned by the gallons of Provence rosé based on cinsault, consumers, she found, assumed that was its only good use.

By 2012, however, Gros and Tollot were ready to force the issue, and began bottling CinsO, a superjuicy red with soft tannins and bright acidity. “We believe in it not because it has ambitions of keeping twenty years, but because it is ambitious with the pleasure of tasting and the possibilities to go well with food,” she says. Right now, that’s good enough for her—but, she adds, they’ve planted more and on a different soil, to further explore cinsault’s possibilities.

Gathering up all the cinsault wines I can find, I notice a similarity not between where they are grown as much as in who makes them. There’s Olivier Cohen, a young guy who used to run La Part des Anges, a natural wine bar; and Régis Pichon, who ran the wine cellars at La Tour d’Argent and at the gourmet store Hédiard before leaving Paris for the vineyards. There’s Jean-Marie Rimbert, a Provençal interloper in St-Chinian whose pig-and-chicken wine labels suggest a direct link between wine and food. All of them are outsiders who are working in the “natural” camp—organic/biodynamic in the vineyards, low intervention in the winery—and all place a high value on wines that are simply really good drinking.

"We believe in cinsault not because it has ambitions of keeping twenty years, but because it is ambitious with the pleasure of tasting and the possibilities to go well with food.”
—Anne Gros
Marie and Frédéric Chauffray share that perspective at La Réserve d’O, a winery built into a steep, forested slope leading up to the Larzac plateau. They seem at first like an unlikely pair to be running a winery—Frédéric, with his heavy skull rings, bright red Converse high tops and skinny frame, retains the air of the punk rocker he was; Marie hails from Brazil, where she trained as an agronomist. Both were thrown into wine when Frédéric was suddenly called to take over his parents’ wine store in Paris; while the retail life didn’t suit them, the experience sent them on a search across the south of France for their own patch of vineyard.

They chose Terraces du Larzac, Marie says, because it’s a bit wild and removed: They knew they wanted to make wine as naturally as possible, and didn’t want neighbors using chemicals, she explains. Plus, they found a curious house owned by a journalist who had named his retreat La Reserve d’O; they bought the place and, since 2005, have been gathering up all the old-vine parcels they can find on this high limestone plateau, farming grenache, syrah and cinsault at elevations reaching from 1,200 to 1,400 feet. Today, Marie is the head of the Terraces du Larzac Syndicat, and the domaine plays a leadership role in the biodynamic movement here. Sixty percent of the appellation’s domaines are organic, with enough others in conversion to make that 80 percent in another four or five years.

La Réserve d’O’s old-vine vineyards in Terraces du Larzac La Réserve d’O’s old-vine vineyards in Terraces du Larzac
Neither of the Chauffrays share the anti-syrah feeling some of their colleagues express; their flagship, La Réserve d’O, is equal parts syrah and grenache, with a little cinsault for levity; Hissez-O—French sailor slang for “hoist the sails”—is a similar blend, with 60 percent syrah. Bilbo is the opposite, a blend of equal parts cinsault and grenache, with 20 percent syrah. Their goal, Frédéric explains, is to capture snapshots of the mixed plantings at each of their parcels.

As we chat in the winery, clouds are gathering outside, dashing hopes of a walk through the vineyards, so Frédéric and Marie organize an impromptu lunch in the tasting area, setting out a half-dozen bottles of their wines. “We like to see which one goes first,” Marie says.

Maybe if this had been dinner, and there’d been white tablecloths, the result would have been different. Or if lunch had been something grand and impressive. Instead we’re eating open-faced sandwiches—some with salty ham and melted cheese, others with Roquefort and walnuts—on thick-cut sourdough, with a pile of salad, as a thunderstorm rattles the windows. It’s lusty, hearty, knife-and-fork food and, as impressive as several of the wines may be, the one that goes first is Bilbo, their tribute to Bilbão, one of their favorite places to eat and drink. It’s just incredibly juicy and drinkable—thanks to its reliance on the refreshing qualities of cinsault.

top photo courtesy of Anne Gros; Benjamin Taillandier by Rachel Signer; photo of Sylvain Fadat courtesy of Domaine D’Aupilhac

This feature appears in the print edition of June 2017.
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