Alex Milner was, I’m pleased to say, prompted by recent rumblings of mine about cinsaut and some reported suggestions (not really mine) that Stellenbosch was not at the forefront of exciting wine developments in the Cape – in short he invited me to pay a visit to his family’s Natte Valleij farm to see and taste what he is doing.
There are various ifs and buts in this story, I realise – starting with the fact that apparently Natte Valleij is technically just in Paarl rather than Stellenbosch, though it’s hard to see why: it’s just on the other side of the R44 from Le Bonheur, for example. Anyway, so says the demarcation board. But in many ways it’s a typical Stellenbosch estate – apart from the rather crucial fact of not having any vineyards; Alex must buy in his grapes, cabernet and merlot from just over the road at Mitre’s Edge, and cinsaut from Darling, Helderberg, and a farm which sounds to me like it must be in Paarl, but everyone including the authorities seem to say is in Swartland….
The Milner family place – the Natte Valleij homestead, plus its werf and farmlands – is incredibly lovely: an old Cape-Dutch building, with oaks, rough roads, low, heavy white walls, dozens of dogs, green vistas, etc. Not a showpiece or museum, but, like Meerlust, a home, and all the more pleasing for it. Wines were made here ages ago, of course, but not for a while, until Alex stepped up.
As to Alex’s wines, the point of my visit, well, I’m pretty positive about those too. Alex studied at Stellenbosch University – unlike his (fairly substantially) older brother, Marcus, who’s winemaker at De Meye and clearly a bit of an influence, but self-taught. Alex was pushed towards cinsaut while in the south of France, which is a good start. It was, and remains, the sheer, modestly elegant drinkability of cinsaut that appeals to him, as it does to many of its admirers.
There are three Natte Valleij wines (Alex also shares the Boer & Brit label with Stefan Gerber, but that’s a very different story, now set in Wellington, as well as in the Anglo-Boer war….). The Cinsault (Alex is one of those who likes to include an ell in the word) is, as I say, a blend – Alex is not a purist in terms of terroir, or of winemaking, though he vaguely tends to the non-interventionist, and more emphatically to the no-new-oak regime. I tasted the 2015s from barrel and they look very promising, especially the Helderberg portion, which is undergoing elevage in a locally made concrete “egg”, while the rest is in old barriques.
There’s some influence of whole bunch fermentation and also of added sun-dried stems – though I wasn’t convinced by that particular barrel, I confess. The current 2014 bottling (selling for just under R100, along with a charming sweet-red-fruit richness that remains fresh, does allude a little loudly to stems, I feel, with a bit of green stalkiness haunting the finish. That isn’t apparent on the 2013, clearly a better vintage all round. Interestingly, much of the fruit comes from the same Darling vineyards where Warren Ellis gets his cinsaut, but made in a rather different, lighter spirit than is the big, ripe, firmly oaked Neil Ellis version.
The other red in Alex’s portfolio is that blend of cab (about 75%) and merlot from over the road in Stellenbosch. Called P.O.W. – for the Italian prisoners of war who worked her during WW2; “good kharma”, Alex feels. It’s in old barriques for a year, then goes into larger-format barrels, also older stuff, for two more years. So it’s blissfully lacking in oak flavours, and the structural grip is dominated by the rounder, succulent quality of grape tannin. Clean and quite fresh, the current 2012 (R150ish) is very approachable already, with a nice balance between seriousness and straightforward drinkability. Not your standard big Stellenbosch cab, and I enjoyed it.
Alex was also inspired by an old label of Natte Valleij Hanepoot that he found to make a modern, dry version. As he says, it’s a pity that such wines are very rare. Most muscats have an image of sweet cheapness to them. The maiden 2014 (R75) needs no apologies, however. Aromatic, but not too overtly grapey (more of a peach-apricot tang, in fact), undeniably rustic (though that’s a descriptor that’s hard to explain!), but fresh, dry, light-feeling and charming. Very different from most local whites, and a welcome, characterful, historically appropriate addition. I could well imagine drinking a bottle while the sun goes down.
A last thought, and confession. I asked Alex about blending his Bordeaux varieties with cinsaut (a fashionable idea in the Cape), and he was very hesitant – partly because it might be difficult wine to market at a reasonably serious price (I don’t agree, but what do I know about marketing?). Anyway, Alex gave me the open bottles to take home to sample at my leisure (and an older vintage or two). I have been doing so this evening, with pleasure, and was prompted to do my own bit of blending. I must say that I was most enamoured of the result of splashing together 2013 Cinsault and 2012 P.O.W. I wouldn’t swear it was a better drink than the components, but I wouldn’t swear it wasn’t….