Alex Milner & Natte Valleij

or "Downton Alex and the Gummiberry Juice"

Natte Valleij has one of the more interesting stories in South African wine. This place is OLD, and sits pretty much bang in the middle of Wine country on the R44 between Stellenbosch and Paarl. With its location, you might assume that they’ve been making wine from day one. Well, they have. And they haven’t.

I invite you to meet Alex Milner; winemaker, husband, father, proprietor and guy with impossibly good hair. Man or woman, you might want to take this photograph to the hairdresser:

Alex is in his mid-30’s and studied winemaking at Elsenburg with some of South Africa’s finest, but you could easily mistake him for an historian, such is his knowledge and interest in the past, particularly of his farm. But the reason that I knew about them was a single bottle of wine. It was such a delicious, stand-out bottle that I looked Alex up immediately and began harassing him about its limited availability.

“Why is this not the first thing people see at every wine shop in the country?” was the gist of it.

“You’re an idiot” was the gist of his reply.

Alex makes only 5000 litres of his Cinsault each year, which translates to less than 7000 bottles. I think I could comfortably get through half of these before next week. Similar in weight and structure to a light Pinot Noir, it’s a fraction of the price (R120) and arguably more enjoyable than most. It’s fresh and fruity and reminds me of gummiberry juice. That is, if gummiberry juice is totally moreish and delicious and tastes like gummiberries.

It can be enjoyed with practically anything, but I suggest having it with another bottle. It’s not a serious wine in the heavy red category, but seriously delicious in the light and smash-tastic category. It's the closest thing to a breakfast wine that you're going to find.

We met Alex to find out more about Natte Valleij’s vibe. And it’s unlike most you’re likely to have encountered. He walks us past the old wine tanks and stables and mentions that his grandfather laughed off winemaking to run it as a successful stud farm. The past is evident everywhere you look at Natte Valleij. This is a beautiful, historic piece of land that became a wine farm that became a stud farm before becoming a wine farm again. It’s other things too such as family home, wedding venue, weekend getaway and by the looks of things, colonial art museum. And walking into the cellar feels like stepping back in time a hundred years or so. Think Downtown Abbey before a banquet:

Obviously I’ve never seen that show and i don't know your "Mr. Carson", but now that we’re all up to speed we can get into the wine. They make a few of these, and each has something different to say for itself.

For starters, Alex is one of the only people I know to make a Dry Hanepoot. Today this grape is about as "cool" as admitting you watch Downton Abbey. It’s totally unusual but very drinkable and makes for a good story. Sure, it's unlikely to become your Desert Island wine, but at about R80 it's certainly worth a try.

Again, the wine that's kicked open the proverbial door is the Natte Valleij Cinsaut. Without going in to South Africa's history with this grape or the many old vines scattered around the Cape, it is worth contemplating the labour of love that turns this wine into a reality. Briefly, Alex doesn't own vineyards, but buys in his grapes from old bush vines in Darling, Paarl, Stellenbosch and Malmesbury. He does a whole bunch of whole bunch fermentation, sits them separately in old barrels, and then constructs the blend over the course of the next year.

"Mmm, i really like Darling and Malmesbury. They're coming along nicely. It was a bit hot in Paarl last year and perhaps we picked a day late, so that barrel's a bit jammy. Jam is nice on toast and between my toes, but not so much in my Cinsault so I'm going to sit that one out and potentially add it to the Red Blend if it's calling out for some fruitiness in a few months."

At least, this is what i imagine he thinks as he marches his wine thief through fake Downton Abbey. It's up for debate whether he uses the word 'fruitiness'.

Natte Valleij Cinsaut is an incredible wine for many reasons. Not only is it new and racy and fresh and full of character and probably actual gummiberry juice, but with each of the 7000 bottles that Suzette has painstakingly labeled by hand you can also experience 300 years of history, winemaking equipment that sat idle for 40 years, 30 year-old bush vines, countless trips to countless vineyards and one journey through South Africa's wine heritage.

Admittedly something similar can be said for many bottles of wine, but this one in particular just feels right.


The wines

2015 Hanepoot - Enjoyed elsewhere. Resembles Sauvignon Blanc in the same way that Donald Trump resembles a gentleman. I am in no way comparing this wine to Donald Trump. Or am I?

2015 Cinsau(l)t - Discussed at length, Inhaled at every opportunity. Woof!

2014 Swallow - Eclectic everyday blend of various reds from various sites.

2013 P.O.W. - Serious blend of Cab, Merlot and Petit Verdot.

Where the fascination all began

You've obviously read these, right?