“To those out on their own paths, setting little fires.” ― Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere.
It was 2013 when the bushfires started for Alex Milner of Natte Valleij. While the Cape is prone to bushfires, I’m not talking about the literal kind, but the light in the darkness kind. Tamlyn Currin of Jancis Robinson had tasted his site-specific Cinsault from Wellington, and suddenly he says: “little bushfires sprang up everywhere.” And if you read Tamlyn’s notes, it was the first time she had truly SEEN Cinsault, experienced it for what it could be, and Alex was the one who DID it. I ask him if there were moments of despair in his winemaking career, and he says: “JA, many, but then I found Cinsault.”
The Prisoner of War
I meet Alex Milner early on a cloudy October morning at their farm between Paarl and Stellenbosch on the slopes of the Simonsberg. The early morning smells of summer, the farm an intriguing medley of historic buildings with hidden nooks and crannies, and artefacts everywhere. The inscription of a Prisoner of War held at the farm during the Second World War is etched out in the chicken coop they now rent out for weddings and short stays on the farm. There’s something called a Moon Gate that leads into this secret garden, where the clivias are mid-bloom and EVERYWHERE, a veritable forest of tropical plants and flowers. Ancient oak trees abound, and there’s a sense of history about the place. Alex’s family lives on the farm. His parents in the beautiful old manor house with the historic Cape Gables, his brother’s family down the road, and his wife, boys and him in the house closest to the gates, with two silos they’ve converted into whimsical Airbnb rooms for rent. An enormous Falko graffitied elephant in neon colours graces their sitting room wall, with antique bicycles on the walls, as more neon Falko elephants walk down the corridor. The old and new, perfectly in balance, like the wine, layered.
Alex cycles. He has ALL the bikes, a road bike, a mountain bike, and all the bikes in between. He used to TRAP (Afrikaans for cycle) for the Western Province at University and was set on a two-wheeled path, with a minor in winemaking. He recently cycled to Prieska, 837km, alone. When I ask him why he answers matter-of-factly: “Mid-life crisis.” Though, after a terrible crash, Alex soon realised that cycling wasn’t going to be sustainable and poured his energy into the artisanal winemaking he’d been doing on the side. When I say artisanal, Alex says his first wines were literally bathtub wines – his father having made space for him on the farm to experiment and his first few wines sound like pure passion projects, though isn’t that where most good things start? Having graduated from Stellenbosch university in 2004, Alex only truly came to wine in 2008, during the economic crisis. Interestingly he says during that time, craft / artisanal products came to the forefront, and his wines were right there, at the right time and place.
Alex’s winemaking has always been based on buying grapes from intriguing parcels of land. The Natte Valleij farm was purchased by his grandfather in 1969 and used as a thoroughbred stud for 27 years until they decided to pursue winemaking and hospitality in earnest. The farm makes for a beautiful wedding venue, with several little houses available for rent on the property. Alex says he started making wine in earnest in 2011, with three wines, the Swallow (an eclectic blend of Shiraz, Mourvèdre, and Cinsault), the P.O.W (named for the inscription in the chicken coop, and Natte Valleij’s Bordeaux-style blend), and a site-specific Cinsault from Wellington. In 2015 his site-specific Cinsault range had swollen to 6 different sites, including Swartland, Darling, Wellington, Simonsberg, Paarl, and Stellenbosch. In 2016 the Old Vine Project was established, and Alex’s use of old vine parcels became all the more notable for it. Now in 2019, he’s whittled down the range again to Stellenbosch and Darling, the pressure of selling so many niche wines unnecessary if it means he can focus his efforts on these two wines.
When I ask him why Cinsault, he says he discovered it while doing a harvest in the South of France at Domaine Triennes, harvesting Cinsault for their Rosé. He says it was the first time he was taught to treat Cinsault with care, whereas in South Africa, it had been relegated to a blending grape, and you weren’t encouraged to pay it any heed. Of the parcels he finds, he says it’s all about the farmer, whether they understand that he’s trying to make world-class wines and that he’s been lucky enough to work with people who happen to have notable old vine parcels on their land. Drawing a parallel between world-class wines and the people prepared to keep vines in the ground. Old vines play a large role in Alex’s repertoire of wines, he says they allow you to work at lower alcohols while producing the layers of texture and nuance so prized in the minimal intervention, fresher style of wine so celebrated in the market today.
‘No Risk, No Fun’
I ask him what his mission statement is. At first, he says that’s too corporate a statement for him, but I change tact: What’s the spirit of Natte Valleij? “No risk, no fun,” he says without hesitation. Which, given the state of South Africa at the moment puts him in good stead. Ten years back, or a little less, Alex and his university buddies (they all belong to a collaborative called the Zoo Cru today), represented a new wave in South African winemaking. Do note that these “buddies” include the likes of Chris Alheit, Peter-Allan Finlayson, Miles Mossop, Trizanne Barnard, Mick and Jeanine – low-key some of South Africa’s greats. Their ‘NEW WAVE’ centred around site specificity, minimal intervention, thinking outside the box, rediscovering heritage grapes, lower alcohol, texture, weightless intensity, old vines, ag you know, everything that has brought South African wines into the limelight. Alex’s NAT Pinotage, short for Natte Valleij and Natural (though his mother hates the name – she says it reminds her of the Nasionale Party – don’t ask) has taken these principles to heart and represents the NEW WAVE in Pinotage production. Borne from a place of UNDERSTANDING and made in his light red trademark way, it really is one of our favourites.
Alex says his kids have more of a winemaking background than he does, with his wife’s family having been high up in the KWV, wine farmers from Tulbagh and her great-grandfather responsible for the use of cold white wine fermentation. One of the building blocks to fresher, more vibrant style wines, and one of those things that in retrospect, just makes SENSE that Alex might find himself HERE. When I ask him why South Africa, he says because it’s exciting, and if it weren’t exciting anymore, he wouldn’t be doing it. Thank GOD for people like him. People who thrive against the odds and relish it.
In these difficult times, there’s much to be learned from people like him. I suggest you start with the wine.