Walking on to the Natte Valleij farm is like being transported back in time as much of the winery, the cellar and the Cape Dutch family home are how they were from the days they were built way back in 1715.
Tradition and history run through this beautiful homestead situated at the foot of Simonsberg. It is currently enjoying what is actually its second period as a respected winery in the region having first made wine and brandy in the first half of the last century before ceasing production in the 1940s.
When Alex Milner’s family first bought the farm in 1969 it was not to turn it back into a winery, but to use its vast spacious land and cellars as the perfect home for what went on to be a stud farm for some of the most respected and revered racehorses in South Africa.
The farm and homestead have remained in the Milner family ever since. But it was not until 2005 that, once again, the cellars, that had remained dormant for close to 50 years, other than been turned in to stables, were once again filled with barrels of wine.
That’s down to Alex Milner who took on the main winemaking duties in 2004 after studying oenology and viticulture at the nearby Stellenbosch University.
Milner prides himself on keeping to the same winemaking traditions of the 1940s. This is very much an old school, hands-on affair where the grapes, as it says on its website, are picked “by hand, bottled by hand, corked by hand, labelled by hand, and most defiantly drunk by hand”.
His winemaking philosophy is to intervene with the grapes and the process as little as possible. He even uses old winery machinery, like a hand held ratcheting wine press system, to treat the grapes as sensitively as he can. “It is all about having a hand feel for the wine,” he explains.
He only uses, for example, very old barrels where there is the minimum possible interaction between the wood and the wine.
Leader in Cinsault
Milner is becoming famous in the notoriously competitive Cape Winelands for his growing and treatment of the classic French grape variety, Cinsault, which although grown in some parts of in South Africa, is rarely used in bottles as a single variety.
He cheekily describes Cinsault “as a poor man’s Pinot Noir”. But not the way he handles it. “You have to work it very carefully,” he explains.
His love affair with Cinsault started whilst working vintages in France, most noticeably at Domaine de Triennes in Provence, during his days training to be a winemaker. It was, he says, also a “reaction against” the big Shirazes coming out of Australia at the time. “Cinsault has such drinkability by comparison,” he says.
But he concedes he is only just starting to learn about the possibilities that Cinsault from South Africa can offer. “2014 was a big year of discovery for me,” he says. “No-one really knows a lot about how it works in South Africa.”
What particularly fascinates and excites him is combining different blocks of Cinsault grapes from different regions to see the different styles of wine they produce.
For example, he currently sources his Cinsault from four different plots across four wine regions: Paarl, Darling, Stellenbosch and Swartland.
Darling is a particular favourite for Milner as it has “many old plots” hidden away amongst the big wheat farms in the area. But each plot gives different layers and textures that work differently when combined together.
He is now working with highly respected South African winemaker, Chris Alheit of Alheit Vineyards, to source additional Cinsault plots, which together could make for a particularly exciting collaboration
Part of history
It is a pleasure to walk through the old cellars and the beautiful gardens and imagine how life on the farm has changed over the years.
Even the names of Milner’s wines are steeped in history. Like its P.O.W which is named after an Italian prisoner of war who took refuge on the farm during the Second World War.
He was able to point to a carving made on the kitchen wall of his house which reads “P.O.W BT 27/12/1943”. Hence the inspiration for the wine he thinks best represents what the farm can produce. A classic Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot aged for 24 months in 500 litre French oak barrels (available from Edgmond Wines for £19.95).
Boer & Brit – an unlikely alliance
Alex Milner is a key figure in the young generation of winemakers that is taking South Africa to levels of quality and discovery it has not known before.
As well as running Natte Villeij, Milner also works with other winemakers on separate projects. Most noticeably with Stefan Gerber and the Boer & Brit range and significant wines like The General, the Field Marshal and Suikerbossie Ek Wil Jou He.
Their partnership, fostered whilst studying together at Stellenbosh University, is particularly poignant in that both have an illustrious family history in the making of South Africa. On the opposite side of fence.
Gerber being the great-great grandson of President Kruber, who lead South Africa from 1883 to 1990.
Milner’s roots lie in England and his great-great grandfather was Field Marshall Sir John French who made his name leading British troops in the Second Boer War, most noticeably at the “Relief of Kimberley”.
Hence the name Boer & Brit, which would have been an impossible alliance back in the day of their great-great grandfathers.
* Alex Milner’s wines are sold in the UK through Edgmond Wines.