Alex Milner: The Cinsault whisperer

Jacopo Mazzeo

Jacopo Mazzeo

27 November 2019

Winemaker Alex Milner grew up on Natte Valleij, just over 30 miles east of Cape Town, in South Africa’s Stellenbosch.

That he was to become a winemaker was probably in his genes; with an elder brother winemaker and ‘countless friends whose fathers were winemakers too, it really just seemed like a natural progression,’ he says.

After completing a BSc in viticulture and oenology at Stellenbosch University made it official, he travelled to southern France to cut his teeth harvesting at Domaine de Triennes. There he had the chance to work with a number of classic southern French varietals such as Syrah and Carignan. This is where he developed a flat-out fascination with what was set to become his true winegrowing love, Cinsault. ‘At the time I was amazed by it freshness and suppleness, something very different to what my South African palate was used too.’

His obsession with Cinsault went against everything he had been formally taught at university: ‘It was always mentioned that Cinsault had been the most planted red wine cultivar, then under the same breath the lecturer would say: “but don’t bother studying it, it is of no relevance for the industry going forward”.’

Love at first sight

As many key wine industry players shared the same lack of interest for Cinsault, Milner didn’t bother investing in the grape until, in 2011, he stumbled upon an old block of Cinsault.

He tried to make wine out of it and the outcome was utterly unexpected: ‘It was a neglected block, yet was able to produce the best wine in my cellar that year (in my opinion!).’

That first great wine kickstarted Natte Valleij’s long-lasting partnership with Cinsault. Milner now makes nine wines, five of which are 100% Cinsault and the remaining four contain a percentage of the grape in the blend. 

Four of the varietal Cinsaults are meant to speak of their regions of origin: Darling, Stellenbosch, Swartland and Paarl, with the first expressing delicate, floral notes; the second ‘femininity and hints of strawberry’; Swartland’s dark fruit; and Paarl’s red fruit.

‘[Cinsault] really does express its regionality impressively,’ explains Milner. 'There is good reason why it was planted to the extent [that] it was… The wines, when made by sympathetic hands, are light, subtle, fresh and packed with an abundance of energy… Regionality,’ he continues, ‘is something I really want to work hard on to try and understand as well as promote.’

The fifth varietal Cinsault is a multi-regional blend, with fruit coming from five different vineyards; it’s Natte Valleij’s largest production and ‘a real crowd-pleaser’.

Keeping the link between vineyard and bottle

Milner’s work in the vineyard in the run up to harvest is crucial to ensure that he gets to work with the best fruit possible in the winery. ‘We want good ingredients in the cellar,’ he explains, ‘these last few years of drought have really sharpened our skills in the vineyard. We base our decision to pick on pH, acids and a physical assessment of the vineyard.’

Once in the winery, the grapes are de-stemmed and the stalks laid out on big mats in the sun to desiccate. Then, depending on the vintage, stalks are reintroduced: ‘We’ve found it brings a more balanced and manageable tannin back into the wine. We like to work with the resources the vine has given us.’

Everything is fermented for about 10 days in open-top vessels, during which time the must is punched down for gentle extraction. The wine is then matured for 11 months in a variety of vessels, from neutral foudres to concrete eggs. ‘Our winemaking philosophy,’ says Milner, ‘can be simply put: keeping the link between bottle and vineyard as close as possible.’

All about Cinsault, seriously?

Admittedly, it’s hard to believe that any business can survive on Cinsault alone, but Milner assures that the financial viability of his single-grape business has been carefully assessed since the very start: ‘The price of cinsault was considerably lower than other more popular cultivars and I could really just pick and choose from some incredible blocks. Great way to start a winery!’

Today, Natte Valleij’s regional blend ensures consistent sales; it’s ‘a great introduction into cinsault’, as Milner puts it, that leads his key markets to trade up with one of the four regional Cinsaults: ‘These regional differences in my opinion help the sales… For example, Canada prefers Simonsberg-Paarl and Swartland, whereas the UK likes Stellenbosch, and locally Darling does well. Each wine has its regional nuances and the markets have their preferences.’

It’s not always been easy for Milner; when he started making Cinsault ‘a lot of winemakers were like…WHAT!?’ But he stuck to his guns. Perhaps for ‘stupidity or stubbornness’, perhaps for blind passion, he managed to turn a variety that had ‘no relevance for the industry’ into a success. ‘Young winemakers,’ he says, ‘need to follow their instincts, not be told.’ 

Natte Valleij is distributed in the UK by Museum Wines and Indigo Wines

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