Tim James: The charms of Natte Valleij

By , 6 May 2024



Natte Valleij, Klapmuts.

There can’t be many more delightful places to sit and taste wine than on the veranda of the Natte Valleij homestead, overlooking the lovely garden. I was, happily, given the main garden view, replete with lawns, trees and shrubs and low white walls, but I think looking up at the classical pediment of the Cape Dutch  house wouldn’t have been too bad either. Perhaps the setting (it was a mild, sunny autumn day) influenced me too much; I certainly felt predisposed to find my companions, winemaker Alex Milner and his assistant Kelvin Feku, charming too. Not to mention the wines….

Natte Valleij, on the lower slopes of the mighty Simonsberg, is pretty much on the border of the Stellenbosch and Paarl wine districts. That has little relevance to the wines, though, as they result from Alex’s wider explorations of the winelands, bringing back grapes from Darling, Swartland and Wellington as well as wider Stellenbosch and Paarl. They’re vinified in the large, rather rambling old cellar on Natte Valleij. Before Alex took it in hand and started making use of various corners of it in 2005, it had last been used for making wine (and earlier a lot of brandy – the old still huddles down in the garden) in the 1950s. It’s progressively developed over the years, and part of it now seems positively modern – though Alex clearly enjoys relating his own winemaking to the old, hands-on traditions.

The Milner family bought the farm in 1969, pulled out the old vines and used it as a thoroughbred horse stud. No horses remain, but plenty of buildings do: Mrs Milner Snr lives in the manor house, and her three sons and their families are scattered across the farm (including brother Marcus, who makes the wine at De Meye).

Alex was an early enthusiast for cinsault as a lighter-styled red, and became perhaps best known for this variety. He no longer produces the four different terroir-driven cinsaults sold geekishly as a boxed set grandly called the Cinsault Collective. The two strongest and most distinctive of those continue, both from 1970s bushvine vineyards registered with the Old Vine Project: OVP Stellenbosch Cinsault and OVP Darling Cinsault. I tasted the 2023 vintages, which will be coming onstream soon. Both are lovely. The Stellenbosch has a fascinating herbal character – it even recalled Chartreuse for me­ – and is textured, with a light dry tannic grip and sufficient vinosity from 12% alcohol. A pleasing rusticity is more apparent when it’s tasted next to the Darling version, which is more polished and elegant – perhaps more burgundian in inspiration. Light tannins of course, pure-fruited, and a little riper at 12.5%.

Both of these cinsauts are beautifully dry. So too is the larger-volume blend of grapes from four origins, Coastal Cinsault (here it was the 2022), which retails for about R170, compared to R325 for the single origin wines. It’s a fine buy – delicious, and with a touch more structure and colour than the other two though still light and fresh, and a sweet-fruit charm.

Coming out in a few months, I’m especially pleased to note, is the Nat Pinotage 2023, from Darling grapes, a good bargain at R170. One of the newer, elegant, lightish pinotages that are enthusing me generally, it was made, says Alex, “against everything I was taught about making pinotage at university”, with, for example, less ripeness  and cooler, quieter ferment (in concrete) – aged eight months in concrete egg and 2000-litre foudre. Gently perfumed, finely structured, fresh and elegant (the alcohol perfectly balanced at 12.5%).

There are two other reds. The POW 2021 (named for the unknown Italian prisoner of war who worked on the property during WW2) is a jump from the previous cab-merlot blend. Simonsberg-Paarl Cab remains at 59%, but there’s now, from Darling, 32% cinsault to lighten and freshen the wine and give it that typical note of perfume, and a good dollop of syrah. Succulent and juicy, delicious in youth, but with some serious structure and modest power at 13.5% alcohol. About R250, which is twice as much as “the workhorse of the cellar”, Swallow, syrah-based with whatever happens – the 2022 Swallow has cinsault and even some chenin.  Really nice, with a light fresh grip, fruit sweetness and a properly dry finish, like all of these.

Which just leaves me with the one Natte Valleij white to mention: Axle Chenin Blanc, the current 2023, at R240. Off 1985 vines planted on Darling granite, and fermented and aged sur lie (10 months) in old oak barriques, it’s characterful, ripe-flavoured and quite rich – with 4.5 g/L residual sugar that expresses itself in that textured richness but not in palpable sweetness. Like the other wines, it’s mostly exported, and the Natte Valleij website might be the best source for locals wise enough to seek some out.

Kelvin Feku and Alex Milner of Natte Valleij.

As a pendant to all those very appealing wines, I also tasted the Kelvin Feku Grenache Noir, made from Wellington vines by Alex’s Zimbabwean assistant. The vines are young and the wine is neither deep nor complex. But it’s very much in the cellar style – natural ferment with gentle punchdowns, 11 months in foudre; light, fresh, and like everything at Natte Valleij, charming.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.


1 comment(s)

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    Greg Sherwood | 7 May 2024

    We visited with Alex in March. Interestingly, both the Nat Pinotage and the Axel Chenin were stand out wines once again, especially the 2023 Pinotage. Such a popular wine here in the UK in the Indie wine trade.

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