Rediscovering the Magic of Cinsault
Milner is making waves in the Cape Winelands with his focus on Cinsault, a grape often overlooked in South Africa. During a recent meeting with Alex at Roberson HQ, he humorously dubbed it “a poor man’s Pinot Noir”, but under his care, it's anything but ordinary. This grape, deeply rooted in South African wine history, is now enjoying a renaissance, securing its place on esteemed wine lists from Stellenbosch to London. His passion for Cinsault was kindled during his training in France, providing a refreshing contrast to the heavier style of South African wine he had become used to. Citing 2014 as a watershed year, he continues to explore the grape's potential in South African terrain. Milner's genius shines when blending Cinsaults from diverse regions like Paarl, Darling, Stellenbosch, and Swartland, yielding wines with unmistakable nuances.
Rooted in History: A Fresh Perspective
Natte Valleij is a historic Cape Dutch farm first established in 1715. The cellar, once one of the largest in the area, fell dormant in the 1940s. It was Alex, the current owner, who breathed new life into winemaking at Natte Valleij in 2005. Quickly making a name for himself, he became renowned for crafting minimally-processed, characterful wines from various parcels around the Cape.
Milner's winemaking philosophy is distinctive: "In essence," he declares with a grin, "it’s about taking chances and having fun!" By nurturing the forgotten patches of old dryland bush vine, his approach fosters a deep bond between the vineyard and the bottle, emphasising minimal intervention in both the winery and the vines.
Every so often, a wine emerges that captures the zeitgeist. The Axle Chenin Blanc 2022 is just that – the epitome of South African Chenin. Sourced from the distinctive dry-land bush vines of Darling, these 1985 plantings are transformed with indigenous yeasts into something quite special.
The process? Barrel fermentation, with a patient maturation of nine months on the lees. The result is an aromatic triumph: ripe pear, quince, and apricot, nuanced with delicate spices. On tasting, it's a textured masterpiece, rich yet underscored by a piercing minerality.
For pairings, consider seafood gratin, goat's cheese tart, moules frites, or, if you're channelling Alex, freshly caught South African lobster. Find the wine here.
JancisRobinson.com: “Chenin at its ragged, rugged, sonorous, glorious best. Like a sculpture that the sculptor left halfway finished because s/he didn't have the words and the rock from which it was hewn did. Like honey on quarried marble; like a tablespoon of crème brûlée followed by a cool breath of thyme. Custard apples. Silk and sand.” 17 points
Tim Atkin MW: “Alex Milner has been using this 1985 block on decomposed granite soils in Darling since 2018, handling it oxidatively in barrel for more complexity. This shows the freshness and minerality of its site, with oatmeal, thatch and white flower aromas and pear and pithy green apple flavours.” - 93 points
Greg Sherwood MW: “In the glass, the wine shimmers with a translucent golden yellow straw intensity, revealing rich exotic aromatics of incense, potpourri, grapefruit marmalade, yellow peach, dried apricots and attractive hints of stem ginger. The addition of the fine lees really adds another dimension of texture and complexity to the wine, lending an almost Sauternes-like breadth and opulence to the nose." 95 points
When Alex Milner lets Cinsault take the limelight, it's evident that this isn't just a blending grape. It shines. Harvested from old bush vines in their most secluded vineyard, this wine exemplifies the belief that vines thrive on the fringes of extreme viticulture. Expect a vibrant burst of wild berries, seasoned with nuances of pepper and freshly chopped parsley. But it's the palate where this wine truly astounds – refined tannins of unmatched structure, intertwined with a finely textured body and a refreshing burst of acidity.
This vineyard's solitude makes its character even more remarkable. Surrounded by expansive wheat fields, it stands defiantly alone, facing the South West. Here, the vines are influenced by the cooling summer breezes of the afternoon South Wester, blowing straight from the Atlantic a mere 16km away. Find the wine here.
"Super-aromatic and enticing, like walking through a scented garden: violets, black roses and night lilies abound. Incense and smoke wreathe through intense black cherries and plums, then layer onto the palate, seeping into velvety tannins, and soaking in redcurrants, ripe raspberries and tomato essence. Finishing red-fruited and plucky, with tangy acidity that refreshes and urges you to go back and finish the bottle. This hails from a vineyard on a lonely hill, no other vines in sight. Planted around 1978 on Malmesbury formation rock with significantly decomposed granite, the wine feels as individual as its origins. Drink now-2032." - 98 pts - Decanter
"The smell of bruised rose petals and rain on an old tin roof. Rosehips, redcurrants, rust and musk. The wine feels like lithified rock flaking horizontal in the mouth, the structure of the wine formed as much by earthbound minerality and deep iron-tang acidity as it is by the cashmere tannins. There is something about Alex Milner's Darling Cinsault that always gives me a haunting sense of loneliness; it always reminds me of the taste of an impending African thunderstorm; it feels like that silence that falls before the wind picks up, like the hot rocks under your feet, the smell of petrichor in the air." 18/20 - Tamlyn Currin for JancisRobinson.com
“This Darling Old Vine 2021 Cinsault is really something to behold. If ever there was a wine that proved that Cinsault could be world-class, then this is it. In the glass, the wine shows an opaque red plum colour and has a hedonistically high-toned perfumed aromatics of freshly picked rose petals and sweet lilacs before a complex melange of crunchy red orchard fruits seduces the senses. Wonderfully fresh and vibrant, the soft fleshy palate reveals potent notes red cherry, raspberry and strawberry pastille fruits before the classic Darling hallmark Turkish delight nuances come to the fore. Delicately mineral with a succulent intensity and tangy sweet and sour acidity, this 2021 Darling Cinsault is definitely ‘hall of fame’ quality with focus, depth and precision. Drink on release to enjoy its rose petal floral freshness or cellar for 6 to 8+ years to allow the old vine fruit to show its true regal potential. They don’t come much better than this!” 97+ points - Greg Sherwood MW