Mphumeleli Ndlangisa.
Mphumeleli Ndlangisa.
Image: Dewald Daniels

It’s not often that the entrance to a winery leads through a craft brewery, the tang of fermenting barley hanging heavily in the air. And when that winery relies solely on the fragile wild yeasts growing naturally on the grape skins? Well, it’s safe to say the winemaker may be playing with fire.

But Mphumeleli Ndlangisa, founder of Magna Carta Wines, isn’t your conventional winemaker. He doesn’t count generations of cellar masters in his family tree. He hasn’t trained in oenology. He hasn’t worked harvests abroad. Hell, he doesn’t even own any vineyards.

What he does have is sharp financial acumen from his years in the investment world, an unbridled passion for wine, and no shortage of self-belief.

Born and raised in rural KwaZulu- Natal, Ndlangisa fell in love with wine while studying at Stellenbosch University, where he made a few garagiste wines on the side. His planned career path took him into the world of investment banking, but in 2014 the tedium of finance finally drove him from spreadsheets to the cellar. Magna Carta Wines was born.

Sourcing grapes from selected Cape vineyards, and vinifying them by hand in rented cellar space in Cape Town’s inner-city suburb of Woodstock, Ndlangisa has slowly built a wine brand and earned respect from the city’s fine-dining set and from curious wine connoisseurs.

“This is very much a passion project. I’m not living the lifestyle I used to, but I’m much happier now,” says Ndlangisa. “It’s very fulfilling, but it’s tough. I still make the wine, find the orders, do the invoicing, and deliver the wines.”

Being an outsider in a traditionally close-knit industry hasn’t been easy, and without formal training Ndlangisa has relied on years of tinkering and the goodwill of mentors — he mentions Pieter de Waal, owner and winemaker of Hermit on the Hill, and Schalk Opperman at Lammershoek in the Swartland — to keep him on the right track.

 “My strategy has been to learn by experimenting, and decide over time what style suits my technique and what’s not too outrageous for the market. There’s no point making the world’s best skin-contact sauvignon blanc if nobody wants to buy it!”

And he’s certainly not chosen a straightforward path, opting to only purchase grapes from organic vineyards. That raises the cost of fruit, and limits the choice of vineyards, but it’s a non-negotiable for Ndlangisa. If that wasn’t difficult enough, he also relies on the natural “wild” yeasts on the grapes for fermentation, and uses no sulphur to preserve his wine.

“Organic first, in the vineyard, and natural in the cellar. That approach is something I’ve always believed in,” says Ndlangisa, whose parents were subsistence farmers in KwaZulu-Natal. “Living in rural areas, you don’t have access to chemicals, but you find farmers growing the best produce you’ll ever taste. I believe if you’re going to farm and make wine without chemicals, your wine will be superior.”

I believe if you’re going to farm and make wine without chemicals, your wine will be superior
Mphumeleli Ndlangisa

So he puts plenty of effort into sourcing fruit from specific organic vineyards across the Cape. Magna Carta’s production is small — roughly 20,000 bottles in the 2019 harvest — and focused on unique expressions of more niche varietals from specific sites.

Pinot noir comes from both the Elgin Valley and Franschhoek; the latter’s fruit turned into Méthode Cap Classique sparkling wine. Chardonnay also comes from the cool Elgin Valley, while from the Helderberg he sources merlot for his unusual white merlot dubbed “Mizwa”.

“It means ‘feelings’, or ‘emotion’ in Zulu, as the wine was made with emotion more than science,” says Ndlangisa.

All Magna Carta wines are made as single varietals, not blends, with Ndlangisa tinkering with skin contact, oak barrels, and concrete eggs. And throughout the process there’s not a chemical in sight.

“The Magna Carta charter gave people freedom. With my wines I give freedom to the grapes. Because I don’t use machinery, I don’t use chemicals, and I work with only organic fruit and natural yeasts, the grapes can fully express themselves in the wine, and be free.”

With the 2020 harvest coming up, Ndlangisa is on the move. To fund expansion — including his own small vineyard and a warehouse/cellar space in the Elgin Valley — he is raising funding through a handful of angel investors.

“But I don’t want to have sleepless nights over vulnerable investors. I need to be sure that the wine business has a market share that’s sustainable in the long term,” he says. “Wine is one of those things where, if you do the right things over a long period, the money will follow. You need a lot of start-up capital, but in the long run, if you’re making the right moves, you should make some money.”

THE MAGNA WHAT?

Signed in 1215 by King John of England, the Magna Carta — or “Great Charter” — enshrined the notion that everybody, including the king, was subject to the law. It has become a global symbol of freedom under the rule of law, and was even referred to by Nelson Mandela in his statement during the Rivonia treason trial in 1963-1964.

From the November edition of Wanted 2019.

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