A passion for wine, farming and the outdoors has translated into a thriving wine label for the founder of Magna Carta Wines, Mphumi Ndlangisa.
“I started Magna Carta with the ambition to make good wine,” he says. “It was more of a passion project.”
So in 2012, after much introspection, Ndlangisa quit his well-paying corporate job at a bank and decided to follow his dream. “I wanted to make wine after being stuck in a corporate job that I hated. I realised that if I died an old man, I wanted to have lived a fulfilling life.”
Magna Carta Wines was brought about by a desire to put the focus back on nature. As an avid wine drinker, Ndlangisa wanted to return to a more honest way of producing the beverage. “I was inspired through tasting the wines of the Swartland Revolution, especially those of Adi Badenhorst and some of the younger winemakers like Marelise Niemann.”
Ndlangisa decided that he wanted to focus on quality and taking his time. He came up with the flavourful range that is Magna Carta Wines, a name which encapsulates his vision of setting the grapes free as accomplished by the Magna Carta Charter of 1215AD that freed the slaves of the Feudal System in Britain.
“Before I started making wine, I was very aware of the saturation of the wine market,” he says.
Ndlangisa says the taste of his wines is what sets him apart from what is available on the market. He doesn’t use any recipes or formulas, relying mainly on his taste buds to guide him as well as his love for non-interventionist winemaking, placing emphasis on terroir rather than cellar manipulation. This is a fundamental gap currently in the market where you find most consumers drink blends that undergo a lot of manipulation in the cellar. His wines are made to drink while young and are made to appeal to new wine drinkers but also have a complex appeal for frequent wine drinkers.
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“The driving factor on how we planned to separate ourselves from the market was to make purer wines – if you’re tasting strawberries in our Pinot Noir, they’re going to be way more pungent other wines, purely because we don’t mind being patient,” he explains. “This means we extend the fermentation process, so it’s much softer on the grapes. That way we can maintain the integrity of the grapes. The strategy is always to take a bit of risk in order to get as much fruit purity as we can in the wine.
Winemaking can be capital-intensive. It requires machinery, land for vineyards, barrels and storage space. Ndlangisa used his networks to bypass these expensive hurdles.
“I didn’t have enough money, but the benefit of having studied in Stellenbosch for a few years is that I developed a network in the wine industry.” Eleanor Visser, he says, is the woman who opened doors for him. “She used to be head winemaker at Spier Wine Farm, and the first project I did was with her. We did a Pinot Noir and a Chenin Blanc. We had access to a cellar; we had access to barrels, to machinery and everything. Even when it came to registration as a producer, she helped me with all of that. And from that point I could take off.”
Ndlangisa says he draws on his extensive networks to produce his wine products. “We don’t own land, although we are currently seeking investors who would like to join the Magna Carta family, but currently we do not own any vineyards. All our grapes are sourced from grape growers. When we produce wine, I decide on the style, which is predominantly expressive, light and delicate wine – the goal is to attain elegant tannin structure and a fruit expression that isn’t obstructed.”
He says his company is already expanding the range to hopefully cater for international clients.
Ndlangisa is based in Cape Town and says that everyone tends to follow the trend in grapes there, with more obscure varietals becoming the fashion. “We started off only with a Pinot Noir and a Chenin. In the next few years we hope our market will be in the rest of Africa.” Magna Carta also makes a Shiraz.
Part of his goal was to expose more people to quality wine and to dispel the myth that it’s an expensive drink that’s inaccessible to a big market. Magna Carta wines are placed in the mid to upper tier of the market in order to increase accessibility.
“When we started, it was difficult to place ourselves. I disagree completely with the notion that price equals quality in wine – it just does not. We are in a situation where people think that. Then you might as well as follow the big brands – and that is exactly what we are trying to avoid as Magna Carta.”
As part of the mission to make his wine more well-known, Ndlangisa organises wine tastings on Magna Carta Day to familiarise people with the various types of wine.
He says that while there’s been a growing market of independent winemakers, the industry is still largely dominated by the big players.
“The big conglomerates still exist and they are thriving,” he says.
In order to compete, Ndlangisa says Magna Carta brands its products differently and has a different message to the big companies: “Our market seeks us out because we stand for something different – we stand for more maverick ways of making wine and more adventure – and for making it more accessible to all.”
“The secret to success in the wine industry is to continually innovate in your winemaking process and never stop learning. Most importantly, respect your craft as winemaking is an art and treating it as such will automatically give your wine a great platform,” he advises.