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. I wanted to get back to what I grew up with on the sugar cane farms of KZN.”
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.”
After a one-year course in winemaking in Stellenbosch, Western Cape, Magna Carta Wines was born. As an avid wine drinker, Ndlangisa noticed a decline in the rapidly expanding wine market and wanted to return to a more honest way of producing the beverage. By focusing on quality and taking his time, he came up with the flavourful range that is Magna Carta.
“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.
“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 than you’d taste in [Pinot Noir specialist winemakers] Hamilton Russell, 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.
Making wine can be a capital-intensive enterprise. 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.”
Ndlangisa says he draws on his extensive networks to produce his wine products. “We don’t own land. Magna Carta does not own any vineyards. When we make wine, I decide on the style, which is always naturally fruited delicate wines. I will speak to the vineyard owners and ask to buy their grapes. Some of them have vast amounts of land but they don’t have a cellar or they don’t have an interest in making wine.”
He says his company is already expanding the range to cater for their international clients.
Ndlangisa is based in Cape Town and says that everyone tends to follow the trend in grapes there, which is why they’ve expanded their market. “We started off only with a Pinot Noir and a Chenin. Our main market now is in Africa – Lesotho, Zambia, Zimbabwe, even up east. The taste buds are a bit different there. So we’ve built up our range: we do Pinot Noir, Chenin, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and a muscat, a sweet dessert wine.”
On far as red wines go, Ndlangisa says they also make 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 Carter.”
As part of the mission to make his wine more widespread, Ndlangisa organises wine tastings at the Magna Carter Wine Day to familiarise people with the various types of wine.
He says that while there’s been a growing market of independent winemakers, it’s still largely dominated by the big players.
“The big conglomerates still exist and they are thriving,” he says. “There is a big strong Stellenbosch ‘mafia’ that still monopolises everything. They do that by using their strength and resources, their influence they have in other businesses.”
In order to compete, Ndlangisa says they brand their product differently and their message is also different 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.”
The secret to success in the wine industry, according to Ndlangisa, is to be different and to make good-quality wine.