WTF is natural wine and who is Mphumi Ndlangisa anyway

JOBURG, Aug 2018 – Magna Carta, the charter that gave enhanced rights to the rebel barons of medieval England, seems a fittingly aspirational label for a young, black winemaker trying to break into South Africa’s wine industry. Even by South African standards, the world of wine remains a largely white male gated community.

But that is beginning to change, and one young initiate who is part of that change is investment banker-turned-rebel winemaker Mphumeleli Ndlangisa. The 30-year-old – bespectacled, with an easy smile and a certain wine geek chic about him – is part of a new wave of Cape winemakers setting the region on a revolutionary course, not just shifting the demographics but also offering up some exciting new wines.

Employing innovative techniques and new varietals, or sometimes revisiting old ones long since fallen from favour and making superb use of the country’s old vines, these upstarts are tapping into a growing consumer interest in young, unusual and characterful wines. 

Like some others of his young cohort, Mpumi sees a future in natural wine-making.

Just what natural wine is, is a matter of some sticky debate.

“There’s a lot of semantics and a great deal of philosophy around it”, says wine expert and editor of Winemag, Christian Eedes, “but at its simplest it’s the dictum of: nothing added, nothing taken away.”

Creating wines that are free from any mechanical and chemical intervention, with little to no sulphur added, might seem uncontroversial. But in an industry as staid as wine, any drift away from rigid conformity is bound do cause upset.

magna carta wine
An intriguing bouquet of candied lime, pineapple, with hints of almonds, peach, and something spicy (yellow pepper?). Photo by MR.

Even Christian, who’s quite enthusiastic about the possibilities of natural wine, took some time to get used to it.

Historically, the global industry has prized consistency, which gave us the appellation system and strict rules governing everything from irrigation and ageing, to the permissible ratios of different grapes used in blends, and which tasting notes should define which wines from which regions. Using science, sulphur and other additives allows you to create wines that are stable with relatively predictable characteristics. Now, the upstarts are threatening to blow all this out the water with some crazy, volatile wines.  

Natural wine has become something of a movement in the world’s major wine regions since winemakers in France began experimenting with it in the ‘70s and ‘80s. There’s certainly been a lot of buzz about it lately (see, for instance, this Guardian article).

But a sobering note from Christian: he tells me that the leading SA producers of natural wine have tended to sell overseas because “the SA market doesn’t get it.”

The domestic marketing problem is not with natural wine alone. It’s SA wine in general. In a country that produces such good wine at such affordable prices it’s a wonder that it tends to be overlooked for craft beer, gin or, the ultimate status drink, whisky.

We’re big drinkers. But wine is a small portion of what we drink, Christian tells me, at around 7 litres per capita per year, and that figure has been pretty static for decades. Compare this to parts of Europe where it’s closer to 50.  

According to Mpumi, when younger consumers do go for wine there’s usually a strong preference “recipe wine” and status buys – think Chocolate Block.  

“However, the market isn’t monolithic,” says Christian. “The early adapters to natural wine are there.”

Is SA – ever the latecomer, whether its tech (TV having arrived only in the 70s), or democracy, or the latest fads (which are never the latest by the time they hit our shores) – finally going to embrace a vinous counter-culture?

The store shelves and growing number of boutique wineshops in Jozi do seem to suggest something positive.

Mphumi, for his part, seems optimistic that there are enough adventurous palates eager to lap the stuff up. And to his credit, he and his contemporaries are making wine more accessible by pushing back against some of the snobbery and conservatism that puts off newcomers.

As for the hipsters creating these wines – they’re beard-plaid-and-jeans types. The glorified garden sheds that are some of their wineries are a far cry from Cape Dutch grandeur, and don’t expect to see traditional off-white labelling on their bottles with classic tasting notes and technical details written in a supple, vintage font. You’re more likely to get ‘made from grapes’, a la Testalonga, scrawled across gaudy pics of mermaids and charred sheep heads (smileys, as featured on Silwervis’ wines), or no label at all.

Mpumi’s journey into this world was a little unorthodox. Born in the rural KZN midlands to tea-totalling parents – his father was a pastor – Mpumi’s upbringing was what he describes as “middle class, though quite what that meant was all very relative in 1980s black South Africa.

It was only when he was sent to UCT and later Stellenbosch to study that he discovered his love of wine, which he says is the intersection of his other passions – art, agriculture and the outdoors.

While studying investment banking he was quick to make friends in the oenology and viticulture department, and from there started to slowly nuzzle his way into the wine scene.

Soon he’d gathered up his savings and maxed out his credit card to begin a modest, truly garagiste experiment with winemaking, sealing his new career as winemaker.

He realised that investment banking wasn’t for him. “It’s a lifetime trap” he tells me, over coffee at that high temple of Cape hipsterdom, Truth Café.

“Investment banking pays well, but you just wait for your boss to die or move on and then you become him. It was dull.”

But access to the wine world was still going to tricky, and it took a lot of creative, opportunistic thinking on his part.

“These networks are quite closed, with friends doing business with friends. It’s a tough market, saturated.”

Nevertheless, he learnt to find the right people.

He’d go to tastings, and meet winemakers and industry insiders: “I like that guy, he’s got a good palate, and that kind of thing would open up doors,” he tells me.  

He’d get surplus grapes for free, source an old barrel here and there from established winemakers he knew, and soon he was minting his first vintage.

It was a lack of capital – no farm, no tasting room – and other restraints that forced him into more adventurous winemaking, using some quite obscure varietals. “One thing is for sure, they can’t reject my wines because they’re cliché.”

It took some trial and error, a few vinegary mishaps down the rain, but he now makes wine’s he’s truly proud of.

The market is still tough, and it took him a while to get off the ground.

“Only now am I getting my wines sold in commercial establishments,” he says.

But his growing list of customers now includes some very prominent establishments, among them Test Kitchen. He’s also built up somewhat of a niche following among those who are open to wines that break with formulaic, old-school ways of doing things.  

And he’s pleased to be encouraging a laissez faire, more individualistic approach to wine.

Though some natural winemakers can come across as righteous ideologues – winemakers with a mission who want to do away with the stodgy layers of old fashioned wine culture and arcane rules that have accumulated like sediment over generations – centuries even – and that govern what is good and what is not. They see all of this as weighing down the art of winemaking.  

If wine has typified humanity’s obsessive pursuit of scientific and artistic perfection, natural wine and the stuff the young upstarts are producing is truly post-modern – a frenzied backlash against all that came before, shattering convention and all that we took to be desirable; a highly subjective approach to the medium.  

The bottle labels alone are a big F.U. to established orthodoxy, but here’s also where natural wine can get a little caught up in its airy-fairy side – blurbs about the winemaker’s spiritual journey are enough to set your eyes rolling to the back of your head.

And there’s something to be said for consistency and quality control, and our ability to manipulate nature, in the most unnatural ways, into providing just what we want.  

To its harshest detractors, natural wine is a gimmicky fraud – a case of anything goes nonchalance, where generations of accumulated knowledge is tossed out the window in favour of coarse, indecipherable and sometimes grotesque concoctions fobbed off on naïve palates.  

The results of natural wine are often precisely what you’d expect when you give maverick hipsters free rein to upend tradition. You’ll wines get that are expressive, but can easily cross that border into brash, way out, and a little hard to stomach.

But, when things go well, they can go spectacularly well.  

For Christian, the real benefit of natural wine is the stylistic trickle down.

“Craig Hawkins of Testalonga leads the way and is very rigorous in his approach to natural wine, but others borrow elements of natural winemaking and it’s often a matter of degree. That’s where it’s more useful, making wines more interesting and thought-provoking.”

Taste is subjective, and Mpumi’s philosophy on natural wine is all about embracing that subjectivity.I’m unconvinced by the factions on either side of the natural wine divide. I’ve had some pretty undrinkable natural wine, but then again, I’ve had some equally vile traditional wine.

Mphumi’s 2015 Chardonnay, though, was a job well done. I tasted it a few months ago, and I recall an intriguing bouquet of candied lime, pineapple, with hints of almonds, peach, and something spicy (yellow pepper?). Not a rich, creamy, leesy style of Chardonnay, which I tend to prefer, but all round very pleasing with a refreshing, minerally finish.

I’ve also started to see his wines on the shelves in Joburg, so keep an eye out!

By MR

Featured image by Jan Ras

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