#wineforgood: True friendships - Mzokona Mvemve & Bruwer Raats and Black Elephant Vintners

Tuesday, 30 April, 2019
Fiona McDonald
Craft beer and spirit makers in South Africa are winning hearts and minds and ‘share of throat’ with authenticity and realism. More than one wine label is too, as Fiona McDonald writes.

“I know what everyone is going to think...” Bruwer Raats said to me way back in 2005 when launching MR de Compostella, “they’re going to think it’s a black and white thing – but it’s not!” Both he and his partner in the venture, Mzokhona Mvemve, were quick to disabuse anyone that this was not a ‘token’ wine brand. They were not politically motivated to take hands across the racial divide in those heady, rainbow-hued post-1994 democratic election days... They were genuinely friends after years of working together at Delaire and simply wanted to make wine together. Great wine – or that was the plan when they began in 2004.

Stating their mutual objective in black and white, the pair wrote the following on their website: “The formation of MR de Compostella epitomizes the meeting of two strong winemaking minds and an existing friendship between Mzokona Mvemve (the M) and Bruwer Raats (the R). The de Compostella itself refers to a constellation of stars, with each shining star being a tiny addition to the larger blend of the galaxy that makes for something spectacular. Together, the MR de Compostella is driven neither by style nor variety, but by its leading star component – quality.”

That this was no artificial construct is painfully obvious. The two men have succeeded in making MR de Compostella one of South Africa’s best international calling cards, commanding both attention and high prices. As the 2019 Platter Guide states in describing the 2016 vintage, the 12th iteration of this Bordeaux-style blend, “Precision, focus and detail remain hallmarks, as in 2015 (95 points), plus astonishing array of black fruit flavours on 63/17/12/6/2 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Merlot.”

Mzokhona Mvemve and Bruwer Raats

As Master of Wine and South African wine specialist Greg Sherwood wrote: (the MR de Compostella is) “still arguably the most sought after and collectable Bordeaux-styled fine wine produced in South Africa and one of the very few stalwarts that regularly trades on the Liv-ex International Fine Wine Exchange in London.” Not shy to dish out high scores, Sherwood rated the 2015 vintage 98 points and the 2016 96+.

Raats is nothing if not confident – and was quite happy to have a range of critics taste the first ever 2004 MR de Compostella – blind – up against a Chateau Cheval Blanc and the 2013 against a Chateau Haut Brion of the same vintage... (The Cheval Blanc garnered the popular vote in round one but the MR de Compostella topped round two!)

Less high profile but no less worthy of attention is Franschhoek operation Black Elephant Vintners which styles itself as Rebels of the Vine. It sees a pooling of financial and stockbroking partners Kevin Swart (his translated surname provided the first element of the name) and Raymond Ndlovu – whose Zulu surname adds the second, the elephant part while Jacques Wentzel is the skilled vintner at the helm.

In an interview earlier this year, Swart said; “Body, mind, and soul… it is the unique contributions each of us rebels bring to Black Elephant Vintners.”

Swart trained to be a civil engineer but ended up in finance, as a stockbroker for two decades – and was ultimately how he met Raymond Ndlovu. The pair worked together at Noah Financial Innovation in Johannesburg – until they both sold the business in 2011 and relocated to Franschhoek.

Swart bought La Petite Vigne in the renowned valley of food and wine which subsequently became the home of Black Elephant Vintners. “Raymond is the mind, bringing innovation through creatively cultivating radical ideas for growth and Jacques is the soul,” Swart said. Ndlovu has become an important figure in the South African wine industry having just been elected chairman of the Cape Wine Auction trust, a philanthropic body which has raised R88 million for children’s education in the winelands since 2014.

While Mzo Mvemve went from winemaking into finance, doing his MBA at the University of Stellenbosch and now earning his daily crust as an agribusiness portfolio manager, Ndlovu went the other way, frankly admitting that he and Swart had no clue what they were getting into or how complex the wine industry was.

But they both understood the value of systems and skilled individuals – which Wentzel contributes. Learning to work with Mother Nature also required a mindset adjustment... Years on from the dog-eat-dog world of stockbroking and the fast pace of high finance, you have to admire the creativity on display in their wine names. How else could they have named their Pinotage Three men in a tub with a rubberduck or their Sauvignon Blanc Two dogs, a Peacock and a Horse?

It’s no secret that South Africa as a country remains riven with racial disharmony 25 years on from 1994. As the country girds its proverbial loins for another election in just a few weeks, the slights and casual insults between different groups of campaigners are hard to ignore. But if anyone believes in a better future ignore them they must. One way of doing that is focusing on the positives and the good news stories such as these two.

 

MORE ON #WINEFORGOOD

There are plenty of good news stories about upliftment and transformation in the South African Wine Industry. This #wineforgood website, launched by wine.co.za in June 2016, hosts all the positive stories from the winelands, of which there are plenty. wine.co.za has made April a focus for #wineforgood stories, being Freedom Month, as South Africa celebrates 25 years of democracy.



Three men in a tub by Black Elephant Vintners
Three men in a tub by Black Elephant Vintners

MR de Compostella
MR de Compostella

more news