There has never been a better time than the present to be making wine in the Swartland region of South Africa. Home to incredible vineyards, both young and old, the region has gone from being somewhat left in the past to being propelled into the future in just two decades. The 2000s saw the ‘Swartland Revolution’ take place, when growers and winemakers such as Eben Sadie, Adi Badenhorst and Andrea and Chris Mullineux began to rediscover, appreciate and tend to vineyards here. It resulted in a new chapter of sensitively-made gamechanging wines that would set a benchmark for not just the Swartland, but hot, dry climates across the globe.
The 2010s saw the next generation of winemakers lay roots here, among them Craig Hawkins of Testalonga and Jurgen Gouws of Intellego Wines. Now both into their second decade of winemaking, they are inspiring and passing on the baton to the next wave of newcomers.
Among them is MC Stander, who launched his own brand — L’Equinox — in 2019. Having spent a decade working as a viticulturist and winemaker at wineries in Paarl and the Swartland, he is turning his hand to his own wines, adding another unique dimension to what this remarkable region can do.
LITTLEWINE caught up with MC during a visit to South Africa in October 2022.
MC doesn’t come from a winemaking family. He chuckles as he tells us that even now, with a decade of winemaking experience, his mother will happily taste a wine of his but there’ll still always be her favourite box wine in the fridge. But MC was intrigued by the world of wine and decided to study viticulture and oenology at the University of Stellenbosch.
After graduating, his first job was at a large cooperative winery producing a whopping nine million litres of wine per year. He remembers,
“I would carry 20kg bags of woodchips, as well as bags of tartaric acid, up the stairs to throw into a giant tank which had 45 tons of grapes in it. After that first year, I quickly realised… this is not it. There’s no feeling here.”
He shifted his gaze, determined to find another kind of winemaking that was more personal.
His second job took him to Paarl, where he worked at a small family-owned wine farm, Joostenberg. It was like night and day in comparison to his first experience. He says,
“It was so different. They were super small, and it was their third year working organically. Not just that, but all their eggs came from their own chickens — the kids would bring their eggs to me. I’d be invited for dinner, and they made the most amazing food with vegetables from their own garden. I think there it became a romance sort of thing for me. I fell in love with the idea of not having to go to the shop but being able to pick your own food. Of course, we know the differences in flavour, too!”
Tyrell Myburgh, the winemaker at Joostenberg, sent MC on a biodynamics course. This would also form MC’s approach to farming:
“We learnt about composting and the moon cycle. My learnings there played a big role in making me think: if you can rack your wines at a certain time of the month and get a wine that is just as clean — or cleaner — than by adding stuff that you buy to the wine... why wouldn't you do it that way? Plus, that stuff you add negatively impacts flavours and your palate. That was a big turning point.”
Next, MC moved to the Swartland to work at Antebellum Wines. Having just moved to the region, he soon met Craig Hawkins of Testalonga and Jurgen Gouws of Intellego Wines at a braai (a South African bbq). He remembers,
“Back then, I had a totally different palate, coming from Stellenbosch. But I started tasting these other kinds of wine, made by Craig, Jurgen and Johan Meyer, and I started loving them because of the acidity, the energy, and how they made me feel. When we had a braai, we’d start at lunchtime and often go until 2am, even 3am or 4am in the morning. If we did that in Stellenbosch I’d have been lying under the table before the sun went down! It changed the way I felt about wine. I got more in contact with what my body likes.”
Next, MC worked as Farm Manager at the iconic Swartland Syrah vineyard, Porseleinberg. Eventually, however, when business changes meant that the cellar space moved, and so MC would have solely been farming, he decided he wanted to set out to create something of his own. Although he has a deep love for farming and connection to the land, he also craved the chance to express that land through a bottle of wine.
It was a watershed moment. In 2019, he reached out to Jurgen Gouws, and was able to make his first vintage — just five barrels — in his winery, helping Jurgen in the cellar during harvest, too.
“Then, I was in two other cellars in 2020 and 2021; business was small and to get a place would have cost too much for me to grow the business — I was doubling production every year, so had early expenses. Last year, I finally got a cellar space, but the production licence didn’t go through so I had to move everything in the middle of harvest.”
Thankfully, Adi Badenhorst saved the day and MC was able to use one of his buildings to produce and store his wine. By 2023, MC will finally be in his own space, and his wines will have their new home, this time more permanent.
MC works with five different growers across the Paardeberg. The vineyards are planted on decomposed granite soils, and are almost all farmed organically and/or biodynamically. By 2023, MC hopes to reach a point where he will be able to take responsibility for the vineyards himself —with his own designated blocks — and by five years’ time he hopes to be farming all of vineyards biodynamically. He says,
“I like thinking outside of the box. I’d love to work with the plants in this area. At the end of the day, It’s not about the name ‘biodynamic’ but the principles. If you follow the principles, you can manage everything yourself, and you’ll have less of a footprint on the environment than if you’re driving to Stellenbosch to collect the biodynamic preparations.”
He explains that following biodynamic principles allows for a more personal connection to the land:
“We have definitely got lost when it comes to our connection with plants. With biodynamics, you learn how specific vineyards grow, and how they differ and how they respond. Then, you can change things. That’s more important than just ticking off ‘I’ve done this spray at this time.’ I love farming and being in the vineyards, but I want to do it in a way that makes me happy. It can give you joy. Even when you’re spraying the preparations it’s as if there’s an energy in the air when you’re doing it. I don’t want to use the word ‘magic’ — but there is really something about it. And you do pick it up in the wines. There’s a different energy in wines that come from vineyards which have been farmed in that way for ten years or more — if the winemakers make simple wines where they just try to put what they have in front of them into the bottle, of course.”
Winemaking is carried out with freshness, acidity and texture in mind.
“Keep it Loose” is a blend of Colombard, Grenache Blanc and Viognier. MC explains,
“Viognier gives roundness and mouthfeel, and the aromatics of the Grenache Blanc makes the wine blossom a bit. Then, at the end, Colombard brings the wine together in terms of the acidity, making it focused.”
He does a skin contact period of between seven to ten days for the Colombard and Viognier, whereas the Grenache Blanc is direct pressed (as he doesn’t yet have a destemmer, he decided to do this in order to ensure that the wine wasn’t too green in flavour). He says,
“The idea is to make it in a ‘pool wine’ kind of style, with lower alcohol so it’s easy to drink. The skin fermented side gives some complexity and structure. If I get a destemmer I’d like to leave it for a bit longer on the skins, but step by step!”
“To Maike and the Rest” comes from Chenin Blanc picked at three different stages. The early pick provides sappiness and acidity - “like an electric shock” - with the middle pick contributing balance, and the last pick giving a certain mineral texture to the wine which MC describes like “sucking a pebble.” It spends 12 days on the skins, also whole cluster, with maceration taking place infusion style.
“People say, ‘it doesn’t look orange!’ That’s because I work very softly, just to keep the cap of the wine healthy rather than to extract. The soils here give wines that are focused on the elegance of the variety, so I try to work very lightly with the grapes in the cellar.”
His rosé “Low Drama” is a direct-pressed blend of Pinotage and Mourvèdre. It features a llama on the label in homage to the herd he drives past on the way to the vineyard. It’s also a nod to a great place in Cape Town that serves shawarmas through a hatch in the wall, which has a sign saying ‘no drama only shawarma.’
“Find Your Happy Place” is a juicy red that makes you think of cru Beaujolais, but with South African soul. A blend of Grenache, Pinotage and Carignan, it’s macerated whole cluster, infusion style. 40% is carbonic, with the rest being semi-carbonic. He finds the Pinotage and Grenache give the wine its fruitiness and aromatic profile, whereas the Carignan gives it a little extra structure.
When handled sensitively, Pinotage gives a delicious crunchy sour cherry side to the wine, and that is evident in this cuvée. It seems there’s an exciting future for South Africa’s own grape variety when made by makers who treat it gently with respect to its parents, Pinot Noir and Cinsault. Both varieties are naturally juicy in style, so to create Pinotage in an extracted oaky way (as it so often has been made) doesn’t actually make much sense — it’s clear it far prefers to be handled with a delicate mindset. We discuss this with MC, who nods and adds,
“Particularly after seeing how Bernhard Bredell of Scions of Sinai works with it, Pinotage is really starting to explode here, which is a great thing!”
“Wish You Were Here” is a Syrah cuvée. Again, MC does three different picks to explore the full spectrum of the variety’s expression, and the wine macerates infusion-style for between two to three weeks. It is light on its feet — sappy, bright and moreish while still being serious.
“Syrah has enough spice and flavour on its own – it doesn’t need to be over-extracted or too inky.”
The latest 2022 additions to the L’Equinox stable will include a Muscat from vineyards near the sea on the West Coast of the Swartland, and a Cabernet Sauvignon from Paarl. The Muscat saw a mighty period of 90 days on the skins (MC was able to borrow a destemmer this time!) He says,
“Often when I drink a Muscat I can only really have a glass or two, but not the whole bottle. So, this is about making something that’s drinkable, with acidity and freshness.”
The Cabernet, meanwhile, was actually inspired not by a Cabernet, but a Merlot from the Adelaide Hills made by his friend Bobby Fishel of ‘Just Enough Wine.’ He says,
“We drank it one night, and it was just so good! It’s made with super light extraction, so it was very refreshing and acid-driven. I also love old Cabernet Sauvignon wines, just not the style it’s so often made in now. So, I decided to give making it a go in a similar way to that Merlot by Bobby.”
All fermentations occur naturally, and no additions are used apart from a small amount of SO2. Eventually, MC would like to experiment without sulfites, too, but he doesn’t want to rush. He says,
“Tom Lubbe (of Matassa) once said, ‘first, get your ducks in a row; don’t make wine without sulfites yet, but rather figure out how everything works.’ I think that’s important — at the start I was afraid to take too many chances. But after a few vintages, I’d love to try working without sulfites.”
He explains that when he adjusts his farming practices and employs biodynamics, he should see a shift in the pH levels of his grapes (they become lower, which means there is more acidity). Higher acidity means a less hospitable environment for unwanted bacteria and yeasts, which combined with clean and precise work in the cellar, means there will be less overall risk.
MC is one young guy with bucketloads of ambition and creativity. When we left our tasting with him, we couldn’t help but dwell on how much this young man has achieved in such a short space of time. Growing from five barrels to 17,000 bottles and six cuvées in just three years is quite the achievement, and we can’t wait to see what he does next on Swartland soil. The vineyards he works with are lucky to have him, and in the cellar, well — the sky is the limit for L’Equinox.