TESTALONGA: Wines of steel and intellect

I often find myself looking for complexity or poetry in wines that aren't necessarily deserving of philosophizing. Not all wines emit similar frequencies, vibes or "energies". Sometimes it's as simple as identifying with the person who made, and liking it simply for that reason solely.

The winemakers, and their resulting wines that I respect and love the most, all share similar traits: something unspoken and a certain enlightenment.

It's always with utter and sheer delight when I come across these intellectual styles of wines. It's as though I've calibrated my palate to a frequency only certain wines tap into.

This experience happens every time I drink Testalonga, whether it's pairing it with a squid ink pasta (discussed below) or sipping a razor sharp, saline chenin blanc on a blistering patio on a 30C degree day. Without fail, the wines leave me salivating and wanting more.

Speaking with co-owner and winemaker Craig Hawkins affirmed what I intuitively already knew I'd encounter - a passionate erudite with endless knowledge.

Photo: Contributed

LM: Can you tell me about your journey into making wine? 

CH: I got into wine through my older brother Neil back in 2001 – I was fresh out of school and needed money for holidays and beer. We are not from a winemaking family and are originally from the East (Durban) part of South Africa where vines don’t grow. I will never forget the day my brother brought home a wine magazine and we all laughed at him and then laughed even harder when he said he was going to study it as an 18 year old. But little did we all know then that we would both fall in love with it.

Neil had just started working as a winemaker/viticulturalist and I started working in the vineyards for him to earn extra cash. It started off as a holiday thing doing whatever needed to be done and then I saw the transition from vine to wine in the cellar and that’s when it bit me.

I always wanted to work in nature conservation (which I was studying at the time) but then switched over to wine. My brother then put me in touch with Eben Sadie who I thought was the most boundary pushing at the time in 2005, and I was fortunate enough to get a job for harvest time with him. I subsequently did 5 harvests with him in SA and also one in Spain and from there I formed an idea of what I wanted to become in wine. Between 2006-2011 I traveled extensively between SA and Europe, I wanted to work in the old world to tap into the blood stream of what for me is the source of wine (old Europe), I have an Irish passport so it helps. Tom Lubbe from Domaine Matassa and Dirk Niepoort were massive influences on me and I spent a lot of time with both of them in the vines and cellar and my first proper job was making the wine for Dorli Muhr (Dirks Austrian Wine Project) from 2008 – 2011. 

In 2008 I made my first 2 barrels of TESTALONGA El Bandito (Skin contact chenin) and that was when it all started.

In 2015, Carla and I purchased some land on the northern mountains of Swartland, we called the farm Bandits Kloof (Kloof in Afrikaans means ravine), it was virgin soil and on the mountain slopes, so we put in a lot of hard work to get the soils ready for planting our first vines in 2018. We now currently have 4ha of vineyards on the farm (Grenache blanc and Grenache Noir, Macabeu, Mourvedre and Carignan). This is where we live and make our wine. We rent 15ha of vineyards from the Paardeberg region of the Swartland.  

The business is first generation and is just Carla and I - we have 5 employees who help us with everything.

LM: We hear so often that we need to let the grapes (especially in natural winemaking) express themselves in as honestly a way as possible, but yet there is still is much influence from the winemaker. How do you achieve your own personal expression on the resulting wines? Can you attribute it just to farming? Or are there things happening that we don't quite understand? (an instinctual, or spiritual effect so to speak)

CH: Everybody and everything in this world that has the ability to think and form its own style. The same applies to winemaking/farming and anything really that requires a bit of a thought process.

For sure the soil and grapes on that soil have specific intrinsic qualities. A vine will react to the farming methods being practiced on it and respond to those methods. How the vine takes up nutrients and water from the soil is dependent on so many factors and I firmly believe organic farming enhances this uptake for the better. Before the grapes even reach the cellar, they have their own qualities and flavours specific to that soil and region, this is already one of the major factors which will influence my decision making in the cellar and the resulting wine. I for sure have my own style in wine and it is quite apparent i think in my wines. First and foremost I like acidity to form the backbone of my wines and everything is anchored along this “acid spine”. This I suppose is what you could call my style and fingerprint, I do everything on taste, pick on taste, press on taste and blend on taste, it’s just what I am comfortable with and I think helps me develop my own style over the years. There isn’t any magic or me touching a barrel and singing to it to change its character, but there is definitely an influence from all the many decisions I make along the way that forms the final picture.

I try and make the best decision (at the right moment) to benefit quality, it’s about a collection of small moments added together that give you a wine. It’s my job to not be lazy so i don’t miss those moments!

Photo: Contributed

LM: I enjoyed your skin contact chenin blanc with a squid ink pasta that blew my mind. Why do you think that wine lends so well to pairing with food? 

CH: Thanks for enjoying it! I would definitely say the combination of light tannin and acidity work really well with foods that have a bit of an oily texture. But its also the main reason I enjoy balanced acidity in my wines and wines I like to drink because they just make food so much better and enhance the food. I always say its not about the food complementing the wine, but what the wine brings to the food to make the food taste better…

LM: Can you share more about the community of natural winemaking in South Africa? Have you seen it evolve much? Where do you see it going? 

CH: It’s definitely grown over the years, it used to just be literally 2 of us but there are now quite a few producers, but I wouldn’t say its exploding. For me its not so much about there being a community of only natural wine growers but a community of wine growers who are focused on improving farming methods and increasing the subjective qualities in wine. That for me is more important than a specific “style” of wine. I make natural wine because I know that this is the way I am going to find the most purity in the wines I like to drink and make, its my decision based on quality rather than trying to be in a specific group. I was fortunate when I started in 2008 that the natural wine movement in the world hadn’t really taken off so it wasn’t seen as anything. I chose this way of working because these were the wines I most enjoyed drinking over the years I spent discovering in Europe and drinking. And then I suppose it really took off from 2010 onwards and we were just a part of it, but I have never deviated from the fact that it is all about quality, not just trying to make an easy drinking wine with a lot of fruit (which I do enjoy) that could be from anywhere. But if that’s the best a vineyard can give me, then that’s what it is.

I do see a shift in natural wine, (and for me it is pleasing to see because its going to another level),  I see the guys who are only searching for quality (I always reference Domaine Belluard as I love what he does) and they don’t deviate, and then I see producers who are just trying to make a wine as “natural as possible”, this is great as they are expressing their imprint on that vineyard. My only question would be, and it's something I ask myself all the time -  is this the best you can do, or are you making it this way because it is what you think people want? For sure everybody’s running a business but for those producers that I most admire and have been around the longest, there is one common theme – and that is they have done it their way from the beginning.

Photo: Contributed

LM: What is your opinion on sorting fruit? I've heard techniques of ruthlessly sorting each and every berry to a more laissez faire attitude, attributed to an analogy of the ripest peach not being the prettiest, but most flavourful. Would you say the same of grapes? 

CH: I hear what you say regarding ugly looking but full of flavour. This might apply to tomatoes etc but I think an ugly grape is normally not a great thing. If the vineyard is well farmed and in balance and on good soils for wine, it will generally give you what you're looking for. I do believe in sorting grapes that I use for skin maceration (red and white), we run everything over a sorting table before fermentation just to remove any leaves/sticks etc, and if by the off chance we have a rotten bunch we take that out too. (it's very dry where we are, so rot is not a problem). But I do like to remove any bunches that are maybe underripe as I don’t want these green flavours in the wine. We won’t harvest any of these bunches, but things do slip through. But I'm not about to go full NASA on my grapes and use robots and these computer berry by berry sorting machines. But whatever makes you sleep at night…

LM: Whole cluster fermentation has come back in vogue especially in the natural wine community. Is that an approach you employ ? Why or why not? 

CH: My dry white wines – are all whole bunch pressed, it definitely gives better quality, you get slightly less juice back than crushing/destemming and then pressing but it gives higher quality because not every single berry is opened and the juice is slightly cleaner.

  • My skin macerated white wines – I destem 100% whole berries and ferment in open tanks. In our climate which is warm and dry I don’t want excessive tannin on my skin macerated whites, there is enough acidity to balance the tannin from the skins and I find whole bunch ferment on the white grapes I work with give a grittiness I don’t like.

  • Red wines – depending on the cultivar I generally use the whole bunches (don’t de stem), this depends on the pH of the wine/vineyard (historically) and the acid levels. I don’t do carbonic maceration, I have a small crusher (2 rollers) that crush the bunches and they ferment in open top tanks. The reason I do this by machine and not foot, is firstly by foot you don’t crush everything in the tank you just make a kind of grape soup. The bunches are all being crushed the way I want them to be, but the main reason is I am looking for tannin and a perception of acidity that comes from the stems and into the wine. I like what the stem tannins bring. I don’t do carbonic maceration because I find they all just end up smelling the same, a specific enzyme is released which gives you these very fruity flavours (which are delicious, I love these wines don’t get me wrong) but its not what I'm searching for in my wines..

LM: Who are your inspirations? 

CH: Early years – my brother Neil, Eben Sadie, Tom Lubbe, Remi Pedreino, Dirk Niepoort and Dorli Muhr , they were instrumental in forming the ideas and also allowed me to express myself without telling me what too. I will always be grateful for that.

Now – inspiration is always interesting because I get asked this question a lot, and I get a lot of my inspiration for wine from people or things that aren’t wine related but I can use them in what I am trying to do. But from a wine point of view , again I love Dominique Belluards wines, they are always inspiring, Pascal Potaire (Domaine les Capriades) is a huge influence on me for my pet nats and I love his wines. Other inspirations are guys like Tony Hawk (the skater) I listened to a podcast with him the other day and he did things in a time that were completely ground-breaking for his generation, the same applies to Kelly Slater (the surfer) and Tiger Woods. But I take inspiration from anyone that does it their way (for good reason), I like to see a bit of steel and intellect in someone. That is inspiring.

Photo: Contributed

LM: What's in your glass these days? 

CH: At the moment I am drinking from Romania – Edgar Brutlers “Grünspitz” 2018 – it is an indigenous grape from the Satu Mare region of Romania – Weingut Edgar Brutler, very citrus like wine.

LM: Where do you hope to take the El Bandito brand? 

CH: We are going to develop our farm Bandits Kloof, and what we envision for the future is to really fine tune our vineyards and make the best wine we can from these soils. But have fun along the way. But over the next few years/decade you will see the Bandits Kloof wines (which come from our farm) become more prominent, and eventually hopefully one day my daughter Camilla would like to take over from me and improve on the things we are doing now, and add her own style to the vines and wines.

LM: What are your death row wines?

CH: At the moment it would be Les Alpes – dmn Belluard (Savoie) and Werlitsch Ex Vero II (Austria).

Learn more about Testalonga here.