South African Mini Wine Odyssey – Part One

 Craig Hawkins & Testalonga

As the aircraft sashays towards Cape Town you get a glimpse of the muscular beauty of this slice of Africa. The city itself is expanding confidently, a natural amphitheatre-shaped area bordered by Table Bay and defined by the mountains of Signal Hill, Lion’s Head, the oblong massif of the Table Mountain and Devil’s Peak.  It is a wonderful portal to a country, a gob-smacking, eye-bulging panorama that you want to etch into your consciousness to retrieve later.


At the airport I was collected by Carla Kretzel, Craig’s other half, and we drove up to the Swartland. Soon the motorway will connect Cape Town with Malmesbury, the largest town in the region, putting Swartland within easy commuting distance of the regional capital.

The evidence of a prolonged hot spell is immediately apparent. The ground looks parched. Carla tells me this same arid region is green and verdant in the winter – it is difficult to conceive. Apparently this will be the earliest vintage in Swartland (and in South Africa generally) in memory, a good three weeks ahead of the norm.

The Swartland itself begins some 50 kilometres north of Cape Town and consists of the regions between the towns of Malmesbury in the south, Darling in the west, Piketberg in the north and the Riebeek West and Riebeek Kasteel in the east. Jan van Riebeeck called this softly undulating country between the mountain ranges “Het Zwarte Land” (The Black Land) because of the endemic Renosterbos. After the rains, mainly in winter, the Renoster Bos takes on a dark appearance when viewed from the distance in large numbers. This is due to the fine leaf-hairs adhering to the leaves when wetted. The wide fertile plain is the bread basket of Cape Town, with its wheat fields extending to the foot of the mountains, punctuated by wine, fruit and vegetable farms.

The Swartland is not only a delimited region – it is also a state of mind. One might even say that it is where certain growers go to find themselves. More on this anon.

1 Dusty roads on the way to Malmesbury


No time to wallow in jet lag for it was out into the searing heat of noon to meet the toiling Craig. The previous day he and Carla had racked up 18 sweaty hours in the winery. He is currently plying his craft at the old Observatory Winery, a compact building not that much larger than a garage with a dedicated barrel room and a small winemaking facility. As I enter the cool respite of the winery I hear the second-hand destemmer chugging away near the entrance. It is a minimalist gizmo-free environment; in the far corner against the wall are a couple of big plastic tubs where the destemmed grapes are loaded from a receiving tray (scooped in with a bucket and cupped hands), whilst against the opposite wall a medium-sized stainless steel tank wherein the Chenin has already begun its super-sudsy celling-to-flor ferment. On the left and through a low doorway into the relative gloom of the barrel room where each of the barrels is awaiting the bounty of the new vintage. Already chalked on the heads are the names of the cuvees: Cortez, King of Grapes, Redemption, Serenity and Mangaliza (which we might call “the pork barrel.”)

Carla is already busily washing the lug boxes or caisses in a plastic bath. Each one has to be cleaned of leaves and other grapey detritus and subsequently stacked in threes in the sun to dry. Craig, meanwhile, is scrupulously hosing down all the equipment. “I don’t want a single grape on the floor.” “I love tidiness in the winery. Winery work is 90% cleaning”, he laughs ruefully, as we enjoy a refreshing beer later. Being so hands-on gives one an intimate, almost visceral relationship with the wines.

Whilst much of this may seem like common-sense this is winemaking at the fine margins, requiring a modicum of luck as well as good judgement. For want of a screw – or a screwdriver – the whole process can grind to a halt. A power cut (and there are many) or a broken piece of machinery means that you are reliant on others which is not easy when you pride yourself on your self-sufficiency. Often Craig is taking apart bits of equipment and reassembling it, cudgelling, cajoling and cursing. Instinct and experience are the guides when the little things become the major irritants. 


Into the destemmer 


Carla amongst the hoses


 Chenin mulching in the tub

A vigneron needs to be organised; having a clear idea in his or her head and sticking to it is paramount. He or she also has to multitask like crazy. Finally, it is essential to be adaptable and have a plan B and even a plan C. One poor decision or unforeseen circumstance will create a domino effect on the activities for the rest of the day, and when you are splitting your precious time between two wineries, borrowing equipment and needing to transfer your limited resources from one place to another things will quickly spiral out of control.


Hosing down the destemmer


The grapes squash


Stemmy goo


Plastic fermentation vats being transferred

After emptying the grapes into one of plastic tubs and giving Carla a hand cleaning the cases, we stacked and strapped the crates and tubs on the back of a trailer with some wooden pallets. It is crucial to have the correct number of cases otherwise the harvesters who are paid by the box won’t be able to earn their full reward. We jump into the vehicle and bump along the dusty road, ferrying this cargo between the two winemaking facilities.




Craig and Carla currently live next to Paul and Anna’s house, which in turn is next to the Lammershoek estate. Craig currently buys the grapes from various sources as he works with a wide palette of grapes and is always looking for the best single vineyard expressions of the grape varieties in question. He works the old Observatory estate vineyards with the bush vines of Chenin (which goes into his clean skin Cortez Chenin), Muscat (making the skin contact Sweet Cheeks) and Harslevelu (possible wine next year). Grenache and Syrah come from another farm around 20 km away. The other grapes come from vineyards adjacent to their current home. All are farmed organically, using manures from their small herd of cattle.


Waiting for Muscat


Waiting for Chenin

Over a brai of roast chicken, corn and salad we taste the wines. The whites – the Cortez 2014 and El Bandito Skin Contact Chenin are in fine fettle, the latter as relaxed a version of this wine as I have ever tasted. The Cortez with its classic fynbos aromas, has plenty of angles, but it slips down easily. We turn out attention to the two Testalonga reds. 2014 was the maiden voyage for a Testalonga Redemption Syrah.



“I have been waiting for a few years for the right block of Syrah to come about with the particular flavours I was looking for. This was the first year I was truly happy with the result and decided to bottle the vineyard as a whole. I am really happy with it. It speaks of the elegance I love about Syrah without any of the really hard edges.”

The yields were typically low for this wine (around 25-30 hl/ha), the grapes harvested by hand with whole bunch 30 % and the remainder destemmed. The wine was fermented in open wood tanks and pressed and aged in 2000L old French casks with 10 days skin contact indigenous, ambient and then matured in 2000L barrel, 20 years old not filtered not fined SO2 added 2 months before bottling. The fruit is easy-going and aromatic, not dark, not heavy, a touch floral and nicely peppery.


The King of Grapes is a delight in the 2014 vintage. Craig comments:I learned a lot from the 2013 vintage (the first for the KOG) with regards to this wine. That year I bottled the wine after a very short time in wood (4-5 months). For the 2014 vintage I bottled it after 11 months. The difference was I used more lees contact for the 2013, and for the 2014 I racked it 4 times over the 11 months, as I this, I believe, helps me with the texture I am looking for in the wine.” Hand harvested fruit, 100% whole bunch, fermented in open wood tanks and pressed and aged in 500L eight year old French casks, the wine receives only nine day’s skin contact. The total SO2 is 13ppm and the abv – 11.63%. The wine sings.

I love this wine for its whistling jauntiness. It displays unabashed earthy notes on the nose which eventually give way to tight-skinned bright red berry flavours. The wine red/opaque colour not too dissimilar to a red from the Jura in appearance, which is why it resonates with me even more. Meanwhile the fruit is lifted in the mouth, and the underlying flavours are very spicy with a hint of stem tannin to give some balance to the spice.

Craig is a perfectionist. He counters the myth that natural vignerons embody the lazy in laissez-faire. Contrariwise, this is intense stuff–hands on, fingers in, white knuckles everywhere – nuts and bolts as well as logic, intuition and timing. What we may eventually taste is a romantic lover’s meeting at the journey’s end, but the wine does not happen by accident. Nor is he afraid to change his approach – according to the vintage, according to the vineyard and according to the matter within the grapes. Decisions and revisions. The empirical natural approach. He is still finding himself in this regard, and still discovering the wine. When you are a vigneron you are happy to celebrate the differences in all your wines – they are your children, so to speak, for all that.

He gets good grapes –they pick up the Swartland terroir be it from decomposed schists, quartz, granite or clay. Craig’s wines get their feet dirty in these soils. They are light on their urchin feet – abvs are always very low, the wines typically have a spine of acid that keeps the fruit bright and the tension ratcheted to the max. Underlying that is a common salty minerality, courtesy of the low phs. The natural yeasts both protect and nourish the wines, giving a spicy texture to their lightness. The barrels soften the ensemble, gathering and caressing the wine, yet the edges are always left largely intact. Older vintages reveal that the wines, particularly the Chenins, have the wherewithal to age.

Admittedly, this texture profile baffles many and even offends some wine commentators such as Andrew Jefford who believe that wines from Swartland should be like this, rather than like that. Not conforming to a preconceived idea of what a wine should taste like is the great sin of omission for the authoritative critic who demands his/her own interpretation of terroir; this simplistic summation does not even begin to attempt to understand the processes behind the farming and the winemaking. When you work with Craig you see that he is utterly clear about what he does and why he does it. When he pops a grape in this mouth, already the embryonic shape of the wine is forming. But he adapts to the circumstance rather than crushes the grapes to his vision.

Craig quite understands that some people will not get, and perhaps will even heartily dislike, his wines. He does believe that critics, rather than heckling from the side-lines, should come and speak to him face-to-face, question his methods and allow him to explain. And then agree to disagree. The notion that his wines are atypical and don’t accurately reflect the spirit of the Swartland is very peculiar. Whilst Craig’s taste influences are undoubtedly European: Dirk Niepoort, Noella Morantin, Yves Souhaut, Arianna Occhipinti, Tom Lubbe, Didier Barral and others are mentors and influences, the wines themselves possess unrivalled nerve and verve, the very sinew of terroir. You don’t have to wade through a fog of alcohol, oak, tannin, added acid. You can smell the fynbos and taste the stony base-line in the wines. These wines are free. These wines are Swartland.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Thor Gudmundsson

    Great piece Doug! Craig is an amazing, passionate winemaker, and he and Carla are lovely people.
    We at the Wine Rooms (Thor, Rich, Ollie & team) are great fans, all the more so for having visited Craig and Carla on a couple of occasions around the Swartland Revolution.
    The Swartland is a magical place, peopled with too much talent, pioneers and young mavericks, to name them all.
    We’re really looking forward to seeing the growing 2015 Testalonga range. Craig’s wines are fun, they’re cerebral and drinkable, easy on the head, always a pleasure. The man is modest and has the intelligence to admit that, like all of us, he’s made mistakes, but his wines keep growing in stature.
    It’s a shame if parts of the wine ‘Nomenklatura’ (critics, mega-competitions, regulators…WSET?) find Craig’s wine a challenge, but innovation and progress are often challenging. His wines may defy pigeonholing, but they speak of the Terroir, and give natural winemaking a (very) good name. If you make fantastic wine, you’re the one setting the agenda, and the rest of us can only observe and comment, drink and sell…

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