The Rebel of Swartland Talking Natural Wines With Craig Hawkins

It’s a long time since I visited South Africa – just a year after Craig Hawkins established his own brand, Testalonga, with his wife Carla Hawkins. Unfortunately, my visit was unrelated to wine. Had I only known about him back then! After years of tasting (or rather drinking) Craig’s wines, I find them without comparison in their vibrancy, juiciness, and raw style that, somehow, also come off as elegant. I finally got to meet Mr. Testalonga, Craig Hawkins himself, in Oslo this summer.

Guest contributor Linn Johnsen (Vinstudinen) recently met the rebel of Swartland – Craig Hawkins
Guest contributor Linn Johnsen (Vinstudinen) recently met the rebel of Swartland – Craig Hawkins

About the Guest Contributor

Linn Johnsen is passionate about great wines, both conventional and natural, but her heart lies perhaps closer to the latter. At the moment, she is undertaking the prestigious wine education WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust), where she is currently studying for level 4 – Diploma. You can find more of her great writing at her own wine blog Vinstudinen (mostly in Norwegian). Make sure to read her previous story – “What’s the Fuss About Natural Wine?


The Rebel of Swartland

We meet the rebel of Swartland outside the small natural wine bar Brutus, situated in the hip Eastern-Oslo neighborhood Tøyen. The sun is baking as he pours me the first glass of one of my favorites from Testalonga – Cortez – a white wine from Chenin Blanc grapes, rich in apricot, melon, and with a strong backbone of ripe citrus. Every year, he changes the label for this beautiful cuvée. The name is lent from the Neil Young song Cortez the Killer. Perhaps, he named it so after listening to the Dave Matthews Band version in his wine cellar, while waiting for the magic to happen.

Testalonga, El Bandito, Cortez
Testalonga, El Bandito, Cortez

He seems calm, but I am not. I’m wondering whether I’m breaking any diplomatic rules when I ask why his wines don’t feel South African compared to what I’ve tasted before.

– On the contrary, he replies, this is South African wine with a sense of place.

Hawkins explains that what we have tasted before are industrialized wines, made to meet profit requirements, resulting in a demand for a specific style of wine. Wines from high yielding vines which have had too much time in the sun, giving high levels of sugar and resulting alcohol levels. I see where he is going.

A sense of place cannot be dressed up in industrialized yeast, hard processing, and too much added of everything. The legendary winemaker explains how everything needs to be done properly. From the work in the vineyard to the winemaking. Nothing should be added and nothing taken away. Although, for Hawkins, it’s not natural for the sake of natural that is important. The key is to produce the highest possible quality, and that means hygienic conditions will trump anything.

Testalonga, El Bandito, Sweet Cheeks
Testalonga, El Bandito, Sweet Cheeks

The name of the El Bandito line reflects the rebellious attitude Hawkins has towards the established ideas of South African wine. He pours Sweet Cheeks, from the grape Muscat d’Alexandria with a soft ten days skin contact. The name was inspired by the kids munching grapes during harvest season. It’s an impeccable orange wine with intense freshness, and I think I’m getting some sweet cheeks myself from this zesty juice.

– If I could, everything would be aged under the surface of the sea, he continues.

Hawkins believes this would be the key to a minimal footprint or interference with the wine, resulting in the cleanest, purest wines with a sense of place or terroir. I promise not to tell his wife of this expensive dreams.

– Natural wine will be the fine wine of the future, he says, while handing me what is supposed to be the final glass of the tasting.

His vision reminds me of the fact that, already, some of the finest wines from Burgundy are made in a natural way. This should definitely be the way for tomorrow’s winemakers. It’s all about quality, environmental responsibility, and, when the demand side picks up, it’s also about long-term economic feasibility.

Testalonga, El Bandito, The Dark Side
Testalonga, El Bandito, The Dark Side

The Dark Side drinks well already. Syrah grapes picked in 2016 and transformed into deep ruby liquid. The connotation of Star Wars is not intended. Instead, it’s about showing the dark side of Syrah. Large oak vessels have given the 2016 vintage a roundness already with fresh dark fruits, blueberries and a spiciness that suits it well. It would also suit any barbecue (or South African braai) very well.

Craig brought out "I Wish I Was a Ninja"
Craig brought out “I Wish I Was a Ninja”
This wine is all about the good times
This wine is all about the good times

Reluctant to let one of my favorite winemakers go too soon, and knowing that he also makes Pét Nat in small quantities, I have to ask him whether he has brought some to Oslo. Again, my diplomatic skills fail, but Craig delivers and, shortly after, brings forth the bubbles. I Wish I Was a Ninja, is the name. On the label, a friend of him is dipping in a pool with a glass in his hand. Pét Nat is all about the good times!

Hawkins explains how he’s careful with picking the grapes at the perfect time in order to give balance to a wine that normally has some residual sugar. Striking a balance with fruit, freshness and persistent bubbles takes courage. I’m sipping, not spitting, this vibrant South African sparkling wine and can’t see how it could be any better. Apricots, mango, and zesty citrus play the lead, while the foamy bubbles add fun. I want to dip into that pool too. The glou glou factor is sky high.

Unfortunately, all good things come to an end, and so does my tasting with the rebel from Swartland. Walking home, I comfort myself with the knowledge that a fair allocation of Craig Hawkins’ beautiful, vibrant wines have been sent to the Norwegian market – and there’s more to come.

Make sure to check out Linn’s website – Vinstudinen!

My short time with Craig Hawkins comes to an end
My short time with Craig Hawkins comes to an end

Have you tasted any wines from the rebel of Swartland? Share your favorites in a comment below.

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