Craig Hawkins and his wife Carla are one of the South African wine world’s most interesting enigmas. They operate completely under the radar (try and find them online, we double-dare you!), they’re unassuming and approachable, and yet they’re making some of the most interesting natural wines South Africa has ever seen under their label Testalonga.
We recently caught up with Craig to find out more about how they view natural wine, why they chose to go this route and what on earth inspired their fascinating range of labels:
Swimming upstream to go the natural route
“Natural wine is a polarising point in the wine world; it can be a rabbit hole of a subject,” says Craig, who has been making natural wine under his own label since 2008. “People are either love it or they hate it. I call it a movement because this winemaking style has actually been established for a long time, but it was under the radar.
“In essence, natural wines are wines that are farmed organically and made without any additives (yeast, acids, etc.) in the cellar. The only thing we might add is a little bit of sulfur. In short, with natural wines there are no rules – it’s an embodiment of an ideal rather than a paint-by-numbers approach.”
The first wine Craig and Carla launched under the Testalonga brand in 2008 was a skin-macerated orange wine. This immediately set them apart and paved the way for further exploration and experimentation.
“However, I find it important not to place the style of wine I make over everything else we do,” explains Craig. “I make my wines in the style that I like and that happens to be natural wine. I am a purist when it comes to wine; I want to get to the heart of the matter. When I make it as naked as possible, I find I get more pleasure out of what I’m doing. Otherwise, I get bored.”
Funnily enough, even though the Testalonga labels may intimate something else, Craig is actually quite old-school in terms of his approach to winemaking.
“For me, wine is about a single vineyard, single soil. I want to represent that vineyard to the best of my ability. So every label I produce comes from a different vineyard. The amount of wine I produce from every vineyard varies according to the yield – I might to 300 bottles from the one, and 10 000 from another,” he explains.
“Although my wines are single-cultivar, I don’t put the varietals on the labels. In Burgundy, they have the approach of honoring the vineyard over the grape, and I respect that. That’s why, instead of putting ‘Chenin Blanc’, which I find fairly boring, I rather put ‘made from grapes’. It’s straightforward to the point of being funny, but when you break it down, I’m also telling you that the only thing in this bottle is grapes – nothing else has been added.”
The road that brought Craig & Carla to Banditskloof
Prior to going his own way, Craig had been employed at some of the most respected cellars in the Swartland. “I came to the Swartland to work for Eben Sadie in 2006; my wife Carla has been here since 1997. Testalonga was established as a side-line in 2008, and I moved over to Lammershoek in 2009, working there until the end of 2014,” says Craig.
“This is when we put in an offer to purchase Banditskloof near Piketberg, and life got serious pretty fast. The farm was 135ha and there was no electricity, so we got it for a great price. There was nothing here – no vineyards or anything. We got stuck in plowing, ripping up, putting in irrigation, and starting up the cellar over the course of the last 5 years. We put in our first vines in 2018. Our first harvest from this farm will be in 2021.”
Craig says that he immediately knew that Banditskloof was the place when he drove through the gates to take a look at the end of 2014. “I stopped, I phoned Carla and I said I’ve found the place we’ve been searching for. There were three things that got me excited – there was water (two streams that flow year-round), great soil (mainly sandstone and slate derived), and because it’s set against the mountain, we have a slope which generally yields vineyards with more complexity. This is due to water movement etc. There were also a few old buildings around that we could renovate for houses and a cellar. Plus, in the end, it was 135ha of land that we could do with as we please, and that in and of itself was a major drawing card,” he enthuses.
Craig and Carla draw a lot of inspiration from the natural winemakers from around the globe who have been making their wines in this style for decades.
“When I look at the guys I respect making natural wines around the world – winemakers who have been doing it for 20, 40, 50 years – it’s apparent that it’s always been about quality to them. Now the world is taking notice of these guys and even though they are suddenly making a lot more money, they haven’t changed what they’re doing at all. They just carry on what they’re doing and putting the money back into the vineyards,” he says.
“The vineyards on our farm, Carla and I farm ourselves with the help of a small team of workers, and this was always our plan. We prune ourselves; we sucker ourselves. After all, we’re making wine from grapes, and absolutely everything starts in the soil and the vineyards. We just get on and do our thing. We do what we love quietly and properly and in the way that we know best.”
And how about those crazy labels?
According to Craig, labels provide a further dimension to wine, something he thinks is often overlooked. “When you look at my labels, I want you to feel an emotion; whether you like it or not – I want to evoke a response. 99 times out of a 100 I see people smile. We need to smile more in this world, and I think our labels engage people on a different level,” explains Craig, who designs all of the labels himself.
“I did art at school and it’s something I am very passionate about. I don’t have time to paint, so these labels become my canvas. It’s either photos I’ve taken, or my brother or my wife. The Baby Bandito photo, for instance, is a picture my brother took of some street art in Cambodia that I played around with and overlaid with quotes by Banksy. It’s all about positivity. When we bought the farm we started this brand which was all about keep on keeping on.
“Other labels feature pictures of a mouse that got stuck under my door, some cows that tried to eat our boxes when we just moved here, and my mate Paul Jordaan in a swimming pool at a braai. If it inspires me, it’s bound to go on a label at some point,” he smiles.
How to buy and taste Testalonga wine
If you’re making your way to the Swartland and you have some lead time, you can contact Craig directly on email@example.com to book a tasting. Alternatively, you can stop over at Bill & Co. Swartland Street Market in Malmesbury, or The Wine Kollective in Riebeek Kasteel if you want easy access and the input of some local purveyors. Alternatively, you can order it from Wine Cellar for delivery straight to your door.
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