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Out of Africa - Wild Wines by Craig Hawkins

Not just wacky labels, but an artisan small producer making natural wine who had his experimental 2011 Cortez rejected by the South African Wine and Spirits Board for being too natural:
"The very first wine I ever made for myself was a 6-week skin macerated white wine (now called orange wines) from a 46-year-old Chenin Blanc vineyard on Lammershoek in the Swartland. It was beautiful. I loved it in all ways possible, it had soft tannins, a nose like nothing I had smelt before and it looked like liquid gold. I was in love, like a mother would be of her first born. I managed in time to scrape enough money together.....

to pay for corks and recycled bottles and with the help of a few family members I bottled my first wine. I shared a bottle with one of my major mentors, Tom Lubbe, one evening and his first comment upon smelling it, saying it in only the way Tom knows and that’s direct: “Bloody Hell Craig, you have a long road ahead of you”. He was of course referring to how I would struggle to get my wines through the rigid certification system back home.  I’m pretty sure the SA wine system is one of, if not, the strictest in the world. New Zealand (according to my inspector) has even based their system on ours and that’s saying something. It’s pretty tight. I won’t bore you with the specifics but a simple way of looking at it is like the NFL where there are a lot of rules that no one quite understands except Americans. No, it’s actually like baseball where there are fewer rules that everyone understands but it goes on and on until eventually even the players get bored and there’s a brawl. Actually the only similarity is the three-strike system and then you are out.

Once a wine is bottled it has to be certified analytically and sensorially before you can export it. It is also not like many other countries where if it doesn’t get the official certification then it can still be sold internationally as “uncertified” (i.e. without appellation, vintage and cultivar mentioned etc.), although it can still be sold locally as uncertified.  Machines do the analytical part and the humans the sensorial part (or is it the other way around?). Either way, there is a three strike system before you go to what I like to call: “the place with the big wooden table” where you have to explain your wine to the Pugh committee chieftains as to why it should be exported.

The humans do a good job of analysing my wines as they are always within the legal limits analytically, but the machines seem to be faulty as sensorially there is always a problem. I used to take it quite personally, and then it became quite entertaining. Now it really is a hindrance to our business. We export 90% of our production from a market that doesn’t quite yet understand our wine (although I always like to say, if you like the wine then you understand it) to markets that do understand but can’t access it as the guys that don’t understand it don’t want to tarnish the “image” of South African wine.

It’s actually quite comical. We’ve had our Rosé rejected as it had “insufficient colour”. Now tell me isn’t that precisely what makes a rosé a rosé? The fact that it is a red wine with insufficient colour? It’s funny how once a country that had its issues with somebody not being light enough now has issues with something not being dark enough. I even had a wine that had never seen wood (it was aged in a concrete tank) fail and the reason given was too much woody, vanilla character. I wonder what they would say if I sent a bottle of Bordeaux in? Other favourites are “not cultivar typical”, “turbidity” and “foreign wine character”.

Craig and Carla Hawkins proudly produce wines that are 'made from grapes', as naturally made as can be.... hand harvested, foot pressed, malolactic fermentation and with no to very low sulphur (ok, sometimes a smidgen at bottling) .

“Every year we have to experiment a little in order to learn, even the top Burgundy estates will experiment a little in order to try and achieve more quality. My number one goal is to make precise, clean and expressive wines. 8 to 10 years ago when I started I really pushed the boundaries with what you can and can’t do in South Africa and this was for a purely selfish reason: to learn. In the last few years I am drawing more and more on those very experimental years to achieve higher quality and precision in our wines now.”

Craig is young, yet very well travelled throughout Europe where he trained with some fine winemakers such as Dirk Niepoort in the Douro, Tom Lubbe in France, Muhr-van der Niepoort  in Austria and in his native South Africa he trained with Eben Sadie. Now he works on his own farm, Bandits Kloof in Piketburg where he produces small batches that get snapped up pretty quick by those who have tasted natural wine and can never go back!

“If you can believe the French for only one thing then let it be Terroir, I believe in single sites and grapes giving a more definite expression of the grapes and qualities that I am looking for in wines. Which is why I separate everything and bottle each grape and site separately.”

Craig’s wines have a wonderful acidity, he puts this down to climate and picking times: “We have very warm days and cool nights which help the grapes keep their acidity, without this the acid levels would fall dramatically, and we’d be left with very flat wines. It is one of the reasons why the Swartland is a great region. But your vineyards need to be farmed at least organically for these vines to have stable ph’s and acidities. The vines need to be farmed properly so they are balanced without yielding too much or too little, I also pick a little earlier than the rest of producers around but to me I think this is normal picking and they are picking too late.”

The Testalonga Orange wines are made from Chenin, Muscat and Harslevelu which are all created in Craig’s unique way:

“My Skin contact whites have come a long way since I started them in 2008, and in the last few years I am finding the best results by doing everything on taste, I have always picked/harvested purely on taste, but I now press on taste, when the wine tastes good I press it. I find this is the best result for the wines I am making and the different grapes I am working with. When the flavours and acid are balanced pick it, and when they are balanced press it”.

The UK gets a very limited quantity of Testalonga. Craig's annual production is already on a relatively small scale and what he does produce is very unique. His wine-making style is full of life and not full of unnatural cr*p!