From 135 South African rand, £15.50, €16.80, NZ$34.99, AU$40, 250 Norwegian kroner
Deeply conservative South Africa did not (and to a certain extent still does not) know what to do with Craig Hawkins. In a country where sustainable viticulture – never mind organic – is considered radical, this young man, with his hard-core organic farming principles veering dangerously toward biodynamic and his intervention-free cellar practices, bothered South African wine critics and authorities alike. His skin-contact whites have been rejected several times in the past by authorities who couldn’t find the appropriate box to tick, and thus deemed his wines unsuitable for export. Local journalists, bamboozled as much by his defiant commitment to organics and his stance against commercial winemaking as by the way the wider world embraced his wines, muttered darkly about lack of predictability and lack of fruit. They too, could not find the box to tick.
Hawkins has played left field from the start. His winemaker brother, Neil Hawkins (now making wine in Australia), gave him cellar-rat jobs for pocket money while he was still at school. He asked Eben Sadie for a job as a cellar hand after university and then spent the next six years dividing his year between South Africa on the Sadie Family estate, and working stages around Europe for Stéphane Ogier, Dirk Niepoort, Dorli Muhr, Rémy Pedreno of Roc d'Anglade and Tom Lubbe.
It was Lubbe, at Matassa, who was to have one of the greatest influences on his values and winemaking style. When he settled down in 2008 it was to start his Testalonga project with skin-contact Chenin Blanc El Bandito, and soon thereafter to work at Lammershoek for then-owners, Austrian Paul and Anna Kretzel. They later became his parents-in-law when he married their daughter Carla.
Lammershoek underwent a rocky change of ownership in 2014. Craig and Carla left and decided to turn Testalonga from a garage-wine project into a fully fledged wine estate. The pair of them, pictured below, bought a farm in the north of Swartland in 2015.
Testalonga was the name of a Sicilian outlaw, and therefore it should come as no surprise that their wines, with their quirky names and labels (all of which have a meaning, even if it’s not obvious), are made in two ranges: El Bandito and Baby Bandito. The Baby Bandito series – a recent addition – are his ‘peppy one-liners’. He describes the names of these wines as the kind of chin-up phrases you might say to a child who needs encouraging.
The first Baby Bandito is called Follow Your Dreams, another, Stay Brave. This particular wine, Keep On Punching, is in acknowledgment of a friend who always used to say during their hockey-game half-time talk, ‘Keep on punching, the head will fall’. Perhaps these are the wines born out of the difficult years leaving Lammershoek and setting up their own wine farm; self-pep talks, each cuvée? The labels themselves remind me a little of sixties and seventies vinyl record covers: part autobiography, part poetry, part protest against establishment. The striking black-and-white photograph on the labels of his Baby Bandito series is of a street child in Vietnam, taken by his brother Mark.
Keep On Punching is a 100% Chenin Blanc from a single vineyard of bush vines (see below) planted in 1972 on very rocky soil. Farmed organically, north facing on decomposed granite, 220 m (720 ft) above sea level, it produces tiny clusters of grapes with yields of just 20 hl/ha (well under 2 t/acre). It’s hand picked, whole-bunch pressed and wild fermented in 2,000-litre stainless-steel tanks with no temperature control and no additives apart from a small amount of sulphur (free SO2 is 10 ppm, total SO2 is 20 ppm) shortly before bottling unflltered and unfined. For the technophiles, RS is 2.26 g/l, TA 6.5 g/l, pH 3.11 and VA 0.41 g/l.
This pale, cloudy, lemon-coloured wine smells of fresh sage and cold wet stones and just-melted candle wax. It’s bone dry and nervy light, almost trembling like butterfly wings in the wind. Yet the acidity is incredible: steel-wire taut and coursing through the palate with relentless determination. It tastes of dry hay and lemon rind, white currants and stone dust. Linear and yet restless, weightless and yet unshakeably present. At just 12%, one might assume this is an easy quaffer, but in the style of Edith Piaf and true to its name, there is a lot of punch in this little frame.
If you strongly dislike ‘natural’ wine, then this might be one you could warily approach. It’s unconventional, but not bizarre. It’s not cidery or flat and doesn’t taste oxidised. If you layer Jura with Savennières with uber-dry Mosel, you get something of the spirit of the wine. Drink it with smoked salmon or mackerel pâté, or perhaps even better, with an unpasteurised creamy young goat’s cheese and walnuts on sourdough toast with a green-apple and fennel coleslaw on the side. We’re experimenting next Saturday with oysters barbecued on a wood fire with jamón ibérico, and I really wish I had another bottle of this to try with them.
The wine is available from several merchants in the UK (I bought mine from Buon Vino for £15.50 and I believe that Les Caves de Pyrène sells it as well), as well as in the Netherlands, Italy, Finland, Norway, New Zealand, Australia, and of course South Africa. The 2016 can be found in Japan. I apologise to our American visitors that no one has been smart enough to import the Testalonga wines into the US or Canada, yet. North Americans are missing out on so many great South African wines. Craig told me that he does sell wine in the USA with Severine Selections (Severine Perru) and in Canada with a few people, but in particular Nicolas Des Peyroux of Vins Nomad in Quebec. I couldn't find Keep on Punching on their online wine lists, but perhaps if you're in Canada or the US, you could get in touch with them directly and ask.