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Back to nature with the Bandits at Testalonga

Posted by Martin Cahnbley on

Natural wine? In 2016, I was reading more and more about this emerging trend in international media and felt a need to find out more.

But first, it's necessary to explain what natural wine is.

The basics are that the grapes need to be sourced from organically-managed vineyards, hand-picked, and fermented using the grapes’ own naturally-occurring yeasts. There’s no fining or filtration, and the only addition may be a little sulphur during bottling. Natural as can be.

Georgia (ex-USSR) has been making wine for 8,000 years and, as you can imagine, those wines were made naturally for many centuries before more modern winemaking techniques and chemicals were introduced. Some regions like the Jura in France have also been making wine in this fashion for a long time.

In the past 10 years, however, more and more winemakers have re-discovered this natural way of making wine and, with consumers’ growing interest in more environmentally-friendly products, they have found a ready market.

As part of my journey of discovery, I contacted John Wurdeman at Georgian winery Pheasant’s Tears and Dave Geyer in the Barossa to establish a ‘natural’ portfolio within Planet Wine. I also reached out to the leading maker of natural wine in South Africa, Craig Hawkins, and arranged to visit him and his wife Carla, also a winemaker, on my annual trip to South Africa in January 2017.

Soft sand and Beorbuls

The directions to Bandit’s Kloof, two-hour’s drive north of Cape Town, were vague and I nearly got the rental stuck in some soft sand, but I made it.Craig and Carla had very recently purchased the property and were setting about establishing and renovating the necessary infrastructure.Their number one priority had been the large temperature-controlled ‘winery’ and warehouse.

Craig, accompanied by his Boerbul dogs, showed me around the property, travelling past a dam with a floating plastic crocodile head, and pointing out where future vines would be planted.Their land is nestled on the slopes of a south-facing hill and the soils are very rocky – a great source of building materials for walls and buildings.

We then returned to the concrete structure to inspect his tanks, barrels and wines.What a journey I was in for: audacious labels, amusing copy and clever designs, out-there grape varieties and Craig’s quiet confidence and tenacity. We tasted wines from barrels and bottles as well as some herb-infused products still at an experimental stage (see photo at the end). Craig also touched on some of his history, starting with a childhood growing up in Natal Province and eventually finding his way into winemaking via various stations around the world.

In 2008, after many years making wine all over the globe, Craig and Carla started Testalonga in Swartland. Testalonga was the nickname of an old Italian guy Craig knew who made his white wines like red wines, as well as the name of a bandit from Sicily.

Defiant, elemental wine somewhat freakish

Testalonga’s first wine was a skin contact chenin blanc called El Bandito – a defiant, elemental wine that, at the time, was regarded as something freakish, an aberration. Craig has since changed the agenda in South Africa. These days, while skin contact and orange wines are not ten-a-penny, no one blinks when they see one.

From there, they introduced new vineyards of mostly old bush vines of grenache, muscat, carignan, harslevelü and syrah. They have also planted South Africa's first cuttings of maccabeu and vermentino.

Testalonga’s entry-level range is called Baby Bandito and encompasses a chenin blanc, carignan and cinsault. Thewines tend to be low in alcohol, 11.5 to 12.5%, delicate and fine with good acidity and drinkability – not overpowering.The labels depict a photograph of a Vietnamese child, taken by Craig’s brother.

Neil Young inspires more killer labels

The El Bandito range also includes Cortez (name borrowed from the Neil Young song, Cortez the Killer): a white wine made with chenin blanc grapes, rich in apricot, melon and the firm backbone of ripe citrus.The label for this wine changes every year.Then there are the Monkey Gone to Heaven Mourvedre, Hallelujah Chicken Run Viognier, Sweet Cheeks Muscat (lable above) Queen of Spades Tinta Amarela, Mangaliza Harslevelü (a Hungarian variety) and The Dark Side Syrah.

He also produces two Pet-Nat (natural sparkling) wines that I have also imported: I am the Ninja, and I wish I was a Ninja.
Each wine and label has a multi-layered story to it.

Craig is a thinker. He is El Bandito who is allowed to roam and experiment and Carla is Baby (or Boring when she does admin) Bandito and holds it all together.Their property, Bandit’s Kloof, is where the Bandits have created a nest for themselves and their recently-arrived daughter.

Ground-breaking wine in high demand worldwide

Testalonga’s wines have a great international reputation and are in high demand worldwide. After initially only being able to source a small allocation for New Zealand, through repeated visits to the Bandits, I have just recently landed a larger volume of the wines and, proudly, a wine made especially for me, the Cahn & Finlay Pinotage, which boasts a photograph I took last year when in Cape Town.

The final words have to be about Craig; he says these wines are South African wines with a sense of place, and explains that what has been tasted before from South Africa is industrialised wine, made to meet profit requirements, resulting in a demand for a specific style of formulaic wine. 

“Wines from high-yielding vines that have had too much time in the sun, giving high levels of sugar and resulting alcohol levels. A sense of place cannot be dressed up in industrialised yeast, hard processing and too much added of anything,” this ground-breaking winemaker says.

Craig says how important it is that everything is done properly, from the work in the vineyard to the winemaking. Nothing should be added and nothing taken away. Although, for Craig, 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.

The name El Bandito reflects the rebellious attitude Craig has towards the established ideas of South African wine. He pours Sweet Cheeks, from the grape Muscat d’Alexandria with 10 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 my cheeks are bulging (sweet cheeks) from this zesty juice.

Craig’s last comment: “If I could, everything would be aged under the surface of the sea.”

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