Craig Hawkins Pushing the Boundries at His New Testalonga El Bandito Winery…

“Craig Hawkins has long been experimenting, pushing the boundaries and finding new ways to bring us wine in its most unadulterated form.” A wonderful sound bite pinched from Roland Peens at Wine Cellar, one of Craig’s biggest retail sellers in South Africa. So it’s not surprising that his wines have an insatiable cult following among consumers, connoisseurs and sommeliers around the world primarily because the wines excel at representing site, terroir and authenticity.

‘Natural wine is simple: organically farmed at the very least in the vineyard, no added yeast or acid or tannin, in fact, nothing added except small amounts of SO2 if need be… and no fining/filtration.’ – Craig Hawkins

Testalonga El Bandito Monkey Gone to Heaven 2016, WO Swartland, 13 Abv.

This 15 year old vineyard has yielded some delicious Mourvèdre fruit from this dry 2016 vintage. But of course this variety is normally very at home with hot dry conditions and prospers successfully in the hot South of France where it needs warmth to ripen fully. This expression from the Swartland has an appealing nose of dried potpourri, black chocolate and peppermint crisp combining with aromatics of garrigue, dried herbs, thyme, sweet green peppercorns and dry fynbos. But there is also plenty of complex black berry fruit on the palate mixing with black olive tapenade, chalky mineral spice, hints of graphite and a tantalising fresh black currant herbal tea infusion on the finish. Another classic over achieving wine from Craig Hawkins. Drink now to 2028+.

(Wine Safari Score: 93+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Getting In the Mood For the Real Wine Fair with Testalonga El Bandito Cortez Chenin Blanc…

Craig Hawkins’ interpretation of Chenin Blanc can divide opinion. Well, I love his wines. He always seems to somehow capture extra nerve, wound spring tension and vibrant freshness. There’s much more to it than merely explaining it as a result of earlier picking having tasted a lot of early picked versions that are hard, tart, one dimensional and lacking in texture and flavour complexity. No such problems for Craig’s wines.

I’ve never made a white wine myself, only red, but having followed Craig’s evolution as a winemaker, you can really see the subtle tricks he’s learnt along the way while making some “funky” whites with up to 2 years skin contact. As he always told me… “I wasn’t looking for any particular result with all the experimentation with skin contact, I just wanted to see how far I could push things … and learn something in the process.”

Well, Craig has certainly reined things in a little over the past few years, a clear sign that he has matured into a high quality, thoughtful, considerate winemaker. But importantly, he has never compromised his flair or his wines characterful natural purity and textural style. With his 2015 El Bandito Cortez, Craig has hit his zenith with Chenin Blanc.

Testalonga El Bandito Cortez Chenin Blanc 2015, 12.5 Abv.

This Chenin Blanc has a beautifully bright pale golden colour with aromas of baked crab apples, white bread drizzled with honey, incense, and tinned white peaches in syrup. Superbly expressive and complex. The palate is cool, taught and intense with Craig’s hallmark low pH feel and vibrant tension, but with perhaps a few extra layers thanks to the sublime 2015 vintage character. Plenty of racy freshness, white citrus, pithy river pebble minerality, waxy tangerine peel, fresh fennel and beautiful briney, salty sea breeze zest. This wine typifies low intervention winemaking at its very best. Decant before serving for best results. Drink from 2017 to 2030+.

(Wine Safari Score: 95/100 Greg Sherwood MW)

Testalonga El Bandito Queen of Spades 2016 Tinta Amarela – Perfect Saturday Quaffing…

Tonight I’m enjoying an easy drinking red from Craig Hawkins of Testalonga. This new Cuvee made from Tinta Amarela (or Trincadeira) is just perfect to accompany the opening matches of the 6 Nations Rugby Championship. 

A red wine grape that is commonly used in Port wine production. This grape is often noted for its dark colouring and its use in the Douro region has certainly been increasing in recent years as still wine production increases at the expense of Port.

Not sure what inspired Craig to make this wine as I’ve not had a chance to ask him but I’d hazard a guess it’s got something to do with his time spent making wine in the Douro and also because of his love of the fresh, vibrant red varieties found in the Iberian Peninsula. 

Indeed, this wine does have a dark purple black plum colour and a nose jam packed with red and black fruits, cranberries, brambley perfume, black forest berries and savoury hedgerow spice notes. There is also a lovely wild, earthy complexity. This is a super quaffable, characterful style revealing a lighter, medium bodied texture, sleek soft sweet sappy tannins and modest complexity. The finish is fresh and earthy with an attractive crushed gravel mineral note. I’m certain a little extra time in bottle for this 2016 red has benefited the wines elegance and tannin balance greatly. At the moment, it delivers lovely drinking pleasure but I suspect another 12 months in bottle will benefit this very oldy-worldly style further.

(Wine Safari Score: 91/100 Greg Sherwood MW) 

Testalonga El Bandito Cortez 2014 Chenin Blanc ~ The pursuit of purity…

Drinking a fantastic bottle of Chenin Blanc today while watching a tense England versus South Africa rugby match at Twickenham. I just love the wines from Testalonga and indeed, when Craig Hawkins left Lammershoek winery in 2013/14, after its sale to the German consortium led by Franz Beckenbauer, I was totally unfazed as it had always been the selling of the more experimental, fresh, nervy wines of Testalonga that had been my passion.

Craig and wife Carla Hawkins currently rent 11ha of vineyards from the granite soils of the Paardeberg Swartland, most of which they farm themselves, while the remaining fruit is purchased from farmers they work very closely with.

Their first wine was a skin contact Chenin blanc way back in 2008, and from there they have introduced new independent vineyards including Grenache, Muscat, Carignan, Harslevelu, and Syrah, that they feel give them the quality they need to make wines with as little manipulation as possible. In good years it is as simple as picking, pressing, waiting, watching, bottling with nothing added at any stage. 

“We want the wines to express who we are both on the label and in the bottle, which is why humour plays an important role in communicating our story,” says Craig.

Craig and Carla recently purchased a farm on the northern mountain regions of the Swartland on Schist soils where from 2016 they started making their wines and eventually started planting vineyards including Maccabeu and Vermentino.

The Queen of Spades
Monkey Gone to Heaven

2016 will also see the exciting release of two new wines… firstly one barrel of The Queen of Spades Tinta Amarela 2016 red and secondly a Mourvèdre called Monkey Gone to Heaven 2016, both made from Malmesbury fruit. So very exciting things await! 

Tasting Note: Testalonga El Bandito Cortez Chenin Blanc 2014, 11.5 Abv. The 2014 Cortez is vibrant and bright, with a lifted nose of Alka Zeltzer, sea breeze, brine, crunchy white pears and green apples. The 2014s are known for their freshness, purity and high acidity and this one shows complex notes of lemon grass, tangerine and dusty yellow peaches. There is such wound spring tension in this electric wine that leads Craig to describe this vintage as monolithic, with almost no evolution since bottling. Its essence is all about stoney minerality, acidity, and lean salinity. As the wine opens in the glass, you get a hint of things to come with more tangerine peel, oyster shell, orange blossom and apple spice in an almost Chablis-like mould. Buy this beauty and cellar it for 8 to 10 years comfortably. (Wine Safari Score: 94/100 Greg Sherwood MW)