Going natural

craighawkinsIf Craig Hawkins didn’t exist, it would be necessary for Cape wine to invent him. Not that I enjoy all of his wines or think his approach always the best. But there’s a genuine aesthetic, an intelligent consideration, a real passion behind his work, and it can only be good for the serious end of the business to have him around, taking a radical approach to questions of the honesty and purity of wine and of the freshness achieved by early picking.

Craig’s day job, as it were, is in the cellar at Lammershoek, in the Swartland. But his own label, which rejoices (it seems an appropriate cliché) in the name of Testalonga El Bandito, seems to be becoming more important. They’re perhaps better known and welcomed in some overseas trendy establishments specialising in “natural wines” than on local winelists, but a small trade and media tasting was held in Cape Town last week, to encourage the local market a bit.

The philosophy behind “natural wines” is too vexed a one to go into here but the central tenets of Craig’s winemaking seem to be: organic farming; a total avoidance of any additives or “foreign” influences (new wood and the like – only old barrels are used), except for a minimal use of sulphur as a preservative when absolutely necessary (Craig is no fanatic – he can agree to pragmatism); and a tendency to pick early – often before the achievement of what most winemakers would consider a satisfactory level of ripeness – and therefore low or lowish alcohol levels. Experimenting with skin contact for white wines (rare for white wines, but of course common for reds)  is a concomitant fascination.

testalongaSo, what of his current releases?

The name Cortez (Testalonga El Bandito Cortez is a nicely baroque Mediterranean mouthful, isn’t it?) is used for wines without skin contact. The 2014, with 11.5% alcohol, comes as usual from chenin blanc off the Boschgarsfontein farm on the Perdeberg foothills (the other wines are from Lammershoek itself). There’s lots of aroma, a clean, mineral freshness based on a good deal of well-integrated acid edging into a green element. I didn’t find much complexity, but it would make a great, refreshing food accompaniment.

There are two Skin Contact whites, also from chenin blanc, both having spent four months on their skins. The 2012 (I gather it’s not easily available) is certainly a minority taste – and here I’m happily with the majority. It was actually bottled at the same time as the 2014, but hasn’t picked up overt oxidative character while hanging about waiting. It’s orange in colour, pretty tannic, and certainly too tart for me, with not enough fruit flavour or richness to balance it, though I admit that there’s a lingering intensity. The 9% alcohol level will indicate sufficiently the level of ripeness of the grapes.

The 2014 Skin Contact, on the other hand, I enjoyed very much. My favourite of the line-up, in fact. Its a pretty standard paleness in colour, with a cloudiness testifying to the naturalness of the regime – if you want a polished brilliance, Testalonga is not the label for you. There’s a whole lot of floral, subtly fruity fragrance, and lovely flavours expressed with great delicacy. Good fresh acidity, of course, but with a gratifying, textured softness.

King of Grapes 2014 is made from grenache. I didn’t like it as much as I had the previous vintage (though this one, Craig assures us, is not going to go spritzy and funky in the bottle as that one did). I found a verjuice-greenness on the nose, along with some pure red fruit fragrance. Little pleasure for me on the palate – it’s light-textured, tart, and with not much fruit. I’d have liked more charm and substance, less austerity. 11.8% alcohol. (I see that Christian Eedes had a very different experience from mine.)

Redemption 2014 is a new label for a shiraz. This wine had the abundance of fragrance I remember from the previous King of Grapes (in its extreme youth). While the grenache is fermented with all the stems, Redemption is just 20% whole-bunch fermented, which helps it avoid the greenness of the other. It’s significantly riper, too, with 12.5% alcohol, but its fresh charm, with some savoury, elegant fruitiness, is still light-footed. Not a wine for everyone, perhaps, but comparatively approachable.

These wines are all notably expensive, I’d say, at about R230 per bottle. But then, they do offer a pretty unique experience….

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