A Swartland future

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Craig Hawkins surveying his planned vineyards

Nothing refreshes a flagging spirit like seeing a new project taking shape in youthful and enthusiastic hands. So, as 2016 wound its troubled way into oblivion, it was a pleasure to set off on the N7 from Cape Town late last December, northwards, parallel to the Cape’s West Coast. I was travelling with Cathy van Zyl, and we were making a first visit to Craig and Carla Hawkins at the newish home of their Testalonga brand (the 2016 vintage was the first to be vinified there) – and what will be the fount and origin of Bandits Kloof wines, sharing the name of their new farm. Once the Bandits Kloof vines have grown, of course….

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Temporary wonkiness…

An hour’s driving took us to the turn-off and the gravel road to the farm, which spreads across the lower slopes of the mountains that must be climbed to reach Piekenierskloof, and from which one gets large views across the wheat-growing Swartland.

Craig and Carla had been looking to buy a Swartland farm since leaving Lammershoek on the Perdeberg, where both had been working for some years. This one was found “almost by accident”, says Craig. But having called in there, he knew immediately it would work: “I SMSed Carla and said ‘I’ve found the place!’” The 120 hectares of land – much of it too steep and rough to be directly useful to viticulture – had no vines, but plenty of water flows off the mountains into two dams to allow vineyards to be established on the sandstone and schist slopes (this is the start of the “rooi (red) Karoo”, says Craig). There was some modest housing and even a large shed, with offices, eminently suitable for winemaking once some insulation had been installed – with much-needed airconditioning going into Carla’s office on the day we were there: everything is in process. Not only was the price of the farm remarkably modest, but Craig is confident that “the potential here is nuts!”

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Masters of all they survey

First thing had to be to make the cellar workable in order to bring in the 2016 grapes. Everything coincided nicely, in fact. Testalonga was growing apace – largely based on the international market for the “natural” approach that Craig has championed so vigorously and pioneeringly in the Cape. The wines are now being shipped to 20 countries. Now, in 2016, there were more grapes being sourced than previously – 2016 marked a quantitative leap for the label to some 45 000 bottles.

The plan is to plant perhaps nine hectares of vines on Bandits Kloof, for a new range of wines (it should make about 50 000 bottles eventually)  – though the existing negociant wines from bought-in grapes will continue to be made. “I don’t want to lose connection with what we’re doing now”, says Craig. But, as demand grows for the best Swartland vineyards, so too does the desirability of the sustainability and certainty of owning at least some vineyards (an urgency increasingly recognised among leading new-wave Swartland producers).

“Slowly and properly” is Craig and Carla’s watchword. Thus far it’s been a matter of preparing the soil for the first plantings – which should happen this year. As to varieties, Craig is both focused and a little vague: “We’re going to plant small lots at a time. And we’ll keep with the cultivars that work in our experience in this kind of climate. I’m not going to do anything too fancy. I think we need to first master the things like grenache, carigan, mourvèdre, muscat…. Probably grenache noir and grenache blanc will probably be our biggest plantings. I reckon we’re going to plant a lot of small interesting things – a half hectare of this and that!”

Water, as I mentioned, is not a problem – but baboons are (there have also been sightings of leopards and aardvark on the farm), and will probably need electric wires to keep them out of the vines. But, says Craig wryly, baboons on the Swartland mountains are probably easier to cope with the wild boars in the south of France.

As Craig and Carla show us around the beautiful farm (replete with long views across the wheatlands under the enormous skies)  and the unadorned winery, their enthusiasm for the future of themselves and Testalonga is accompanied by a welcome for all the work involved in building it. It’s all about “we’re building this here … we’ll plant there … our house will eventually be here … we’ll have to make this road … look – there are our cattle.” Enough plans and energy, in short, for many years’ hard and happy labour.

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