Eccentric pleasures

I’ve been Platter-tasting today some undoubtedly eccentric wines (the winery had better remain nameless), not quite sure whether they were just pretty problematical, or simply almost forgiveably wacky. So it seemed a good idea to remind myself that experimentalism – even to the point of eccentricity – can be a splendid thing.

Take what young Craig Hawkins is doing with the grapes largely from a parcel of old-vine chenin (on Lammershoek, the wine-farm on the Paardeberg in the Swartland) that he lovingly cares for at weekends (during the week he’s mostly working on other people’s wines). He’s now got the second vintage of his wine in barrel, with the 2008 just bottled. The barrels, and Craig, are for the time being at another Paardeberg winery, The Observatory, where the Lubbe family made some most interesting and occasionally eccentric wines for a few years; unfortunately their eccentricity extended to a great reluctance to do effective marketing, and the farm is very soon to be auctioned.

Craig has been helping them over the last year, which is why he’s there. Some of the chenin in his wine also comes from the biodynamically-farmed vines of The Observatory (see what I mean about eccentricity?). Incidentally, the wine is called El Bandito, ‘the bandit’; the brand name is Testalonga. I stupidly forgot to take a photograph of Craig and his old barrels (definitely no new wood allowed), so I include an older but still valid one of The Observatory’s old wine-cellar.

Craig best tells the story behind his experiment (the basis of which essentially consists in making a white wine in the manner of a red wine, especially in regard to leaving the fermented juice on the skins, for about five weeks). This (slightly edited) is what he wrote to me:
“The inspiration for the wine was a meeting with an old northern Italian man [nicknamed Testalonga, hence Craig’s brand name] who made his white wines like red wines. This was probably due more to convenience than anything else, but nonetheless the wines were beautiful. And this fueled my thinking about our old chenin vineyards back home with their similar golden skins which we throw away almost immediately after picking and pressing.

“I have been learning from what these skins can give us in skin fermentation with white wines over the last three years.

“The first vintage of El Bandito (2008) spent roughly 5-6 weeks on the skins before being pressed. The 2009 vintage which is in barrel now, I fermented Beaujolais-style [totally uncrushed grapes, with their stalks, sealed in a barrel with an exit for the gas released in fermentation] and this underwent whole-bunch carbonic maceration. This is giving a completely new set of aromas and tastes as it ages in old wood.”
I must say that that new set of smells and flavours is immensely promising. I loved the wine. I could imagine that, tasting it absolutely blind, I could have thought it a red wine, in fact. It reminded me of some of the syrahs made in the south of France (Pic St Loup, perhaps) where carbonic maceration plays a role (essentially: the initial fermentation at least is intra-cellular, occuring within the unbroken grape itself).

But the 2008, now in bottle, is also immensely attractive and interesting – and a vastly finer advertisement for eccentricity than the wines I tasted today. It is a rich gold colour – this coming from the skins, not oxidation or wood. Very pleasing stony, lemony aromas and flavours, fresh, fine-textured and lingering. Almost an intellectual wine, certainly not facile, certainly interesting. Should be a very good with food, I think. Hardly your typical chenin – which raises all sorts of questions, actually: such as what is typical chenin when it’s spent six weeks on the skins? Is this terroir speaking rather than the grape, or winemaking methods? or all of the above?

I have a feeling it will be a long time before Craig Hawkins makes a fortune from his wine. He doesn’t strike me as someone who’s going to be a great natural marketer (like Eben Sadie, for example). But I hope he’ll do well enough to continue with fine experimentation like this – especially when it works as well as this. In fact he’s just off to make wine like this in Austria, working with that great and successful eccentric Dirk Niepoort (based in Portugal, but making wine all over the place, including the Swartland, as I mentioned before).

Most of Craig’s first vintage, all two barrels of it – 600 bottles or so – are going, I think to the swanky Saxon hotel in Johannesburg. But he hopes to be showing it at the South of France Festival being held in Cape Town in September (click here for my story about that, and here for fuller details). There’ll be a few other eccentrics there too – makers and, generally, lovers of interesting wines.

CONTACT: Craig Hawkins has asked me to add his email address for anyone interested in buying or enquiring. It is: testalongawines@gmail.com

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