Swartland is an intimidating region. Nearly flat wheat and canola fields are punctuated by massive rocky outcroppings. These ancient mountains look as though they may crumble before your eyes. There’s something surreal about the landscape - more than anywhere else I’ve ever visited, it looks like someone may have dreamt it up and then built it by hand. To the west, there is the rugged Atlantic coastline. Frigid waved crash relentlessly. On the region’s north-eastern border, a wall of mountains towers above the surrounding plains. Nestled into this range you’ll find Banditskloof, a small farm planted by Craig and Carla Hawkins.
As you drive down the red dirt road to their home and winery, you can’t help but feel you’ve reached the end of the earth. Small farming communities are their only neighbours - Carla drives to a town two hours away to do groceries nearly every week. When they first purchased the property, it was half derelict farm, half wildland. Angsty baboons and leopards live on the peaks above their home. They had to start from scratch.
Craig cleared the field he wished to plant, moving massive boulders, and ripping out the ubiquitous fynbos shrubs that tend to fill any uncultivated space in the Western Cape. Soils here tend to be acidic, so he added a small amount of lime to correct the pH. For the last three years he has cultivated cover crops to get oxygen and organic matter into the soils. The lupins were nearly as tall as I was thanks to the abundant spring rain; after years of drought, the water was a godsend.
Most of Craig’s grapes come from vineyards an hour or more away. We visited several of the sites including two adjacent Chenin Blanc vineyards in a secluded valley. Soils here are mostly decomposed granite and sandstone; since it had just rained it literally felt like beach sand in your hands. Their biggest viticultural concern here is not rot or mildew, but weeds. With such extreme drought conditions, any plant between the vine sucks up vital moisture. When possible, they pay extra to have the vineyard weeded by hand. These vineyards are responsible for the “I Am the Ninja” sparkling and “Stay Brave”.
Back at the winery, Craig likes to keep things simple. He mostly direct presses the grapes into a variety of neutral barrels. He claims that once he can afford it, he’ll switch to glass lined tanks. That way the wine is only in contact with one type of inert material during its entire élevage. Every wine is wild fermented; no adjustments are made to acid or sugar. Some wines are lightly filtered before bottling but it isn’t necessarily the norm. After years of experimentation he was introduced to an extremely gentle filter-pad his friend Jurgen (Intellego Wines) swears by. After a quick test batch, he used it only on the wines he thought had something to gain from the mild clearing of large particulate. Pragmatism is king.
When he’s not making wine (or beating me at lawn bowling) he is experimenting with Eau-de-Vies and distillates. He’s planted a couple acres of cactus pears from which he’d like to make some sort of spirit or liqueur. Additionally, he’s macerating wild herbs in distillate - the results of which are not unlike Chartreuse. Seldom have I met anyone with such drive and such vision.
On my final day at Banditskloof I said goodbye to Craig and Carla’s giant lovable guard dogs and drove south towards Paardeberg. We briefly stopped in at Morelig to see their Cinsault vines. As with their other vineyards, this site is farmed organically by a wonderful little family who are now making a small amount of wine themselves. Once again, compared to the chemically farmed vineyards that plague this region, their plot looks vital and alive.
Craig’s wines are thoughtful. There’s an intelligence in each bottle I don’t see often. They are mature and wise but no less thrilling to drink. Their ultimate goal is to fit drinkability and complexity into the same bottle. Craig believes both those traits are easy to achieve independently, but rarely coexist. He’s absolutely achieved his mission.
The grapes for this wine come from old Chenin Blanc bushvines planted on decomposed granite. The vineyard is South-West facing at 300m above sea level. Both these factors contribute to the wines inherent freshness. The grapes were fermented as whole berries (30% whole cluster, 70% destemmed) with wild yeasts and no temperature control. The wine was left on the skins for four weeks before being pressed into old 500l French oak barrels. The wine was bottled unfined and unfiltered with a total sulphur count of 26ppm. 11.79% ABV (0.96 g/l VA)
While making wine for Dirk Niepoort’s project in Austria, Craig fell in love with Harslevelu, made just east of them in Hungary. Ironically, in the vineyard next to where he sources the fruit for Cortez and Sweet Cheeks, he found a 0.5ha plot of the grape planted back in 1981. The grapes are whole-cluster pressed into neutral barrel for 10 months before bottling. ABV 11.5%
This dry farmed vineyard was planted in 1972 on quartz and silica laden soils. Since 2001 it has been farmed organically which was an extreme rarity at that point. Whole clusters are pressed into a combination of neutral puncheon and stainless steel. After six months, the two components are blended and put back into stainless steel and puncheon. ABV 12.43%, TA 5.67, RS 1.63, pH 3.42
2017 FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS
This organic bushvine vineyard was planted in 2001 on North facing decomposed granite at 220m above sea level. Leaves are left on in the fruiting zone to protect the Carignan from sunburn. Whole bunches of large, juicy berries are lightly crushed and fermented on the skins for a little over a week. The wine is then pressed off into a 3500l foudre. As always, the wine is bottled unfined and unfiltered with minimal Sulphur.
2017 KEEP ON PUNCHING
The grapes for this cuvée come from an organically farmed vineyard planted in 1972. The north facing slope is littered with decomposed granite, 220m above sea level. Clusters here are particularly small and are crammed with natural acidity. The grapes are whole-cluster pressed directly into stainless steel and neutral puncheon. The wine is neither fined, nor filtered before bottling. ABV 12.01%, TA 6.5, RS 2.26, pH 3.29
2017 STAY BRAVE
This vineyard was planted in 1981 but abandoned in 2014. Craig tried to revive it in 2016 but it yielded no grapes. 2017 saw tremendous improvement and the 1.5ha of bush-vines yielded well. The grapes were destemmed and fermented in 1500L open top tanks. After 11 days on skins the wine is pressed off into a 3300L foudre for élevage. ABV 9.88%, TA 6.5, RS 1.42, pH 3.7
2017 QUEEN OF SPADES
This small plot of Trincadeira (Tinta Amarela) was planted in 1999 on decomposed granite. The insanely small number of grapes harvested saw only 6 days on skins during whole-cluster fermentation before being pressed off into neutral barrel. The goal was minimal extraction since the skins yield high tannins and tons of color. The wine is unfined, unfiltered, and sees only minimal Sulphur before bottling. ABV 11%
2017 THE DARK SIDE
Craig gets his Syrah from a 0.75ha vineyard planted in 2001. The higher proportion of clay in the soils here help with dry farming, and they intentionally leave lots of leaves and shoots on the vines to keep ripeness in check. Whole-clusters were fermented in open top tank for 10 days before being pressed off into neutral puncheons. A small amount of SO2 was added a month before bottling. ABV 11.91%, TA 4.51, pH 3.73.
2017 MONKEY GONE TO HEAVEN
This vineyard was planted in 2001 and features dry farmed, bush vines and the typical decomposed granite soils of Swartland. Whole-clusters were fermented in tank for 10 days before being pressed onto into neutral puncheons. The wine is unfined, unfiltered, and sees only minimal Sulphur before bottling. ABV 12.4%
2017 SWEET CHEEKS
This small vineyard of Hanepoot (Muscat d’Alexandria) was planted in 1970 next to the site Craig gets the Chenin for Cortez from. They traditionally treat these as table grapes, but Craig wanted to try to make something more serious by fermenting on the skins. After 11 days on the skins the wine is pressed off into neutral barrel for élevage. ABV 10%