"It sounds very romantic, but it’s actually not. I like to play golf. My swing – that’s my style. Everyone needs to learn their own swing, their own style, instead of copying someone else’s."
Craig grew up in East South Africa, near Durban, in an area where there are very few vineyards. His childhood dream was to become a game ranger and to work in conservation. It was only after school that he was introduced to the notion of viticulture, through his brother Neil. At school, the only subject Craig had got straight As in was art - whereas the sciences lingered at Bs - so he was sold on the idea of being able to work with nature, transforming that into a liquid, and to sell that liquid via a label designed himself.
Today, you can find Craig and Carla Hawkins in the true Swartland wilderness – 100km north of the hub of the Paadeberg, in an area called Piketberg. This is true rural Africa; not many human beings are here, but rather wildlife in abundance. Together with 84 other farms, they are working on a project with the Cape Leopard trust, to track the movement of leopards and to investigate their interaction with farm animals. Thus, Craig has unwittingly fulfilled his childhood dream synonymously with farming vines and making wine.
While Craig was at school, he did odd jobs in a winery for beer money, but always found the work boring. To take a step closer to fulfilling his ranger dream, he went to Stellenbosch to do a BSC in nature conversation. It wasn’t until he helped his brother Niel to do some odd jobs in the vineyard; weeding and helping out here and there; that he began to fall in love with farming vines. He says,
“The transition of grapes into wine is what caught me. You get to be outside in nature for most of the time, and then you make wine and get to design labels – and I’ve always loved art. So, I asked around to find out which winemaker was doing the most extreme, exciting things – I didn’t want to work for the boring guys. That’s how I met Eben Sadie in 2005.”
So, Craig packed his bags and moved to the Swartland. Craig explains that the community spirit is what drives the region – both in making wine but also in helping those who are less fortunate. He says,
“Community is the reason that the Swartland has become so successful. So many of us are first generation winemakers and farmers – we are a very young region, and all started out together. We built a community to discuss ideas, and that galvanised us. Now, I’m 38 – when I first came I was 23, but now there’s a younger generation coming through, which is really cool. We all share stories and knowledge.”
It was in the Swartland that Craig would also find love, with his wife Carla, whose family owned the Lammershoek winery in the Paadeberg, where Craig worked as winemaker until 2015. Together with the Sadie family and other local farmers, the family was instrumental in setting up the Marantha Trust – a non-profit organisation for community children living in poverty. Today, it provides all children with hot meals, and consists of an early childhood development centre with educational activities, as well as hosting outings, events and camps. Now, based 100km north, Craig says,
“Here, all the farmers donate food, which goes to a central pickup point and gets distributed to the kids. This is crucial – from a young age, kids need to be eating well for their brain development. Down the line, we’d love create something like the trust in the Paardeberg.”
While working for Eben Sadie, he had the chance to meet various winemakers from Europe, who gave him the opportunity to travel to do internships.
It was while working for Rémy Pedreno of Roc d’Anglade in the Gard, in southern France, that a penny would drop in the form of orange wine. He remembers,
“I was sleeping in a tent on a hillside; every morning I’d wake up and find myself having slid down to the bottom of the tent. I was cooking on a gas stove, and one night Rémy gave me a bottle of Antonio Perrino’s wine – Testalonga – from Dolceacqua in Liguria. It was my epiphany moment. It was orange and it just blew my mind – it was what I had been looking for. It was a white wine, made like a red wine – and I thought, why is nobody doing this?”
Entranced, Craig searched for skin contact wines when he got back to South Africa, but couldn’t find any.
“That’s when I realised… now I have something to work towards. I have something to build and to develop.”
So, Craig asked Antonio if he could use his nickname – Testalonga – as the name for his brand, to which he agreed. Next, Craig also discovered there had been a bandit in Sicily called Testalonga. This was how El Bandito came about.
“It was just such a different wine; it was a bandit. Everything was so new to me and I was just so chuffed that I had made this.”
He met Dirk Niepoort in 2008 while he was pressing this wine – his first ever wine – a skin contact Chenin Blanc from the Observatory vineyard; Tom Lubbe’s old family vineyard. Dirk, as well as Dorli Muhr (of Weingut Dorli Muhr, founder of Wine&Partners, and Dirk’s ex-wife), would become lifelong friends and mentors. He remembers,
“Dirk is an inquisitive and smart man, but also very humble. He was fascinated by skin contact wines – as this was something he hadn’t really thought about – so he saw it as a challenge. He asked me to come and work for him in Portugal – at the age of 25, that was a massive honour – this was a giant in the industry. Next, I went to Austria to work with Dorli for two and a half months every year, for four years in a row. There are a lot of people to whom I owe a lot – people who have given me their time and wisdom.”
Next, Craig went and worked at Matassa with Tom Lubbe for six months; from springtime to harvest time. This was where he was able to immerse himself fully in organic viticulture.
Craig had known from a young age that he wanted to work organically – now he just had to figure out how. He says,
“Growing up, a friend of mine, who’s now a rasta, had a huge influence on me. He’d say, 'why spray when we can work by hand?' So all the things we learnt at school about those sprays didn’t sit well with me. Organics was in me.”
On returning from working with Tom, Carla’s father asked him to take over the winemaking at Lammershoek. It was 2010 and Craig agreed on two conditions: that he could convert all of the vineyards to organics, and that he could still make his own wines. Carla's father - a creative spirit - readily agreed.
Craig worked as winemaker at Lammershoek until 2015, when eventually it was sold. During the same time, he made his own wines for the El Bandito label from The Observatory vineyard, which he leased and farmed himself. Later, he would also begin to lease other plots to farm, as well as working with other organic farmers to purchase fruit for his Baby Bandito label.
All the farming that Craig has done has been organic since day one, whether for his own vineyards or for vineyards which he rents. He explains,
“It’s difficult because there’s no spreadsheet you can stick to. You need to preserve water in the soil; that’s how a vine thrives. There are many elements to this - cover cropping, ploughing at the right time, or not ploughing. You need to be in the vineyards so much more. I don’t compromise. Organics is non-negotiable for me.”
It was this passion for viticulture that led him and Carla to look for their own spot, which they eventually found 100km further north in the Piketberg region of the Swartland. They named it Bandits Kloof.
“There was no electricity for six months, just a generator. There was a place to live but it was pretty rough. We built it up over time - it’s been quite the journey, but an exciting one.”
The land was virgin soil when they bought it, so they planted vines afresh. The soils are very different here – rocky with slate and sandstone, whereas his El Bandito and Baby Bandito wines largely come from fruit grown on decomposed granite soils. This means they can explore completely new expressions of wine:
“The wines will be completely different, which is exciting, and that’s the point – I don’t want to just make more of the same.”
During the winter they plant cover crops throughout the vineyards. They include a mix of legumes (some of which are edible, like the radishes photographed), as well as vetches and oats.
They began the planting program in 2018, with four hectares planted over two years, firstly to Grenache Noir and Grenache Blanc, followed by Mourvèdre, Macabeu and Carignan the year after. 2021 will see the first crop from the Grenache vines. Next, he will plant Frappato and Hárslevelú; the latter of which is also farmed at the Conservatory, and which created one of his first wines. Craig has a soft spot for the variety, which was brought over by the famous viticulturist, Desiderius Pongrácz, shortly after the second world war. Originally from Hungary, it might seem an odd choice for the Swartland, but it suits the climate remarkably and produces striking dry wines.
Overall, there are between ten and 11 hectares on the farm, not all of which will be planted to vines as there are also three dams/reservoirs on the property, and preserving an ecosystem for wildlife is of utmost importance. For the aforementioned leopard project, they have installed cameras, and hence are also able to see other wildlife wandering around, such as caracal, an assortment of buck, aardvark, baboons, aardwolf, jackal and cape foxes.
Being able to have personal contact with every aspect of the vineyard is important to them, as Craig explains,
“At Lammershoek I was farming and telling 22 people what to do each day – that was a bit too big for me. I like doing the work myself. Here, it’s me and two guys – Tino and Aaron, who help me with all cellar and vineyard work, as well as Motion who has been with us since the beginning, who is primarily a builder. Together we all do the pruning and work. My eyes see every vine, which I think is very important when it comes to quality.”
In the meantime, he will continue to farm his other plots for his existing wines – this is also his reasoning for not planting Chenin, as there are already many excellent Chenin Blanc plots in the Swartland, and he has existing strong relationships with the owners of the plots he farms. All of the vineyards are dry-farmed, apart from the baby vines at Bandits Kloof which he is irrigating for a couple of years until they are old enough to survive on their own, at which stage he’ll switch off the irrigation pipes. He only uses very small amounts of sulphur and copper for vineyard treatments, and weeding is done manually. He muses,
“Every farmer has their own way of doing things. I do what I see works well. When it comes to removing the competing weeds, we do little and often, all by hand. There’s no blanket way of doing things. In Europe you can do more no-till. Farming is climate, soil and site specific, and that’s why I love chatting with people from around the world.”
Like farming, making wine has been quite the learning curve:
“You have to see ball, hit ball. That’s the way I work. I am very pragmatic. I was very idealistic in the beginning – you need to be, as then you find a path. You make mistakes, admit your mistakes to yourself, and then move on and don’t make the same mistakes again.”
First and foremost, the quality of the wines shine as they come from organic vineyards that have found inherent balance with their surroundings. Next, it’s a question of picking. Craig explains,
“I look for wines that give me a certain presence. Acidity means picking at the right time, else you can lose that moment. That’s the most difficult thing to learn. When people come to work with me I always say, taste when I do something – when I pick and when I press. I’m not looking at numbers. Do that, build your own picture and then try to remember that picture and write it down.”
He laughs as he says that this might be a frustrating answer, but it’s how he himself learnt, and while he no longer takes notes, he has many notebooks’ worth of scribbles from his earlier years. He elaborates,
“It sounds very romantic, but it’s actually not. I like to play golf. My swing – that’s my style. Everyone needs to learn their own swing, their own style, instead of copying someone else’s. Looking back, your first wine is often the most correct in terms of where you want to go. My 09 Cortez is still one of my best. I wasn’t too worried, and I didn’t try to reinvent the wheel. It’s important to experiment, but you also need to remember what you did in the beginning – your first gut is often correct.”
After his initial ’08 skin contact wine was made, a fellow winemaker came to taste it. He almost burst Craig’s happy bubble when he asked him how he’d sell orange wine from the Swartland. Craig says,
“I guess I got that feeling in my heart – I thought s*&t, what if he’s right?”
Thankfully, a friend put him in touch with Doug Wregg of Les Caves de Pyrene - today considered an iconic 'natural wine' importer. On a trip to London for his Lammershoek job, he went to Terroirs – a wine bar and restaurant in Charing Cross – to meet the gang from Les Caves. He remembers,
“I still get tears in my eyes when I think about that table: the one inside the door on the right hand side. My whole business was built at that table. It’s not in my nature to get nervous, but that time I was. I poured the wine and they didn’t say a word, and at the end they said, 'we like it, we’ll take it all.' That’s when I realised that I could maybe make a living from this.”
Les Caves also put him in touch with his French distributor, Laurent Cazottes. Early on, his wines were being poured in wines bars in Paris and at wine festivals, before natural wine had really become ‘a thing.’ From these festivals he met his Japanese importer, and soon his wines were being poured all over the world.
“I didn’t know about natural wine – I fell into it. I wasn’t making my wines to be part of a market, it just happened.”
From 2010 to 2013 he did a bunch of experimenting. Craig laughs as he explains how he really pushed the boat out in 2010 by doing two years’ ageing on double lees – that’s to say young lees poured onto old lees – as well as two years’ worth of skin maceration.
“The wines were insane. I mean, they were still wines… but... were they really? Maybe I went too far in 2010, but I’ll revisit the two years on the skins idea. I think I can do it better now.”
Next, 2011 was his “dirty year,” in which he made many mistakes. By 2013, he had decided that he wanted to create a linear focus throughout the range.
“I wanted to get all the wines on a line of saltiness and acidity, and I wanted them to be clean, with very low volatile acidity. Cellar hygiene is everything. These days, the wines are very precise and focused. To do that, you need everything to be clean at every stage.”
Since the very beginning, he has either used no sulphur, if he feels the wine doesn’t need it, or at the very maximum, a 20 ppm addition (this is extremely low). He says,
“Sulphur isn’t something that will improve your wine, it’s not going to make it better. But - it can hold something together in the wine at a certain point, and keep that consistent. You could write a whole textbook on sulphur.”
His white wines have a consistent saline characteristic. He explains that the Paardeberg is just 35km from the ocean as the crow flies, and that there is salt deposition from the mist that settles over the vineyards. However, he doesn’t think this is necessarily what gives the wine their saline quality. Instead, he credits this to balance in the vineyard, low pH levels and ageing on the lees.
“You see the saltiness from the low pH levels. I pick when the acid is ripe. I like chillis, I like Japanese food – I like acid, and my wines compliment that. That’s the way I like it. When you pick a little bit earlier and age the wine on more lees, it accentuates that. I love the Suertes del Marques wines from Tenerife for that saltiness, too.”
The red wines are vinified with a high proportion of stems. As black grapes inherently have higher pH levels, the stem inclusion helps to give his wines added freshness. He explains,
“I use a lot of stems on the reds purely as a tool of perception. They give you some tannic structure, and the perception of acidity.”
The wines macerate gently, after which he presses the grapes and transfers the still-sweet wine to finish its fermentation in stainless steel, before being transferred into old 400/500L oak barrels. This transfer into stainless to finish fermentation is crucial, as the higher pH levels from the warmer climate means any residual sugar will become breeding ground for bacteria. He emphasises this:
“Never put a red wine with a bit of sugar into a barrel in South Africa. In Austria, it was fine, but here I’ve burnt my finger too many times.”
All of his labels are designed by Craig himself, and the artwork and photography are either created by himself or Carla, or from work that has inspired them. The El Bandito labels change every year, and the notes on the back hold personal meaning and dedications, such as the latest release of Cortez which pays homage to friends lost to suicide. Craig says,
“There are always these small, personal emotional comments on the back label. They might not make sense to anyone but me and perhaps a very small handful of people, but it’s not just about selling wine. It’s about your connection to the people that have brought you here.”
The Baby Bandito range features the same photograph for all labels and vintages, with different colours of graffiti for the names of the cuvées. The photograph of the girl with the bandage was taken by his brother in Cambodia, and is a powerful representation for bravery and positivity. The names of the cuvées, such as the quote Follow Your Dreams, made famous by Banksy, are also meant as vinous messages of inspiration.
…As for the Bandits Kloof wines? Time will tell. Eventually, a Bandits Kloof label will be released, but in the first few years some of the fruit may go towards the Baby Bandito range while Craig fine tunes the farming and vinification for this new terroir.
It’s a new exciting headspace for a talented man whose limits know no bounds.