2015 Testalonga El Bandito Cortez

19 03 2017
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What a label. What a wine.

OK, so it’s been a long time.  I wasn’t intending to drop off the map for over a month after my last post, but a work tornado and a series of weekend Timbits tournaments then morphed into bronchitis that knocked me out of commission for a couple of weeks.  Thankfully, the antibiotics have run their course, my lungs and tastebuds are back to almost-normal and Pop & Pour is again ready to roll.

And what better way to get back in the swing of things than with something fantastically different?  And what better qualifier for that category than a $48 South African natural wine Chenin Blanc with a catchy pop-art label?  Seriously, this is one of the best labels I have ever seen on a bottle of wine.  As soon as I saw it, I knew I was buying the bottle, which is about as big a compliment as you can possibly pay to a branding tool.  The label for this Cortez bottling by Testalonga changes every year, but they absolutely killed this one, which tugs on my (and presumably every other father’s) heartstrings.  I love it.

Testalonga’s wines need both a lot of, and very little, explanation.  The short version:  Craig Hawkins takes organically farmed grapes from single-vineyard sources in South Africa’s massive but under-explored Swartland region, crushes them, and allows them to turn themselves into wine, with zero additives (apart from a touch of sulphur dioxide at bottling where necessary to avoid oxidization) and as little intervention as possible.  The slightly longer version:  Hawkins’ Testalonga lineup seeks to be an unadulterated snapshot of a single specific match of grape and site.  There are 12 Testalonga wines, none of which are blends; each single varietal bottling (from multiple different Chenin Blancs to Carignan, Grenache, Muscat, Vermentino and even Harslevelu) seeks to tell the particular story of the vineyard in which it began.  Hawkins rents vineyard space and works with growers in northern Swartland, which itself is already South Africa’s northernmost quality wine region, straight up from Cape Town.  North in a Southern Hemisphere region tends to mean warm (being closer to the equator), but Hawkins picks very early to counteract any possibility of over-ripening and keep alcohol levels (way) down.

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Testalonga wines: Made From Grapes, and nothing else.

The Testalonga lineup is considered natural wine, a term which has no specific recognized definition and thus often seems to create more controversy than clarity.  At minimum, the concept of natural wine likely encompasses wines made from grapes that are organically or biodynamically farmed (with no pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers or other chemicals used), fermented using ambient rather than commercial yeasts, without the inclusion of any of the dozens of permitted wine additives (including boosts to acid, tannin, colour or alcohol through various chemical manipulations) and without fining or filtering, then matured without the use of flavour-altering oak and bottled using minimal to no sulphur dioxide.  The idea is to create as clear a window from the grape on the vine to the finished wine.  In many cases, the practice doesn’t quite live up to the theory, since without great care, this back-to-the-future approach to winemaking can be susceptible to spoilage or other issues that lead to flaws in the bottle:  rather than being a mirror that reflects terroir, it can become a prism that distorts it.

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This is not a universal and unavoidable consequence of natural wine techniques, however, and certain traditional producers have been following this now-trendy-again approach to winemaking for centuries.  Select avant-garde producers also manage to make clean, expressive, unique wines following the natural wine recipe; Testalonga is definitely one of them.  I personally have my own trepidations about the more militant side of the natural wine spectrum, particularly where it comes to the total abandonment of oxygen-blocking SO2 on essentially ideological grounds, but in some ways the movement is part of a global rebalancing from the manufactured flavours and over-manipulation rampant in many mass-production wines, an attempt to return to the land and to more honest winemaking.  It may not always work, and the wines aren’t always my cup of tea, but as with politics and science and the world generally, if we’re not questioning our assumptions and looking for ways to do better then we’re all already lost, so bring it on.

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Cork Rating: 4/10 (Not going to lie – I’m a little disappointed in the cork originality quotient after a label/bottle like that.)

Tonight’s bottle of Testalonga is the Cortez, a 100% Chenin Blanc from 45 year-old bush vines planted in dry-farmed granitic soils and made using whole-bunch pressing (where entire bunches of picked grapes are pressed without the berries first being destemmed and separated from their stalks).  The juice is fermented using ambient yeasts at ambient temperatures, the latter a relative rarity for white wines, which are often kept cooler while fermenting to preserve fruit flavours.  Fermentation takes place in huge 3,000-litre old French oak foudres, and a scant 18 ppm of SO2 is added at bottling — none at all is used during the various stages of winemaking, even though the fermenting juice is exposed to oxygen during the course of fermentation, which tends to take longer when natural instead of commercial yeasts are used.  Despite the high-temperature surroundings, the Cortez (which is named after a Dave Matthews song, apparently) clocks in at a svelte 12% alcohol.

If you ever end up with a bottle of this in your possession, drink it in the largest-bowl glass you have, as all sorts of aromatic things are going on with it.  The Cortez is a waxy medium-gold colour and comes at you in many different ways simultaneously, requiring a couple minutes for you to sort it all out.  There are rays of piercing citrus, fresh grapefruit and baked lemon curd; honeyed notes, encompassing both the honey itself but also the honeycomb/beeswax where it was housed; apple-cinnamon, warm clove and crystallized ginger; and a grab-bag of other aromas, from sea breeze to what I’ll call “doctor’s office” (latex gloves, tongue depressors, gauze) to a slight tinge of yeasty fermented notes that my wife aptly compared to kombucha.  This is the kind of wine you can smell for a long time.

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Then you take a sip, and it’s like someone turns the focus dial on the wine and sharpens everything into frozen precision.  The multiplicity of flavours are still there, but only as echoes behind a tightly stretched mineral wall:  salt on a grilled lemon, rubber boots, seashells, chalk dust.  It’s austere yet intense, coiled yet emotive – so much tension!  Raging, almost angry acidity is softened just a touch by rounded-edge mouthfeel and a hint of textural fuzziness, guiding the wine into an extended, slow-fading finish that gives the tastebuds plenty of time to wonder what they just experienced.

This is raw, vicious, open, powerful, honest Chenin Blanc, a wine to contemplate but also just to feel.  It is not delicious in any standard way, but I have a hard time putting the glass back down.  It’s fascinating; a new frontier.

91+ points

$45 to $50 CDN

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