The green rolling hills dotted with vineyards look like southern France. The ocean breeze and bright spring sun transport you to coastal Greece. The fresh food, jovial people, and neighborly community are perfectly Italian.
These are the elements of a wonderfully classic culture far from the Mediterranean: it’s South Africa.
South African wine is still largely undiscovered in the US market - most goes to European and African countries. But wine has been grown and produced in South Africa for thousands of years, and today there are over 3,000 farms growing wine grapes.
Like in the rest of the world, the South African wine style turned modern and commercial. In famous regions like Stellenbosch, the commercial wine producers of today focus their efforts on rich reds and heavy whites like Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage, and Chardonnay, to appeal to the international market.
But there is a tiny movement of Natural growers gaining momentum as they battle the established wine companies to return South African wine to its natural terroir. You can count them on one hand, they all know each other, and all are friends of Dry Farm Wines.
The pioneer of this movement is an unassuming husband and father of a newborn daughter, living in the coastal, winegrowing region of Swartland.
Craig Hawkins has been making wine for a long time, but it wasn’t always his own. He started tending vineyards with his brother and then worked in a winery in Swartland.
From his little time in the wine business, Hawkins was already doing things a little differently.
For one, to make the best wine, most people looked to the cellar. Hawkins looked to the vineyards. How could he promote healthy soils and encourage biodiversity? How could he farm without intervention, using practices that were well beyond organic, to produce the best quality fruit?
For another, he was dissatisfied with the taste and quality of wine production. He yearned for vibrancy, energy, soul. All he tasted was the same palate, over and over again.
More than 15 years ago, Hawkins decided he was finished with commercial wines. He started growing and making his own wine with a guiding philosophy: “do things differently.” He shunned every industry-accepted practice. He would never use industrial, lab-made yeasts; only native wild yeast. He would never spray pesticides, herbicides, or any other commercial treatment. He would never use the common, industrial filtration practices that create clear, consistent wines every time.
This rebellious spirit came with much risk. His wines didn’t look or taste like the region’s commercial wines, so the South African Wine and Spirits board rejected many of them. This prevented him from selling them anywhere, which made it difficult to establish a market.
But he and his wife Carla persevered. With wine names like “Keep on Punching,” “Stay Brave,” and “Follow Your Dreams,” Craig and Carla started a wine revolution in Swartland.
It took time to spread, but eventually friends and neighbors began asking questions. The Hawkins inspired a handful of winemakers to start their own productions, making Natural Wines with spirit and respect for Nature.
Today, if you ask Hawkins what his aim is, he’ll say he wants to share the true terroir of South Africa with the world.
With a powerful sun that dries out soil very easily, South African terroir is perhaps most similar to southern France. Maritime influences from the bordering oceans - the Atlantic to the West, the Indian to the East - bring a regular fog and cooling sea breezes.
Soils are diverse in richness, color, and mineral content. The main soils come from shale and granite, which retain water well.
Southern French grape varietals also grow exceptionally well here. Carignan, Grenache, Syrah, and Chenin Blanc are just a few examples.
The marriage of mineral and maritime effects, as well as the sun itself, creates wine with a distinct palate. Precise and lively, with a subtle earth backbone, Natural Wines from South Africa like Hawkins’ are excited to express themselves. They sing with acid, giving your mouth and tongue a crisp bouquet of fruit.
It’s not just Hawkins’ wines that jump with life. A few other growers - part of a small movement in South Africa - grow vibrant, honest wines through Natural farming practices.
Take Jurgen Gouws, for example. With a love for the outdoors, Gouws’ connection to wine is through Nature. He surfs every weekend, hikes often, and has a deep relationship with the natural elements.
It makes him fanatical about making wines with respect for Nature. In fact, he calls Natural Wines “a religion,” insisting “you either believe it or you don’t.” To him, it’s that simple - wine should be made without human control.
If you ask him about sustainability, he’ll say it’s not good enough. Instead of just sustaining Nature, we should revive it. He yearns to give the soils new life in his vineyards - planting cover crops like radishes, black oats, and fava beans, for example, while avoiding too much tilling or weeding.
His wines express this vibrant passion for Nature. You can taste hints of the fresh fruit, the rich soils, the arid climate in Gouws’ wines.
You can also taste this energy in Johan Meyer’s wines. A modern day master who takes inspiration from Hawkins, Johan Myers set out to produce the most precise, elegant Natural Wines possible.
He had lofty ambitions. He wanted to show the world it was possible to produce premium level wines without artificial help in South Africa. Without filtration, fining, additives, or machinery, Myers yearned to produce what he calls “artistic wine” - wine that communicates something deeper and beautiful.
With a keen eye and good instincts, Myers refined his craft over years: finding the perfect times to harvest Chenin Blanc and Pinot Noir, selecting only the best fruit, and working with the most premium soils.
It finally paid off. Myers’ wines are gaining international reputation, and for good reason. They sing with elegance, they have a precision in their flavor, and a crispness to their fruit. It’s a wonderfully elevated experience.
Mick and Jeanine Craven want to do the same. A young couple with two children, they take great pride in rebelling against the status quo of South African wine.
Craven speaks with passion about how their wines taste different. While commercial wines have a thick palate with consistent taste, they are proud of how their wines leap with life. They have spirit, with a strong acidity and well balanced tannins. It makes you want to drink more.
And Andrew Wightman, who was a former contractor, finally decided to drop his job and pursue what he loved. Encouraged by Hawkins and the community of friends, Wightman took up a few hectares and began farming. His Chenin Blanc vines are over 50 years old, and he cherishes them like children.
South Africa can give you all of this in a single glass: Hawkins’ trailblazing spirit, Gouws’ love of Nature, Meyers’ mastery, Craven’s youthful taste, and Wightman’s pursuit of passion. These are the rebellious family farmers transforming wine in South Africa.
Their tireless work inspires us and teaches us to pursue what we love. Thank you, Craig, Carla, Jurgen, Johan, Mick, Jeanine, and Andrew.