Newton Johnson – Exploring Gravity
Armed with enthusiasm and determined to write a new chapter in South African wine, the Newton Johnson family has created an estate and a multi-award-winning brand with ardent followers around the world.
WRITTEN BY RUSSEL WASSERFALL
IMAGES COURTESY NEWTON JOHNSON WINES
It’s a family affair with brothers Bevan (left) and Gordon (right) working together with Gordon’s wife Nadia to produce exceptional wines.
It’s not the usual story of heritage and tradition in winemaking, rather it’s a tale of the love of wine and a family working together to build a stellar New World brand.
In the South African wine scene, one generally expects winemakers to come from families or estates with a connection or history rooted in the established wineries of the Western Cape. Even when new estates are established, they are often off-shoots of larger estates or the children of established vineyard owners going off to carve a niche for themselves.
The Newton Johnson Estate stands as a testament to what can be achieved through determination and chasing a dream.
The Johnson family’s path in wine began in Durban in the late 1970s when Dave Johnson became treasurer of the Durban Wine Society. This, and his later appointment as chairman, led to a marketing and sales career with the country’s largest wine company. In 1982 he was transferred from Durban to head office in Stellenbosch. While there, he further indulged his love of wine by becoming one of the first Cape Wine Masters, completing the first thesis on Pinot Noir submitted to the Academy.
Wines are made by gentle coaxing and surrender to the grape, rather than by constant manipulation. A string of awards is proof of the power of restraint.
In 1989 Dave went into his own business, Cape Bay, exporting wines from estates such as Vriesenhof, Overgaauw and Neil Ellis Wines to the UK. He also began purchasing bulk wines in the Breede River Valley and exporting them to Scotland, and other new markets.
Success and his wife Felicity (née Newton) pressed upon him the need to find a home for both his family and his vision for Pinot Noir. Dave and Felicity bought a 7 hectare smallholding in the Upper Hemel en Aarde Valley.
They were joined by their sons, Bevan and Gordon Newton Johnson. Gordon had just completed an internship in Stellenbosch with Ben Radford of Radford Dale and Rockford Wines. The newly built winery became his playground as he worked to create the wines of Newton Johnson whose first vintage was released in 1997.
Meanwhile Bevan joined his father to help with the operations and production for Cape Bay Wines. Initially they intended to focus on exporting Pinot Noir made with grapes bought from farmers in the Hemel en Aarde valley. As the popularity of the varietal grew though, most growers kept all the grapes for themselves.
The beauty of this region of the Cape Winelands is unrivalled. It is known by its appellation ‘Hemel en Aarde’ which means Heaven and Earth.
A new plan was needed. In 1999 the family bought a neglected 40ha protea farm in the centre of the Upper Hemel en Aarde Valley, planting the first vines in 2003. In total, 12 hectares were planted on Newton Johnson Family Vineyards between 2003 and 2006. It is a patchwork of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah, each matched with particular soils and conditions on the land.
There are also Albarino, Mourvedre and Grenache. Newton Johnson pioneered plantings of Albarino which was introduced to South Africa by the family. Their son Gordon and has wife Nadia have shown that an interest in more terroir-driven Pinot Noir has inspired them to explore quality focused single vineyard sites. The family sees Pinot Noir as the quintessential interpretation of terroir and captures the nuances of the various sites.
Their Pinot Noir blocks started at 280m above sea-level, with plantings falling to Syrah vineyards at almost 200m ASL. Their vineyards stand a little under 5km from Walker Bay on the Atlantic Ocean and are caressed by winds that bring fresh, moist air to the vine-covered slopes. The resulting cloud cover coupled with a maritime climate allows the wine growers of Hemel en Aarde to plant and work with Pinot Noir in the Cape.
While the planting and planning was happening, the family also designed and installed a new 200-ton, gravity-fed winery, purpose-built for the cooler climates wines of the Hemel en Aarde. The maiden vintage from these vineyards was 2008, and it took Platter’s Wine Guide’s first ever 5-Star accolade.
Gordon, now a member of the prestigious Cape Winemakers Guild had recently married Nadia, the sixth generation descendent of a Cape wine family and an oenology graduate from Stellenbosch University. The couple brought the vision, the philosophy and the feel for the wines of Newton Johnson to life. The maiden award from Platter’s was hard-earned and richly deserved.
Nadia and Gordon are the de facto winemakers, while Bevan runs operations and marketing for the Newton Johnson Family brand.
The annus horribilis of 2020 has stretched the family’s tenacity and resolve, yet their wines have continued to deliver. It marked the 13th vintage on the Hemel en Aarde property and came with fresh insights and a renewed desire to make better wines with more character.
Since 2017 they have been releasing their single vineyard Pinot Noirs. The Seadragon and the Windansea are made from the two oldest Pinot blocks on the farm. These are the highest vineyards on the property and have a large concentration of the decomposed granite clay soil that gives their wines such a distinct character. In time potentially there are more single vineyard expressions waiting on these slopes.
Twenty-three years of winemaking has convinced the Newton Johnsons that as the grapes mature and the soils and climate do their work, they have to do less and less. In the past decade they’ve eliminated practices common in modern winemaking, primarily the addition of commercial yeasts, and the addition of sulphur during alcoholic fermentation. They also no longer add enzymes during fermentation, or bentonite for fining the wines. More recently, Gordon and Nadia have stopped any filtration of the wines.
All this speaks to a style of winemaking that is truly minimalist in pursuit of finer flavours that develop in the wine over time during its aging. Unfolding seasons of farming their own vineyards has given the family a holistic understanding of the vineyards and taught them to allow the wine to follow its natural path.
The result is wines that are elegant and perfumed with integrated tannin structures where the terroir and the soft touch of their hands is present in every sip. A family that has carved their own story on the tapestry of Cape wines has also created wines that leave a distinct impression on all who taste them.
Available at Vinmonopolet
1987501 Newton Johnson Chardonnay Felicité 2018, Chardonnay 100% kr. 169,90
5298901 Newton Johnson Family Vineyards Pinot Noir 2018, Pinot Noir 100% kr. 339,90
The 2014-vintage was rated to be among top 2% of all wines in the world by Vivino’s Wine Style Awards.
9533501 Newton Johnson Chardonnay 2018, Chardonnay 100% kr. 309,90
6390501 Newton Johnson Walker Bay Pinot Noir 2018, Pinot Noir 100% kr. 269,90
The 2013-vintage was rated to be among top 2% of all wines in the world by Vivino’s Wine Style Awards.