Saturday, June 4, 2011

Newton Johnson's Dance with Pinot Noir

For Pinot Noir enthusiasts, the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley near Hermanus is like the Garden of Eden with more award-winning Pinots made here than any other place in South Africa. This is a true feat considering Pinot, known to some as the “heartbreak grape,” is the most difficult variety of grape, presenting challenges both in the vineyard and in the cellar. The climate of the valley plays an obvious role in the success its wine estates but I wondered if there wasn’t something more to the story so I spent an afternoon chatting with two of the Valley’s most renowned winemakers, Gordon and Nadia Newton Johnson.

From the start of our chat it became evident that Pinot Noir has captured not only their attention, but also their hearts. The couple spoke passionately, describing it as finicky yet elegant, beautiful, soft and expressive of the terroir where it is grown.

Nadia: “Once you’ve worked with Pinot there’s no turning back – you either fall in love with it or you...” Gordon: “... or you don’t understand it and push it aside.” Nadia finishes, “You just decide, ‘no’. But if its grabbed you – that’s it.”

Pinot’s expression of terroir is the one characteristic the Newton Johnson’s focus on the most, acknowledging that terroir differentiates their Pinot from others produced in the valley:

Gordon: “I think we’ve gone further to discover what Pinot will do on soils within the valley. There are different expressions between the Pinot that we’re making compared to what other wine estates in the Valley are making.” Nadia continues, “Clay soil holds a lot of nutrients and iron – it almost forms the backbone of the wine, gives it a dark, bigger kind of structure. But our soils are a little lighter, not as much clay. As soon as you take Pinot to lighter soils it becomes more fragrant, almost prettier, more beautiful. I think that’s where we are with our Pinots.”

Not only is the couple single-minded about their passion for Pinot, but also towards their hands-on approach to winemaking:

Nadia: “Sometimes people don’t understand two winemakers. When it comes to the styling of the wine we make those decisions together. Gordon, “We’re interchangeable.” Nadia, “That’s the thing – we’re so interchangeable. Between the paperwork and whatever work needs to be done in the winery it doesn’t matter which one of us does it. And we actually do the work physically ourselves – we believe that all those little bits that you put in make the difference between making a great wine or just a good wine.”Gordon: “Some of our wines are expensive, we’re getting more expensive. We feel we’ve got to be hands-on to maintain that level and take it further. We’re not just winery owners, we are wine makers. We always want to be that – we always want to have that connection with the winery and the vineyards.”

Thinking of the future, the couple are focused on developing more sustainable processes on the farm, like water conservation, and are moving away from the use of artificial influences like pesticides, fertilizers and added yeast. Although more challenging, they prefer a more natural approach which they believe will positively impact the soils in the long term, and help create an even more unique expression of terroir in their wines.

Gordon, “Water is a big part of sustainability, and we have a whole water treatment plant here. It takes 9 litres of water to make 1 litre of wine, so any waste water we create, we recycle it and put back into the water table. We also keep away from pesticides and prefer to treat our insect pests biologically with the release of natural predators, like Lady Birds and wasps. We’re also moving away from synthetic fertilizers – and are moving towards using the waste on our farm instead. These are all small steps towards becoming more sustainable.” Nadia, “We need to keep our soils alive and strong – that’s the most important thing. And as we become more sustainable we have noticed a major change in our wine – it makes us more individual. It’s really amazing to see how far you can take it – to see the qualities in the soil that can be expressed by a wine.”

It was an absolute treat to be able to spend time getting to know the Newton Johnsons. The key to their success seems to lie in their passion – passion for Pinot, for what they do, for preserving the land for another generation. If Pinot is a heart-break grape for some it’s certainly not for the Newton Johnsons – for them it’s a love affair, and so it’s no surprise their wine has seen such success. After all, it’s handcrafted with love – and anything made with love tastes better.

Newton Johnson is located in the upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley just outside Hermanus on the R320. Stop in for wine tasting & buying, or have lunch at the stunning Heaven Restaurant with to-die-for-views of the valley. For more information, visit

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