Newton Johnson: Pioneers of Pinot Noir

The Newton Johnson family makes Pinot Noir (among other things) in the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. Daléne Fourie of port2port.wine recounts their tale as told by younger son Gordon.

Brothers Gordon (left) and Bevan Newton Johnson in the cellar at Newton Johnson Vineyards in the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley.

The Newton Johnsons have been growing grapes in the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley for 25 years. The farm, Newton Johnson Family Vineyards, is a family affair: brothers Bevan and Gordon joined their parents to start producing wines from this little slice of heaven on Earth in 1997. Its name was quite progressive at the time, honouring their mother’s maiden name as well as their own. The Newtons, on their mother’s side, raised cattle and grew maize in KwaZulu-Natal whereas on the Johnson side their father was a fitter and turner at the Cape Town docks. Living in Sea Point back when it was still a poor man’s land, he was a surfer when there were only about 100 surfers in the Cape. He’s the reason for the family’s strong affinity with the sea.

Bevan, the elder brother, handles all the commercial matters of the farm while Gordon and his wife Nadia see to the vineyards and winemaking. Both men are avid surfers and part of the Cape winemakers’ surfing fraternity. “For me, it’s my church. I go there not really even to think about anything, but just to take it in. Surfing really opens your mind,” says Gordon.

Gordon and Bevan grew up around people like Neil Ellis, oom Jan Boland (show me a South African winemaking story that doesn’t feature this oom) and Giles Webb, who would often join the family around the dinner table. Their father had become a Cape Wine Master, written a thesis on Pinot Noir and, before the advent of Newton Johnson the farm, operated a negociant business out of Pringle Bay, learning about and making wine among some of the greats.

I ask Gordon why his father came to this particular stretch of the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. “To be honest,” he replies, “I think he always just wanted to be 10 minutes away from the kreef (crayfish).”

Fault lines

I’ve noticed that people of the Hemel-en-Aarde always talk about the sheer age of the soil and the granitic fault line that it shares with the Swartland and the periphery of Stellenbosch, from back when South America was pushing up against Africa 600 million years ago. Gordon says their duplex soils are unique: the topsoil is made up of a mixture of granite and quartz or sandstone, whereas the clay that forms the bedrock derives from decomposed granite. What sets them apart from neighbouring Hemel-en-Aarde appellations is the granite, or granum (also a wine in their portfolio), which is Latin for ‘grain of sand’.

I remember Adi Badenhorst’s line on granite: “It sounds so wanky to say it, but you can make nice wine from granite soils.” It’s funny how that granitic fault line ties the Swartland and the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde together. There’s something about granite that brings a covetable freshness to the wine; that’s possibly a good topic for practical investigation. (Granite-based wines for testing are available on Port2Port.)

One of their top single vineyard Pinot Noirs, Windansea.


Although they’ve been successful in experimenting with other varieties, when it comes to Pinot Noir, the Newton Johnsons are pioneers. Tim Hamilton Russell and oom Peter Finlayson may be the official ‘fathers of Pinot Noir’ and of actual winemaking in the area, but this by no means detracts from the endeavours of people like the Newton Johnsons and their winning ‘experiments’ in the making of Pinot Noir, as displayed in their two site-specific Pinots. Sea Dragon and Windansea are two sites actively working towards proving the potential of old-vine Pinot Noir. Planted to grow old, they are by extension possibly ushering in a new era in South African Pinot Noir. As everyone knows, in winemaking these things take time.

“I think with great wines, wines that really make an impression, you don’t concentrate on the academic stuff,” says Gordon. “It’s an experience.” Having spent his life among the ooms of the South African wine industry – and being very much part of the higher ranks of team South Africa – he and the rest of the Newton Johnson clan benefit and contribute to the wine fraternity. Of his home country, Gordon says it’s not just about South Africa any more, but the fact that they’ve come too far now to stop.

“We’ve got a great thing here.” They certainly do.

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