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Tasting notes from South Africa

text and photographs © 2013 Tom Cannavan

These notes accompany our in-depth feature on South Africa 2013.


Gordon Newton Johnson is very much a family affair. Started by his father in the 1970s, today Gordon Newton Johnson and his wife Nadia are making the wines and brother Bevan is in charge of the business side. Their vineyards and winery offer stunning views to a distant Table Mountain, and are farmed on very careful, sustainable lines with biological controls minimising the need to use chemical treatments, such as an introduced population of ladybirds cleaning up more harmful insect pests in the vineyard.

The Newton Johnson vineyard runs to 18 hectares, mostly on decomposed granite soils with a band of clay deeper down, and a few very stony sections - up to 80% stones in parts. Between them, Gordon and Nadia have chalked up considerable experience including time spent in New Zealand and California. Their hugely impressive portfolio of wines is built around Pinot Noir, and they also make wine on contract for other fine growers in the region including the excellent Shannon Vineyards.

I asked if anything much had changed in the winemaking philosophy since I last met up with Gordon and Nadia in 2010. "Well, from the 2012 vintage we've been playing a little bit more with stems and whole bunch ferments for the single vineyards," Gordon tells me. That experimentation is clearly paying off as the 2012 Pinots tasted are terrific wines that seem to have ramped up complexity.

The Wines

UK importer of Newton Johnson is Bibendum Wines. See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Newton Johnson, Resonance White 2011, South Africa
A blend of 86% Sauvignon Blanc from elevated vineyards on the estate and 14% Semillon from Elgin. Very fresh, barrel fermentation of the Semillon component with natural yeasts doesn't give too much oaky character, but does add a touch of lemon and lanolin roundness to the aromatic picture. The elegance and freshness of the palate is delicious, with lots of fat lemon and lime, a touch of delicate herb or nettle, but savoury acidity running through to a pithy finish. 90/100.

Newton Johnson, Estate Chardonnay 2012, South Africa
This wine sees 10 months in oak after a wild yeast barrel fermentation, and is made only from estate fruit. Gordon say he did not need to adjust acidity in this vintage, but would if needed. Beautifully delicate cashew and almond, with the oak deftly handled, nutty and allowing the creaminess and ripe orchard fruit to come through with a hint of savoury saltiness. Superb palate too, lots of delicious nectarine juiciness and sharper apple tang, completed by a citrussy, grapefruit and orange acid brightness and, tight, savoury oak. 92-93/100.

Newton Johnson, Pinot Noir 2008, South Africa
All wild ferment, and Gordon says "it is worked very lightly, we are not going for a lot of extraction." Lovely light colour. Beautiful nose of soft truffle and gentle rhubarb and beetroot vegatility. Charming little smoky and tobacco influences and berry fruits. The palate has soft and elegant fruit, with delicious cherry and soft, dry red cranberry nuances. The finish balances the crispness of cherry acids, fruit and a touch of that earthy smokiness. Nicely maturing. 91/100.

Newton Johnson, Pinot Noir 2009, South Africa
More custardy notes here, with the oak a little more obvious aromatically, the fruit seeming a little riper and more black fruited too. Lovely juiciness and a tighter profile, deliciously tight focus on the palate too, a sheen of oak giving just a little more focus and concentration. Deliciously long, arguably a little bigger. 92/100.

Newton Johnson, Pinot Noir 2010, South Africa
Fruit not quite so forward here, more about gentle earthy spice and cedar. Some dry redcurrant and a touch of raspberry perhaps, and some definite herby/spicy notes. The palate is clean, lean and juicy. There's a really nice freshness to this, some delicious tang and vibrancy, the long, fresh finish touched by cherry and floral notes too. Lovely. 93/100.

Newton Johnson, Pinot Noir 2011, South Africa
Youthful aromas, but slightly vegetal rhubarb and beetroot notes are there, lots of Pinosity and a nice truffle background. The oak is beautifully fragrant too, incense and Sandalwood touches. There is mouth-filling, creamy and silky texture on this, with very good fruit and that lightly truffly richness and texture nutty and long. Bright acidity cuts through the savoury richness and supple tannins. 92/100.

Newton Johnson, Pinot Noir Family Vineyards 2012, South Africa
Delightful nose, a touch of fudge and a touch of chocolate even, with those lifted, burning incense aromas from that so nicely chosen oak. The palate has the same fullness and richness of texture, but the cherry and herb-touched dry crunch of the fruit and racy, tight focus of citrus pith and mineral tang gives excellent balance. A very good vintage this. 92-93/100.

Newton Johnson, Pinot Noir 'Mrs M' 2012, South Africa
From lighter soils where roots go deep, with 5% of clay beneath decomposed granite. Fresh and tobacco-spiced, lightly leafy nose, the oak has the usual exotic fragrance, with the inclusion of stems (possibly?) adding just nice little herbal notes that add another element of complexity. Wonderfully fresh on the palate too, with a sweet-fruited appeal. There's a lightness of touch to this with cherry and almost rose-hip elegance, and a lovely finish - long and beautifully poised. 93/100.

Newton Johnson, Pinot Noir Block 6 2012, South Africa
13.5% Our 'Flagship style' wine according to Nadia, coming from their oldest vineyard which has a good depth of soil with 30% clay. Much darker and more dramatic, with a touch of toast and nicely ashy, incense-like oak. Not heavy, the purity of the fruit more about juicy summer berries than fatter, blacker fruit. A lovely elegant, exotic spice but definitely more firmness, more structure here. Juicy orange acidity and fruit quality, the tannins fairly grippy and robust but tight, the structured finish balanced between fruit and the layering of that tobacco and spice. 94/100.

Newton Johnson, Pinot Noir Windansea 2012, South Africa
From a vineyard only four kilometres from the sea with their shallowest soils over thick clay. Very tight on the nose, the wood adding just a sheen of polish to glossy fruit which is the driving force along with little pinpoints of clove and spices. Pure on the palate, this is all about the clean, tight, quite glossy ripe fruit, but then that structure comes through, the ripeness of the fruit matched by a little vegatility. Really fresh but powerful in the finish, an extra half degree of alcohol evident, but the balance is retained. 92/100.

Newton Johnson, Family Vineyards Rhône Blend 2012, South Africa
Made from Syrah and a little bush vine Mourvèdre, Gordon says this might have Grenache in future too. This barrel sample comes from a very stony portion at the bottom of the Windansea vineyard. "It's almost all rock - not suitable for Pinot," says Gordon. It has a dramatically dark colour, spice and meatiness, with really deep, glossy black fruit and a little tobacco coming through, a sprinkling of pepper too. Lovely juiciness on the palate, big ripe black fruit flavours with a twist of liquorice and plum-skin tang and tartness giving a bittersweet twist to the finish. 91/100.

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