How was January for you? Grey and chilly, with the occasional sprinkling of snow? Perhaps you should have joined the exodus that seems to happen each winter as Yorkshire folk board planes and head down to South Africa. Given the number of people from Leeds, Ilkley, Harrogate, Sheffield and Scarborough I encountered during my own two weeks’ vitamin D break at the Cape last month, I am surprised there was anyone left in the county.

If you measure it in rays of sunshine per pound spent, even with the Rand at a higher rate than it was last year, South Africa is still a relatively economical destination. If the idea appeals but you are not sure how to go about it, then email me (Christine@christineaustin.co.uk) and I’ll come up with a few ideas.

The only thing better than escaping for a few weeks’ winter break is changing your life and moving from Yorkshire to live in South Africa, and on this trip I went to see two families who have done just that.

Back in the gloomy days of post-war Britain the Johnson family decided to up-sticks from Horbury, near Wakefield and emigrate, but they were not sure where to go. ‘The story goes that my grandfather flipped a coin’, said Bevan Newton Johnson. ‘Heads they were going to Canada, tails they would go to South Africa.’ The coin came down tails and off they went to the southern hemisphere.

Fast-forward two generations and the Johnson family has become Newton Johnson by marriage and is producing world-beating wines in the beautiful region of Hemel-en-Aarde, part of the Walker Bay district of the Cape. From their winery on top of a hill you can see the ocean just 6 km away that brings cool south-easterly breezes to their 20 hectares of vineyards. ‘The wind blows most of the summer and it was named The Cape Doctor because people believed it kept the air clean, ’ said Bevan. ‘It certainly helps keep our vineyards free of pests and diseases, while also bringing a little cloud cover to the surrounding hills. This acts like sunscreen for the grapes against the hot sun.’

Because of that balance between sunshine and a naturally cool climate the land is most suited to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and it is their Pinot Noir that has propelled Newton Johnson to hit the headlines. Decanter magazine ranked the 2013 Family Reserve Pinot as one of the eleven best Pinot Noir wines from outside Burgundy. It was the only South African Pinot Noir to be listed in this tiny group and knocked several important New Zealand, Oregon and European Pinots out of the running for this kind of recognition.

One key winemaking technique at Newton Johnson is that the grapes are picked by hand, and then chilled to around 8 degrees C before they are fermented. This allows the fermentation to proceed slowly and naturally, developing complexity along the way. My top wine of the tasting was Newton Johnson Family Vineyards Pinot Noir 2015 which comes from vines planted mid-slope on granitic soils. Still too young it showed fabulous silky fruit with smooth, elegant tannins and an enticing potential. Despite the ‘sold-out’ signs I managed to buy a single bottle from the winery shop so I could bring it home, but excitement got the better of me. The cork was pulled and the contents enjoyed over dinner one evening as the sun went down over Cape Bay. I also enjoyed the Chardonnays, in particular the Family Reserve 2015, where integration of the fruit, oak, acidity and finish is seamless and delicious. One to watch out for is Albariño from Newton Johnson. They have just a quarter of a hectare of vines and so far none has arrived in the UK, but it has the right aromatic quality to be a success.

Newton Johnson 2015 Family Reserve Chardonnay is available from The Wine Society (www.thewinesociety.com £19.50) and at Ake and Humphris in Harrogate, but you have to contact Noel Young in Cambridgeshire (www.nywines.co.uk) to find the Pinot Noir 2015 at £28.99. It would be good to see Yorkshire merchants supporting this gem of a winery with Yorkshire heritage.

Not far away, in the region of Elgin, where a ridge of land rises up to meet those famous south-easterly winds square on, and patches of vines hug the slopes, Sheffield-born Richard Kershaw, Master of Wine, was busy preparing for vintage when I met up with him. He works out of a shared custom crush facility, and buys in grapes from selected vineyards, paying particular attention to the vine clone and the soil type of each vineyard.

‘Chardonnay is the key grape variety for Elgin.’ he said. Scattering his conversation with clones such as CY 96, 95, 76 and the latest addition to his stable, a Chassagne-Montrachet clone which goes by the name of CY 548, he describes how he deconstructs the usual blended Chardonnay flavours. Separating not only clones but soil types such as Table Mountain sandstone, Tukulu gravel and Bokkeveld shale, his wines have pure linear character, almost elemental in style, yet each reflecting their place of origin. He does the same exercise with Syrah, giving his wines a distinctly Northern Rhône, black cherry and white pepper style.

Sheffield-born Richard Kershaw who is now a winemaker in South Africa

Richard’s journey from Sheffield schoolboy to South African winemaker was circuitous via California, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, France, Germany and Hungary, but this is now home. His family swarmed in from school while I was there, accompanied by winemakers’ children from neighbouring properties, and they all promptly jumped in the swimming pool in the garden. You can’t do that on a January day in Sheffield.

Kershaw is the key brand of Richard’s wines, available from prestigious London merchant Berry Bros (www.bbr.com) at £39.50 for the 2013 Syrah. The Chardonnay (£29.99) can be tracked down at www.agwines.com. Alternatively Richard Kershaw is part of the mail order company Naked Wines (www.nakedwines.com) with a range called The Cutler – a clear reference back to his Sheffield roots.

Once again, it would be good to see these wines in Yorkshire. Alternatively, maybe I’ll see you on the southbound plane next January and we can taste them in sunshine.

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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