Webb is enjoying his veteran winemaker status, spending a bit more time fishing and boating these days. His son Thomas, 36, continues to take on responsibility, while winemaker Rudi Schultz, 43, has been on board since 2001. Rudi has been joined by his brother Werner, 41, who has helped oversee the vineyards since 2008.
As with most South African wineries, the clearing of alien vegetation, which typically draws more water than the native fynbos underbrush, continues at its painstaking pace. The hillsides of the dramatic Simonsberg mountain above Thelema's vines are now scrub brush while the neighboring parcels still have towering pines and blue gum trees. A new water-recycling plant has been put in as well to reuse the winery's effluent.
“It's part of the holistic approach to running the farm,” said Webb as we tooled around the dramatic slopes of the 387-acre estate, 128 acres of which are planted. The senior Webb bought the property in 1983 and was producing wine by 1988. That makes Thelema one of the granddaddies of South African wine, with its distinctive black-labelled Cabernet a flagship for the country in the U.S. market for years. The winery now makes nearly 50,000 cases a year.
The winery started with a mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling, “because that was the vine material we had access to at the time,” said Thomas Webb. “Limited access to vine material and the quality of that material was the biggest hurdle for the industry during and right after apartheid. I think our new vineyards in Elgin are better than these here, viticulturally speaking. But they're not yet up to the quality we get from here—these old blocks still have something to say,” he said.
In the winery, Rudi Schultz makes no bones about the fact that he'll use a little technology to help the process.
“I couldn't keep up with the rate of harvest if I didn't use enzymes to help settle the juice,” said Rudi. “But these are enzymes that are naturally occurring anyway. I'm simply pushing the process along a little bit. On the other hand, I don't innocculate for malolactic. It's a trade off.”
“We're trying to make site-specific wines,” said Webb. “Enzymes don't mask that. It helps us make better wines. It does raise important questions and create good discussion to bring these things up, but often enzymes or cultured yeasts are misinterpreted.”
Back in the vineyards, Werner Schultz has been laying down a new kind of ground cover that dies out during the growing season, leaving behind a netted mat that helps the soil retain moisture while retarding additional weed growth. It should also germinate and return the following season.
“The result is less herbicides are needed and, consequently, less insecticides as well, as that problem decreases also,” said Werner. See the accompanying video as Werner talks about the new ground cover he's using.
Walking the vineyards you get a nature lesson too. Werner picked up some dried dung, noting porcupine versus lynx—yes, vineyard critters are different in South Africa.
With the south/southwest exposure of the vineyards, ripening is never a problem at Thelema. But the Cabernet had long been known for its minty profile. Over time, Webb and the team began to realize that it was more the influence of a bank of eucalyptus trees rather than an underripe quality in the grapes themselves.
“There's one block in particular that was always minty, but the final wine, from year to year, would have differing levels of the minty quality,” said Rudi. “The picking date was always within the same four days, year after year, so it wasn't about ripe or underripe. When we pulled out that one block and bottled it separately (starting in 2004), the main wine became more consistent, while The Mint Cabernet now delivers that note for the customer who wants it. By pulling out the one block, we didn't sacrifice quality, but rather got two wines that were more consistent in style.”
The Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon Stellenbosch 2009 is full of tobacco, currant and singed cedar notes with a tangy minerality extending through the finish. It has guts but stays supple and nicely defined overall. In contrast, the Cabernet Sauvignon Stellenbsoch The Mint 2010 sports a prominent minty aroma, along with dark plum, cocoa and currant notes and a plusher feel overall. Both wines have produced remarkably consistent, outstanding track records, fitting for an estate where Mr. Precision still has his say.
“We can't even trim a branch of a tree around here without filing a full report and request with Gyles first,” said Rudi. “He knows every inch of the place."
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions