Log In / Join Now

South Africa: Day 10—Mr. Precision

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Mar 17, 2007 12:11pm ET

As I left my hotel this morning, I was greeted by some early-morning rain and high winds on the way to Stellenbosch—the first bad weather of the entire trip. It wasn’t all bad though: A huge double rainbow spread over the Cape Town as we drove out.

“That means I should play the lottery today,” said Havelyn, my driver.

My visit today was with Gyles Webb of Thelema, one of South Africa’s first wineries to crack the American market. Webb has been producing sleek, mint- and currant-filled Merlot and Cabernet from his mountainside vineyards for over 20 years now, and his wines are among the few from here that can boast such a solid track record for quality and ageability.

The plan was to take a helicopter ride to his vineyards in Elgin and Elim, new cool-climate spots that are rapidly coming online with crackling Sauvignon Blancs. But the wind made the chopper pilot uneasy, so we scuttled the plan for the morning and figured we'd try again in the afternoon.

Webb is Mr. Precision, with a perfectly combed head of hair and a neatly tucked shirt that never gets ruffled; he leaves the rumpled shorts and grape-stained hands look to the younger crowd now. Webb’s precision runs through his vineyards too: They’re among the neatest I’ve ever seen, and they stand out from the pack here in the Cape. The rows are precise, the canopies well-manicured and the vines in excellent health.

Webb pulls out virused vines as they show early signs of trouble rather than letting a whole vineyard slowly die out and having to replace vines en masse. He’s also a big fan of the infrared imaging that can be done by airplane to show the trouble spots in a vineyard. (Vegetation gives off an infrared signal, which is then mapped, revealing a precise diagram of inconsistencies, which can mean anything from water stress to virus problems to different areas of ripening.) Then it’s up to Webb, his viticulturist Aidan Morton and winemaker Rudi Schultz to take it from there. It might mean picking different rows within a single vineyard block a few weeks apart in order to get uniform ripeness, but the practice often results in higher quality grapes.

Thelema's vineyards provide a view across the valley.
Years ago, and even still today, people would pick a whole block at the same time, even though there are parts that are underripe, ripe and overripe, explains Webb. "If the average ripeness of it all was good—they would just make a mish mash in the tank and let it sort itself out."

In addition to Thelema, Webb also works as a consultant with his next door neighbor, Tokara winery. Tokara represents the modern approach, and with a large tasting room, art gallery, restaurant with a gorgeous view over the vineyards and olive groves, it could be right on Highway 29 in Napa.

The vineyards are set on rolling hillsides of red Hutton and Tukulu soils, the crushed granite that runs through much of Stellenbosch, and very similar to Thelema and Rustenberg, the wineries that flank either side of the property. Here winemaker Miles Mossop is in charge of the ambitious project, with the flagship Tokara red and white wines backed up by the second label wines called Zondernaam.

The year 2000 was the first vintage for Tokara, but they didn’t release a flagship bottling until the 2003 vintage. The quality bar is set high here, so releases have been slow to come as the vineyards have come on line and Mossop has learned what those vineyards can provide.

We ran through a few dozen wines during our tasting, the most instructional part of which was tasting different lots from the same block, picked at different times after looking at the infrared information.

Three Cabernet Franc samples were picked three weeks apart from beginning to end, because of various levels of stress in the vineyard; while one showed an overt herbaceousness, the other two showed ripe fruit flavors and crisp, lively structure.

“Using the infrared [imaging], and picking at the best possible time for each area of the vineyard, we can wind up having fruit from one block going into a $10 wine, a $20 wine and a $50 wine. And that way we can really keep the quality consistent in each line,” says Mossop.

Seems Webb’s penchant for precision has rubbed off on his students too: Mossop worked a year at Thelema before moving over to Tokara.

Then we tasted two Cabernet samples, one from leaf-roll virused vines and one from healthy vines, picked a few weeks apart. (Virused fruit takes longer to ripen due to the unhealthy canopy.) The virused fruit showed firm structure and a muted palate, while the healthy vines were bright, open-knit and juicy.

We also tried both the 2004 and 2005 vintages of the yet-to-be-released red as well: The 2004 is sleek and elegant, while the 2005 is a clear step up from the first two vintages, showing the dark, juicy fruit and ripe structure that has been setting this vintage apart for me as I taste at each winery.

In addition to Thelema and Tokara, Schultz and Mossop also get to work on their side projects, a pair of eponymous labels. I’ve really been digging Schultz’s Syrah, sourced from a single vineyard in the Bottleray (pronounced bot-luh-ray) hills. Mossop produces a sleek red called Max, made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot, which takes a step up in the 2005 vintage (the wine's second vintage). There’s also a white called Saskia made from two-thirds Chenin and one-third Viognier. The debut ’05 has a little botrytis on the Chenin and it came off as rich and tropical. In the 2006 version, it’s dry and fresher, with anise and floral notes from the Viognier component dominating.

I like that both of these winemakers have the freedom to express themselves a bit on the side. Their own wines are small and hard to find, but they add to the overall diversity of the wine marketplace that only benefits consumers.

Wildfires rage on Signal Hill in Cape Town.
By the afternoon, the sun was shining and it was a picture-perfect day in Stellenbosch, so a call was made to the chopper pilot to see if we could take that ride. He felt it was still too windy along the proposed flight path to fly; the guys joked he must be checking the wind from the golf course.

So instead I got my first power nap of the trip, which was sorely needed. There’s also a wildfire burning along Signal Hill (I’ve got a clear view of it from my hotel window), a not uncommon occurrence at the end of the growing season, when things have started to dry out.

Tonight it’s dinner at Terroir in Stellenbosch, considered by folks here to be one of the best restaurants in the region. We’ll see ...

Roger Cabot
nantucket —  March 18, 2007 2:00pm ET
i hope you ate at tokara..the food was the best i had in the wine region and i was there for four weeks
Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  March 18, 2007 8:12pm ET
Havelyn, is that a woman or man's name? Thanks for the updates.
Jim Mcclure
DFW, Texas —  March 19, 2007 12:57pm ET
James, I envy your travels and the wide variety of people you are able to meet. At least we can live vicariously through your blogs until we can make the trip ourselves. Thanks for the great stories, and have safe travels! Jim in Fort Worth
James Molesworth
March 19, 2007 1:05pm ET

It's a man's name. The Cape has a lot of cultural influences throughout its long history - from Dutch to Malaysian. Many people and place names here are colorful...
James Molesworth
March 19, 2007 1:09pm ET

It's a long flight to get here, but once you're here you'll be glad you came. Food and wine costs are very low compared to American standards, the hospitality is warm and the winelands will keep you busy for a week, easily...

Would you like to comment? Want to join or start a discussion?

Become a WineSpectator.com member and you can!
To protect the quality of our conversations, only members may submit comments. Member benefits include access to more than 315,000 reviews in our Wine Ratings Search; a first look at ratings in our Insider, Advance and Tasting Highlights; Value Wines; the Personal Wine List/My Cellar tool, hundreds of wine-friendly recipes and more.

WineRatings+ app: Download now for 340,000+ ratings.