Though it might be news to some, South Africa has been making world-class wines—Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Chenin Blanc, in particular—for more than a few years now. Part of the country’s steady rise in quality has been due to the efforts of winemakers like Gyles Webb, whose Thelema property has one of the country’s longest track records for quality. I recently tasted a few of Thelema’s older vintages (see below), which helped cement my opinion of that track record.
The best South African Cabernets, much like the country’s Syrahs, combine warm-climate fruit characteristics with the precision, balance and minerality of cooler-climate regions. The wines are neither overripe nor overtly green, though that wasn’t always the case.
The leaf roll virus has been one of the biggest problems in South Africa’s vineyards. The vine disease retards ripening and can lead to green, astringent tannins in red varieties. It was a major reason the Cape’s reds were often tough customers during the latter part of the 1990s. The virus is still a problem today, but better vine material and organic composting has helped vintners get a handle on managing it.
In addition, more exact picking times—for separate blocks and even individual rows within a vineyard—are now being practiced in order to get grapes that are uniformly ripe (different parts of a vineyard ripen at different times, even a day or two’s difference can show up in the final result).
Webb has been at the forefront of many of these changes in South Africa—he's Mr. Precision when it comes to his vineyards. Since releasing his first Cabernet from his mountainside property in 1988, Webb has constantly tweaked both his viticulture and vinification.
Some of the changes over the years, according to Webb, include:
• all natural yeast fermentations since 2000
• open-air pump-overs
• reduction in acidification
• fermenting free-run juice until completely dry, and no addition of press wine unless it has fermented dry
• better sorting of fruit to remove unripe berries
• malolactic fermentation is now done in barrel
• more frequent racking for more air exposure, resulting in better-integrated texture
• later harvesting for riper fruit, though alcohol is still kept in the 13.5 to 14 percent range
The changes are resulting in better wines, with cleaner, purer fruit profiles, but without a loss of character of terroir. Thelema's dark currant, loam and mint profile is both distinctive and even more clearly defined today. In addition, I find the structure of Thelema's Cabernets to be finer-grained and better integrated, which should result in wines that age slowly, over a longer period.
With the addition of his new Elgin vineyards nearer the coast, Webb is now overseeing the production of 45,000 cases of wine annually at Thelema. Those who’ve been paying attention know just how good some of the Cape’s wines are, though the region still has a long way to go in terms of consumer recognition here. If you’re looking to start exploring South African wine, Thelema is a good place to start.
|The view across Stellenbosch from the top of Thelema's mountainside vineyards.|
1997 Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon Stellenbosch (Original review: 90 points with a recommendation to "Drink now through 2003."—J.M.) Today: Lighter in body than the '94, though slighter firmer as well, with incense, black tea, dried currant and tobacco notes. The cork on this was dried out and crumbled under the corkscrew, though the wine did not show any signs of oxidation. Drink now.
1999 Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon Stellenbosch (Original review: 91 points with a recommendation to "Drink now through 2005."—J.M.) Today: Mature but drinking really nicely, with supple tannins and a well-integrated cocoa powder edge framing the mint, black currant and loam notes. Very stylish, with the fruit and structure melding together nicely through the finish. A step up from the '94 and '97. Drink now.