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South Africa's Thelema: A Quiet Track Record for Quality

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jan 21, 2009 9:43am ET

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.

Note: These wines were not tasted blind.

1994 Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon Stellenbosch (Original review: 90 points with a recommendation to "Drink now through 2004.") Today: Fully mature, with cedar, mint and smoked mesquite wood followed by very supple cherry and dried currant notes. Dashes of cocoa and coffee on the finish. Drink now.

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.

Zurich, Switzerland —  January 21, 2009 3:45pm ET
Thelema Cab is to me one of the best wines I have found to replace overpriced Bordeaux Cab blends. It has old world class and South African fruit, always moderately priced, too. Also love the Shiraz. The Sauvignon blanc I find good, but a step below the likes of Mulderbosch. There is a nice Riesling, of which I have unfortunately only been able to procure a single bottle once.
James Molesworth
January 21, 2009 4:09pm ET
Merlin: I should note that since 2004, there are now two Cabernet bottlings from Thelema - the regular Stellenbosch and a new bottling called The MInt. Both are priced about the same (mid-$40 range)...the latter is from a particular block known for its minty aromatic profile which had previously gone into the Stellenbosch bottling. Reviews on both of the '06 Cabs were in the Jan. 7, 2009 Insider...
Zurich, Switzerland —  January 22, 2009 3:31pm ET
James, I have not yet tasted the mint, nor am I sure if I want to. I like the regular Stellenbosch bottling, which sells at around 30$ here in Switzerland, just fine. You tend to rate it no better than the regular bottling. What do you make of such single vineyard bottlings?
James Molesworth
January 22, 2009 3:38pm ET
Merlin: If they offer an expression of place that merits their being bottled separately, and the quality is there, then it means more choice and diversity for consumers...seems fine to me.
Terry Vejr
Portland, OR —  January 22, 2009 10:40pm ET
Merlin: I had the pleasure of trying the "Mint" at the winery back in August. It was clearly my favorite Cabernet that I tasted in S.A. along with the Cabernet from Rainbows End.....The "Mint" will not let you down...when something is so unique, it MUST be bottled separately...
Alan Snitow
NJ/NYC —  January 25, 2009 3:41pm ET
I agree with Terry, i had the Mint at the property in March and it was great - i brought a bottle back in my hand luggage. I believe its due to releases from eucalyptus plants on the property that intermingle with dew, dry onto the grapes, and ride along at harvest. Its incredibly minty.

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