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A Look at the Wine of Stellenbosch, South Africa: Part 3 – The Wines of Thelema Mountain Vineyards

Thelema Panoramic

For our third Stellenbosch, South Africa article we’ll move to the southern slopes of the Simonsberg mountain, and the higher altitude vineyards at Thelema Mountain Vineyards.   As you can see above, this is another rather spectacular property.

Thelema’s location on the Stellenbosch map is shown below.  You can visit Thelema’a website here.  Much of the background information in this article is on their webpages.

Thelema Map

Some Background: A chance encounter with Puligny-Montrachet in the mid 1970s convinced Gyles Webb to abandon his accounting career in Durban to pursue a degree in viticulture and oenology at Stellenbosch.   After completing his studies in 1979, Webb worked stints at several wineries in South Africa and abroad before he and his wife’s family purchased the 388 acre site that would become Thelema Mountain Vineyards.

So here we have another example of Burgundy providing a transformational wine experience and launching another wine career.  So often it seems that when I ask someone in the wine industry about that defining moment, or read about them, Burgundy is the place they talk about.

In July 1983, the McLean Family Trust bought a run-down old fruit farm situated at the top of the Crause dot com StockHelshoogte Pass, about 4 miles outside of Stellenbosch. The purchase marked the culmination of Gyles and Barbara Webb’s long search for that rare location where exceptional wines could be crafted. Thelema is situated on the slopes of the Simonsberg,  with mainly south-facing aspects that afford spectacular views of the Simonsberg,  Drakenstein and Jonkershoek mountains. Elevations ranging from 1,215 to 2,100 feet above sea level make the estate one of the coolest and highest wine farms in the Stellenbosch area. The vineyard soils are composed predominantly of red Hutton and Tukulu, both forms of decomposed granite.

Crause dot com StockAlthough wine had been produced on the property in the early part of the century and table grapes were grown until the late 1960s, there were no vines on the farm at the time of purchase. Gyles Webb immediately set about clearing the land and planting the farm to noble grape varietals. In October 1987, building started on the winery, and in 1988,  Thelema produced its first vintage release, consisting of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay  and Sauvignon Blanc. Today the winery’s range extends to also include Riesling, Merlot, and Syrah, and Thelema has gained international acclaim as one of South Africa’s elite wine producers.

In 2000, Gyles moved into the role of cellar master and handed over the winemaking reins to Rudi Schultz. Thelema has continued its steady ascent under Rudi’s hand, as evidenced by Wine Spectator’s recent declaration that the estate’s wines are “among the few South African bottlings that can boast a solid track record of both quality and ageability.” The prestigious publication has also hailed Thelema’s Cabernet Sauvignon as “one of the Cape’s most consistently outstanding  bottlings.”

Here are some fast facts on the farm:

ESTABLISHED: 1983

OWNERSHIP: Gyles and Barbara Webb and the McLean Family Trust

WINEMAKERS: Gyles Webb  (cellar master) and Rudi Schultz

LOCATION: South-facing slopes of the Simonsberg, at elevations of 1,215 to 2,100 feet above sea level

SOILS: Decomposed granite  (Hutton and Tukulu)

SIZE OF ESTATE: 388 acres, 100 of which are planted to vines

THE NAME: Thelema takes its name from a 16th century French tale by Rabelais. According to the tale, a unique religious order was established in the land of Thelema, near the Loire River. The Abbey of Thelema was governed by one simple law: “Do what thou wilt.” This rule was not an open invitation to chaos, but a call for true self examination.

WINES IMPORTED: Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Mountain Red,  Merlot, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, “The Mint” Cabernet Sauvignon.

The wines of Thelema are imported in the United States by Cape Classics, which distributes to all 50 states. (Cape Classics’ website is here – we’ll be reviewing several more of the farms they represent) The wines are not always easy to find everywhere, and in Rhode Island it can be quite challenging.  They are also not all distributed widely, and the Riesling is a great example as it is only sold at the Animal Kingdom Lodge in Walt Disney World.  Too bad, as we really wanted to try some, but that just gives us a reason to stop by the Lodge the next time we hit the Mouse House.  We do already have that next reservation in hand.

As a spoiler, we’re going to strongly suggest that these wines are worth the search.  Let’s see why.

The Wines

IMG_1049We have three of the Thelema line to evaluate, we’d like more but, as we mentioned, they are not easy to get in RI, even though they are technically distributed here.  That’s enough to get a good idea of what’s currently going on however, and here are the notes.  We do not have any whites.

2011 Thelema Mountain Red this is Thelema’s second label, crafted using all estate fruit from both the Stellenbosch and Elgin properties.  The Elgin IMG_1051vineyards are situated close to the coast and are at significantly lower altitudes.  Eighteen months in French oak provide ample time for aging.  Mountain Red is a blend of 41% Shiraz, 22% Petite Verdot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, 6% Grenache and 3% Cabernet Franc, so everything but the kitchen sink in this bottle.  The winery describes it as approachable and easy drinking. Here’s what we think:

This wine is a beautiful, deep ruby red.  On the nose currant and blackberry surround violets, with maybe a hint of orange peel.  This is a big nose, it pretty much leaps out of the glass.  On the palate it’s medium+ bodied with gobs of red and black fruit.  The oak is very subtle, the tannins are firm but smooth.  There is a vibrant acid ridge and the alcohol is high.  I liked it very much, but it certainly is not a smooth, round wine.  This has an edge.  It’s good for the money and hints at some really excellent things to come in the regular bottlings.  About $12 – $14, and at that price it’s on the value list.

2011 Thelema Merlotthe Merlot vineyards are between 11 and 23 years old.  This vintage was a very warm one, and harvest began early in the year.  In fact many varietals ripened at the same time, leading IMG_1050to a difficult juggling act as the winery dealt with too many grapes coming in together.  A two day cold soak was followed by a five day fermentation and two days on the skins.  Once again this wine saw 18 months in French oak.    Notes follow:

This is dark red, a little lighter in color than the cab we’ll talk about next.  With the alcohol checking in at 15% and a considerable amount of acid this was quite hot out of the bottle.  In fact it was too hot right away and not in balance, with the fruit masked.  You could tell it was good, and in fact it reminded me a lot of a Shafer Merlot we shared with Brenda from Casey Flat Ranch last year.  That wine was hot, but when decanted opened beautifully, mellowed just a little, and proceeded to throw around a basket of fruit and complex flavors.  This is very similar.  We threw it into the decanter for an hour.  The result was a deep, fragrant wine which offered red fruits accented by earthy tones, smoke, grilled meat and spice.  The acid and alcohol are much more in balance than at first, the tannins are smoother and the wine is delicious and extremely long.  This is a quality bottle through and through.  I would decant for at least an hour.  Two wouldn’t hurt.  Three years on the shelf might be another good approach.  Value list material at about $22 – $25.

2010 Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon the cabernet vineyards are a little younger, at between 8 – 22 years.  2010 was a warm and dry year, and the reds developed deep color and concentration.  The wine, like the previous two, spent 18 months in French oak barriques.    Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon hasIMG_1067 consistently scored in 90+ point range, and this vintage should fare at least that well.  Here are our tasting notes:

This is dark ruby with huge legs.  Alcohol is listed at 14.5% and I believe it.  In fact I’d believe 15.5%.  The wine is very hot out of the bottle, and there is a bright streak of acid in the wine.  Once again this was a decanter opportunity, and we let it sit for a while, actually not decanting until the day after it had been opened.  What did we get for our patience?  Beautiful current and blackberry aromas and flavors roared to the front, with smoke, spice and savory notes.  The wine is big, very big, but it has a tight focus of fruit that is really beautiful.  It’s extremely well made, extremely long and top notch.  Compares well with California cabs at three times the price.  I really wish we had a bottle of their single vineyard cabernet, that must be killer as well.  This will last years, and will only get better.  $30 – $35.

After reviewing three producers from Stellenbosch we’re pretty impressed.  The Thelema wines are good wines, excellent wines actually.  They’re also very serious wines, and not crafted to just be pleasant quaffers (although you can pleasantly quaff if so desired).  Some of them are truly world class wines.  We can’t comment on the whites, but we will when we get our hands on a few.

There are three more farms lined up on the shelf, and we’ll be tackling them over the next month or two.  Next up is RAATS Family Wines.

This is fun,

A votre sante!

To go to the next installment on Raats Family Wines, click here.

Click here to see the first installment in this series: The Wines of Simonsig

Click here to see the second installment: The Wines of Ken Forrester

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