Published by Wine.co.za – 26 July 2012
Thomas Webb invited me to the beautiful Thelema mountain vineyards to taste Thelema’s Mint Cabernet Sauvignon. Thelema is located at the top of the Helshoogte Pass that stretches between Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. The estate was purchased by Thomas’s parents together with his maternal grandparents in 1983, and Gyles—Tom’s father—cleared the land and planted vines. The winery was built in 1987, and in 2000, the winemaking was taken over from Gyles by Rudi Schultz, with Gyles as cellar master.
The origin of the word ‘Thelema’ can be traced back to a Franciscan and Benedictine monk called François Rabelais who lived in the 16th century. Rabelais wrote a story about an Abbey called Thélème. The inhabitants of the Abbey freely indulged their desires and exercised their wills, living according to the maxim: ‘do what thou wilt’. Rabelais believed that it is only when human desire is thwarted that humans turn against their noble natures.
The Thelema estate is tucked away in an exceptionally beautiful corner in the mountains. Tom warmly welcomed us to Thelema, as did two resident silky-grey Weimaraners. We were joined by four of Tom’s friends, including a Cognac maker from Hennessy. We began our tour outside alongside the vines, which sported their spring greenery and stretched to the mountains beyond. Tom began with the often stated adage – one can only make good wine from good grapes.
Tom described the viticultural practices at Thelema, where the emphasis is on interfering with nature as little as possible. Tom said that for a small estate, it was essential to create wines with identity. The mesoclimate is ideal, with summer temperatures not rising much above 26 degrees centigrade. The grapes are hand-harvested and whole bunches are fed into a de-stalker. Much of the winemaking takes place outdoors; the red wine grape must is pumped into outdoor fermentation tanks to ferment, for which the natural temperatures are highly suitable. Thelema practises precision viticulture in the form of satellite imaging – images taken from a helicopter that show canopy density, giving the winemakers an idea of where ripening is likely to occur first in the vineyards.
All wines in the Thelema range are estate wines. For the Sutherland range, grapes are brought in from Elgin and made into wine at Thelema. The two different terroirs are evident in the ranges, each of which has distinctive and contrasting characters. Tom showed us around the immaculately clean and tidy winery that houses bottling and labelling machinery. He was highly informative about the winemaking processes at Thelema, providing a wealth of technical detail, but in layman’s terms.
Next came the wine tasting, Tom led us through virtually the entire Thelema and Sutherland ranges, presenting the like varietals from each range simultaneously for comparison purposes. All of the wines were sublime, but a few interesting ones stood out: a Viognier-Rousanne blend from the Sutherland range, and an unusual Chardonnay from the Thelema range, referred to as Ed’s Reserve Chardonnay. The wooded Sutherland blend had aromas of apricot, petals and marzipan. The Ed’s Reserve Chardonnay is named after Edna – Tom’s grandmother. When the Chardonnay vines for the Ed’s Reserve were purchased, it was assumed that they were standard Chardonnay vines, but it transpired that they are an unusual Dijon clone – clone 166. The wine is unlike any Chardonnay I have tasted before – definitely muscatty. It is described on the website as limey, peppery, muscatty and fragrant, with lovely yeasty flavours, a velvety mouth feel and long finish, all of which we can attest to.
We finished with the big reds, which were superb. The Mint Cabernet Sauvignon gets its name from the distinctive minty aromas and flavours said to result from the vines proximity to a row of Eucalyptus trees. The herbaceous mintiness is equally discernible on the palate. Once we had finished tasting wines from the two ranges, Tom brought out some wines from his own collection – a velvety smooth 1995 Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon with a gorgeous red-brown brick colour, and to our surprise, a Thelema Cap Classique made in 1994. Tom warned us that he couldn’t vouch for the condition of the Cap Classique until we had opened and tasted it, but it turned out to have aged beautifully; I sincerely hope that Thelema starts making Cap Classique again.
Tom treated us to a day of sybaritic hedonism and pleasure. We indulged in lovely wine and enjoyed fine company; I feel sure that the monks of Thélème would have heartily approved.