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Tasting notes from South Africa

text and photographs © 2010 Tom Cannavan

These notes accompany our in-depth feature on South Africa 2010.


Gyles Webb is one of those wonderful characters with the ability to leave me feeling inspired and refreshed, even after a tiring day tramping through vineyards and tasting dozens and dozens of wines. Dashing from his highest vineyard back to the winery where Cabernet Sauvignon was arriving from one of his best blocks, to the tasting room where bottle after bottle was fetched from the cellar, an afternoon in Gyles' company is exhausting but invigorating.

Having started his winemaking life as a cellar hand at Heitz Cellars in California, Gyles returned to South Africa and bought his Stellenbosch farm in 1983, and today Thelema produces 50,000 cases.

Gyles has very firm views on a whole range of topics, and speaks with real candour about his business. "I worry that there's a whole generation of South African wine drinkers now who don't know our wines." The reason for this, he says, is lack of coverage in newspapers and magazines because he does not submit his wines to tastings and competitions. "We don't enter shows because our wines don't fit the profile." Clearly he is referring to the pumped-up style of wine that can really stand out in a competition setting, but is tiring to drink over a leisurely dinner. "We might be forced to enter shows just to get in front of the younger generation of wine drinkers," he concludes.

As well as the home vineyards in Stellenbosch, Thelema has also begun sourcing fruit from the cooler Elgin region. Four of their vineyards are also farmed organically, and it becomes obvious that Gyles' focus is firmly on the land, not the cellar. A 'vegetative index' is created through arial infrared photography that analysis the foliage, and hence vigour, and can show differences between sections of the vineyard which Gyles then works to even out. To explain how important homogenous vineyards are he uses an analogy: "Put one foot in a bucket of ice and one in a bucket of boiling water and you don't experience a nice average of the two."

Thelema's wines

UK Agent is Enotria, but see all stockists on wine-searcher.

2009 Sutherland Sauvignon Blanc
From Elgin. A little herbaceous, lightly nettly nose, but very discreet, with gooseberry and a fresh lemony quality. "It's still too herbaceous for me," says Giles. The palate is riven with a lemon zest fruit and real clarity. Lovely gentle pear drop notes, but absolutely clean and mineral dry. 89/100.

2009 Sutherland Viognier Roussanne
From Elgin. Fermented in older oak. Bone dry but gives an impression of sweetness. Very nice nose, that light note of bruised pear and apple fruit, a little floral lift. The palate has mouth-filling sweetness, but again that really clear, crystalline minerality to the acidity in a fresh, vital finish. 90/100.

2008 Sutherland Chardonnay
From Elgin. Picked quite early to achieve 13.0 ABV. A ripe style, with gentle vegetal buttered cabbage note, and a real sense of salty, iodine minerality. The palate has a fine apple fruit, that is dry but juicy, and the palate stays quite lean, but beautifully so: it is a shimmering, delicate style. Sour lemon and orangey fruit, the oak just adding a sheen of vanilla. 91/100

2008 Sutherland Viognier
This Elgin Viognier has 'morphed' into the Viognier Roussanne which will replace it. This was first crop. Gently herbaceous, with some peachy aromatics and a dry apple character. Very fresh palate, the wine staying dry if simple and a lit lemony-simple. 87/100.

Thelema Muscat de Frontignan 2009
Slightly off dry. 12%. Beautifully floral nose, the Muscat perfume singing out, with hints of lychee and guava. Lovely palate too, just off dry, with beautiful peachy, nectarine flavours that just flood the palate. What a lovely Muscat. 89/100.

Thelema Sauvignon Blanc 2009
Quite subtle green bean qualities, but more herbaceous than the Elgin wine. A hint of quite tropical, almost pineapple fruit. On the palate perhaps lacks a little burst of fruit, the mineral and greenish quality dominating into a very fresh finish, little notes of lychee and guava again hinting at tropicality. 89/100.

Thelema Chardonnay 2008
The burnt orange and vanilla notes here are lovely, a hint of barley sugar, and clean melony fruit. On the palate very clean flavours, again that dry, mineral and apple character but slightly fuller than the Elgin wine, and showing a lovely freshness and length. 90/100.

Thelema Chardonnay 1993
A treat to taste this, with its deep golden colour and slightly oxidised and cabbagey notes not detracting, and on to a still balanced palate, showing the buttery, lanolin edge and again a touch of oxidisation adding a bruised apple fruit. 88/100.

Thelema Riesling 1995
Wax and lime character, with hints of paraffin and seed cake. Delightful palate too, the grapefruit pith and lime dryness of the acidity and terrific shimmering length. 91/100.

2009 Sutherland Pinot Noir
First crop. Very hilly vineyards in Elgin, with every aspect you could wish for. This from one of the coolest slopes. Nice, fresh, cherry cola nose, with lovely raspberry fruitiness. The palate has delightful, quite exuberant fruit sweetness with a great natural silkiness and balance. Not complex, but really lovely with a nice spiciness in the finish. 90

2008 Sutherland Syrah
Around 25% new oak. A touch of vegetal quality here showing real cool-climate character. Very fine raspberry fruit, the hints of pepper, red liquorice and plum very layered and attractive. Very silky, with a very attractive earthiness and savoury, gently meaty and spicy palate, the finish marrying that spice and juicy fruit. 90

2008 Sutherland Cabernet Sauvignon Petit Verdot
65% Cabernet Sauvignon and 35% Petit Verdot. First crop. There is a touch of vegetal quality and herbaceous quality here, a spiciness and meatiness. On the palate the black fruit emerges with sweetness and earthy depth. It is perhaps a little short, but has balance and a nicely creamy finish on the tannins. 88/100.

2008 Thelema Merlot
Rounded, juicy cherry nose. A nice cedary background. The palate is dry, with a liquorice, even chicory edge to the fruit. Structured and fairly chunky, with a dustiness to the tannins and a broad, rich base of plumy fruit and chocolaty oak. Lovely savoury stuff, if the finish is verging on the austere at this stage. It needs some time, but has great structure and concentration. 90/100.

Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon 2007
Beautifully ripe, black, concentrated silky black fruit. A dusty quality here again, of that concentrated, composed, quite muscular but sweet black fruit. The palate has delicious fruit, a huge sweet core driving through the wine, the tannins dry and touching on the austere again, but this is all about the future with savoury, liquorice tinged fruit and great acidity. Fabulous, natural concentration and balance. 93/100.

2006 Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon 'The Mint'
Gamier, with mint and eucalypt in the background. A touch dulled, but a chocolaty ripeness of fruit comes through. The palate has a silky weight, with really nice, full fruit on the mid-palate and delightful smoothness to the tannins. 93/100.

2001 Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon
Ripe, ripe nose, with the opulent berry and plum tomato sweetness apparent. The palate has that same, silky, glossy depth to the fruit, with plum and very smooth tannins, the finish long and silky. A touch of coffee and fine length here, that dustiness of the 2007 now smoothed into an elegant savoury dryness. 94/100.

return to South Africa 2010