Tall Tales of Thelema

Were you to bet on one thing that a chartered accountant is willing to be taken out of his or her comfort zone for, wine would be a pretty good call. If this elixir of life had inspired artists, poets, dreamers, IT-pioneers and media magnates, why not motivate a spread-sheet obsessed CA wishing to get out a bit further than the herbal tea-room and local SARS office?

Gyles Webb was not so much taken out of his comfort zone – he leapt out of it. Hailing from Kimberley where his father was an accountant for De Beers, the diamond guys, Gyles was doing accounting in Durban and drinking beer in the 1970s when there was that epiphany on which so many wine legends are made: a taste of Puligny-Montrachet, a white Burgundy and understandably epiphany-inducing.

And he leapt.

But no Cape Wine Academy hobby-lectures or amateur wine-tasting groups. For Gyles it was down to Stellenbosch University for a degree in oenology and viticulture. Followed by wine-industry work at Stellenbosch Farmers Winery and Neethlingshof Estate, which was then still owned by the late Jan “Bek” Momberg.

“He’d pop in every day, to see how much grapes had been harvested,” recalls Gyles. “In those days I was pretty much the token Ingelsman around, but it was a great learning curve for what was to follow.”

What followed, was an own wine-farm. A run-down fruit farm in Banghoek, Stellenbosch, that Gyles and his wife, Barbara, bought along with her family in 1983. Under Gyles, the unrelenting steep slopes of the Simonsberg at the top of the Helshoogte Pass were planted with vines that included Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling. First vintage, 1988, saw Thelema Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc featuring in the Platter’s Wine Guide.

“Don’t go looking for that first vintage – I can’t remember the wines being much good,” he says with his typical self-deprecating modesty. “But I do think in those early days before it became such a popular variety we showed that Thelema was good terroir for Sauvignon Blanc.”

Thomas and Gyles Webb.

Fine Sauvignon Blanc, which had cars of thirsty wine-lovers queuing at the cellar. But over time Thelema’s mountain vineyards reaching heights of 500m and planted south-facing in rich red Hutton soils have proved to be not good, but great for a number of varieties. Especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, the latter being the variety that encouraged the deep bite of the wine bug.

Gyles’s son Thomas, who is today commercial director at Thelema, recently led a tasting of the estate’s Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, confidently throwing in a 2007 Chardonnay to highlight not so much the wine’s ageability as its fantastic progression over the years. At 12 years of age the wine is bright as a pin, clear citrus, pear and white flower with a brilliant freshness and zest.

“Thelema’s Chardonnay has always been characterised by a leanness and minerality as opposed to more opulent, buttery styles,” says Thomas. “Maturation in new wood is limited to 35%, with the rest a combination of third and fourth fill.”

Needless to say, the other Chardonnay on pour – the 2016 – is a stupendous wine. Drinking it now offers a brisk complexity that is entirely approachable, made more interesting knowing that it will mature with braveness and glory.

Thomas lets slip something about his father, whose reputation rests on the quality of Thelema and his renowned skills as a wine-taster, in some circles being known as having “the perfect palate”.

“My father’s real passion lies in the vineyards,” says Thomas. “That’s where he is at his happiest, among the source of what is required for the wines good enough to bear the name Thelema.”

Winemaker Rudi Schultz.

Since 2000 wine-making responsibilities have rested on the broad, muscular shoulders of Rudi Schultz, one of the Cape winelands’ renowned Schultz brothers, which includes well-known Hartenberg cellar master Carl.

“Cabernet Sauvignon has always been the red heart of Thelema,” says Schultz, “and I would definitely say there is a distinct style in what is offered. The grapes from the higher-lying vineyards lead to power and elegance, all those things that is written about good Cabernet – but with a delicious accessibility.”

He gives a knowing smile. “One of the features of Thelema we all share is we make wines that are drinkable and to be enjoyed.”

Thomas chips in with his commercial take. “That’s why our wines are reasonaby priced compared to other premium offerings. We make wines people buy cases of, wines they share and enjoy knowing these offer quality but not at unattainable prices.

To emphasise the point of quality, Thomas has a treat in store, namely a Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon 1995. This 24 year old red wine has aged with extraordinary grace, alive and well without the slightest whiff of pension-drawing portiness or oxidation. Riveting and still full of zest, the wine offers tomato-leaf, sour-cherry with a hint of earth and pine-needle. Once again driving home the point that when it comes to Cabernet Sauvignon, this is Stellenbosch at its best. And when comparing these wines to what Napa, Chile and Australia has to offer from the same grape, we are deeply rooted in the traditions of the Old World.

The 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon is, as the Webbs and Rudi want, pure joy and full of dark-fruit drinkability with firm tannins and a long, cool finish that will see the wine maturing to the same degree of greatness offered by the 1995.

To experience the ultimate offering, Thomas pours a wine whose name lies at the origins of this farm called Thelema. It is the Rabelais, a Cabernet Sauvignon-driven blend named after one François Rabelais. Living in 16th century France, this monk, doctor and writer imagined a utopian abbey on the banks of the Loire. In stark contrast to the religious orders of his day, the abbey’s community admitted both men and women and encouraged them to live together in great luxury. Only one law governed its members: “Fay ce que vouldras” – Do what thou wilt.

The name of this abbey? Thélème, which ultimately lent its name to this special place on the slopes of the Simonsberg.

Of the wine itself, a blend of predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon with a splash of Petit Verdot, Schultz says the blend is made from meticulously selected parcels of grapes, representing the best red fruit the estate has to offer.

“Both the Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot components are from low-yield vines of six tons per hectare, and lie high-up between 430m and 480m above sea-level,” says Schultz.

The 2015 vintage is already recognised as a Cape classic, known for its cool, even growing season where grapes ripened in balance and harmony, leading to exceptional quality grapes.

The making of the Rabelais 2015 encompassed the Full Monty: Berry-by-berry selection; after de-stalking and sorting, the fruit was crushed and given a cold-soak for two days; spontaneous fermentation was done over five days with pump-overs, twice daily. Aged for 18 month in 100% new extra tight grain French oak barrels. Extended bottle maturation to ensure the wine is market ready upon its release.

Despite it being mostly of the same variety, Rabelais is a totally different wine to Thelema’s Cabernet Sauvignon. It lies in the texture and the assertive presence on the palate, the slow unleashing of black fruit, liquorice and spice, that wonderful experience of a wine that is both balletic and graceful, but brooding with ominous power.

Best drunk to the sound of thunder rolling in over the Simonsberg and watching the twinkle in the eye of one of the Webbs as you are taken out of your own comfort zone and drinking something quite remarkable.

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