Thelema, South Africa

I was contacted by Thelema, or to give them their full name, Thelema Mountain Vineyards, who sent me their wine range to try recently.

Based in the Simonsberg Mountains of Stellenbosch, Thelema was established in 1983 by Gyles Webb. In 2000 a second vineyard was purchased in a very different location, the cool Elgin Valley, home to wines bottled under the Sutherland Vineyards brand.

In Stellenbosch, vineyards rise to 530m above sea level on mainly south-facing slopes. The rich red soils here seem particularly well-suited to Cabernet Sauvignon and other ‘Bordeaux blend’ varieties, though a diverse range of wines is produced including sweet and fortified examples.

The high plateau of the Elgin Valley is surrounded by four mountain ranges, and the Sutherland vineyards lie just 9km off of the Atlantic Ocean. This is a genuinely cool climate region, so Riesling, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah are among the stars from here.

The Sutherland Wines

(2021) The fruit for this wine is sourced from Elgin, the cool region that is arguably the Cape's prime Sauvignon country. It's certainly punchy, passion fruity and tropical on the nose, with an oily suggestion of green bean too. In the mouth a really very quaffable style, the lychee and mango tropicality giving lots of mouth-filling flavour, and the zesty lime of the acidity pushing through in the finish. Good value.
(2021) A blend of 80% Viognier and 20% Roussanne, this is barrel-fermented and aged 10 months in seasoned barrels, with batonnage. It's a vividly fruity and luscious wine, with apricot and nectarine, but also a little bit struck match or flint, an interesting reductive component familar in many Chardonnays, and adding a layer interest here. The oak adds a creamy and gently smoky touch on nose and palate, in the mouth lots of bright, orangey acidity to briskly keep the ripe stone fruits zipping along. Quite long, again the barrel adding some vanilla and texture into the finish.
(2021) From the cool of Elgin, but quite a full, golden and buttery style, with no sign of the flinty character of Thelema's Stellenbosch Chardonnay. Fermented and matured for 10 months in 228-litre French oak barrels, with regular lees stirring, cerrtainly adds to the hazelnut and buttery-toasty aroma, with zesty citrus fruit beneath rather than anything more tropical, perhaps just a hint of mint too. In the mouth a lovely generous style, weighty texture, keen a fresh citrus and crisp apple fruit and acid, but a more ripe peachiness almost teasing on the mid-palate. Very stylish and a nice counterpoint to the Stellenbosch wine.
(2021) like the Sauvignon Blanc in this range, sourced from Elgin, and aged for nine months in French oak barrels. A nice garnet colour, with a little transparency, the nose is suffused with exotic smoky spices, a fragrant red cherry and fruit beneath. In the mouth it is more savoury than the nose suggests perhaps, an earthy, even slightly leathery character, tannins dry but fine and the acidity balancing.
(2021) Elgin is not regarded as a natural home for Cabernet Sauvignon, in theory its cooler climate suiting earlier-ripening varieties rather more. Thelema's Cab was aged 18 months in French oak barrels, 25% new, and fermented with wild yeasts. It is plummy and black cherryish on the nose, quite glossy and supple, a hint of menthol too. In the mouth there's no shortage of ripe, sweet and succulent black fruit, very smooth tannins and a good balance of cherry-skin tart acidity. Not hugely long, but easy to drink, very nicely made, and proves it can be done.

The Thelema Wines

(2021) From vineyards in Stellenbosch, this is noticeably less green and pungent than the Sutherland bottling from Elgin. There is a touch of gooseberry and elderflower, but its more about nectarine and  grapefruit, the palate sweet with a lusciousness and mouthfilling texture and juicy stone fruit fleshiness. A nice touch of saltiness adds to the freshness of the finish in a stylish Sauvignon.
(2021) From vineyards planted between 1985 and 1986, this is fermented in 228-litre French oak barrels (one third new) and aged for a further 10 months in barrel. It's a lovely style of Chardonnay that balances flinty, complex sulphide character with gently smoky notes and ripe, juicy orchard fruit. The nose has that gunflint and stone quality with a hit of vanillin oak, but fruit is bold too. On the palate a medium- to full texture and creaminess, nuttiness and savoury qualities, plus lemons and apples providing clean fruit and acidity. Quite long too, finishing with tang and vibrancy.
(2021) From a vineyard planted between 1998 and 2000 and a vintage with a cool summer and very little rain, this is 100% Merlot, naturally fermented and matured for 18 months in French oak barrels, 30% of which were new. A bold, youthful ruby- to crimson, the nose is a little earthy and gamy, lightly spiced, the fruit savoury with some tobacco notes. In the mouth there's a real creaminess to the texture, but its a Merlot with some seriousness and substance. Yes, there is a sweet edge to the fruit, plums and tart black berries, but the chocolaty density of tannins and the good cherry-skin acidity gives gastronomic juiciness.
(2021) From a very good vintage, berries are hand-sorted and, after fermentation, racked to French oak barrels (45% new) for 18 months. The nose is gorgeous, hinting at mint but suffused with crushed red and black fruits, and so elegantly touched by graphite and Sandalwood, also touches of kirsch and bright cassis, even moving into Parma violet. The palate is pure silk, glossy and ripe, with concentrated black fruit and again that elegance, not just the cedary touches, but huge juiciness to the acids and a real lick of salty minerality. Long and fabulous wine, delivering loads of bangs per buck. Will cellar for a decade surely.
(2021) A big blend led by Syrah along with Grenache, Petit Verdot, Merlot and both Cabernets, this spends 18 months in 2nd, 3rd and 4th fill barrels. Dark crimson in colour, the nose has pepper and spices over firm black fruit, touches of tobacco and black olive too. In the mouth this is both savoury with a touch of grilled bacon fat and boldly fruity with a depth of firm black berries. Good juiciness, the tannins spicy and ripe and the acid adding lovely balance.
(2021) The vineyards here were planted in 2000 and 2001, and the wine comes from a season that began cool, but warmed up during the peak harvesting period with very little rain. It spends 18 months in French barrels, 30% new. It has a meaty, maybe slightly herbaceous character, not too distinctive in terms of fruit profile, more spicy and a touch green. In the mouth it has black fruit, cool acidity and a stripe of tannin that keeps it savoury, if rather lean.

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