Most top SA Cabs from Stellenbosch – with Thelema among the best

Thelema Scenic 2015 (smaller, cropped)

View from Thelema on the Simonsberg, across Helshoogte to Banghoek and Jonkershoek

WHEN a group of Stellenbosch (and Somerset West) wine producers collaborated to present a line-up of 20 Cabernet Sauvignons to media and industry folk on the occasion of the Cape Wine 2015 trade show, it was to be expected that Thelema would count among the beauties included in a tasting billed as the ‘Kingdom of Cabernet’. The Webb family’s Thelema Mountain Vineyards on the Simonsberg has been classified as one of South Africa’s leading Cab properties for as long as most serious wine lovers can remember. However, what might have raised some eyebrows was that winemaker Rudi Schultz and the Webbs chose not to showcase their highly pedigreed Cabernet Sauvignon or ‘The Mint’ version, but rather their Rabelais blend – Cab-dominated but a Bordeaux-style combo that also includes some Petit Verdot (10% or so).

We’re told that the selection process involved two rounds of tasting, the first blind and the second sighted – a ‘weighted’ system in which the reputation of the farm came into play. The team of 20 comprised the following, in alphabetical order: Alto 2000, De Trafford 2005, Delaire Graff Laurence Graff Reserve 2011, Ernie Els Proprietor’s 2011, Glenelly Lady May 2011, Kanonkop 2005, Le Riche 2005, Meerlust 2009, Neil Ellis Vineyard Selection 2010, Oldenburg 2011, Rust en Vrede Single Vineyard 2011, Rustenberg Peter Barlow 2009, Stark-Condé Three Pines 2011, Thelema’s Rabelais 2011, Uitkyk Carlonet 2003, Vergelegen 2009, Vergenoegd 2009, Vriesenhof CWG 2007, Waterford 2009 and Zonnebloem Limited Edition 2009 – Rabelais being the only one of these reds not labelled as a (single) varietal wine.

Politics aside, not counting those resting on their laurels or wanting to jump the gun, the 20 Stellenbosch (and Somerset West) Cabs with the best track records over the past 10 years are as follows, also in alphabetical order: Edgebaston‘s GS, EikendalFlagstone Music Room, Fleur du Cap Unfiltered, De Trafford, Guardian Peak Lapa, Hartenberg, Jordan, Kanonkop, Kleine Zalze, Le Riche Reserve, Neil Ellis, Rustenberg Peter Barlow, Spier, Stark-Condé, Thelema, Tokara, UitkykVergelegen and Waterford. And here’s the thing: Stellenbosch (and Somerset West) is where most of South Africa’s leading Cabernets come from, with the only cellars outside this district that are classified among the country’s Top 20 Cab producers – on the basis of best track records – being the Cederberg Private Cellar, Franschhoek’s Boekenhoutskloof, and from Paarl, Glen Carlou and Nederburg (Private Bin R163).

Any way you look at it, Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon remains one of the top Cabs from the Cape winelands. “Stylish, with aromas of ripe blackcurrant, dark chocolate…” Never a dud vintage; in the Top Wine SA Hall of Fame together with Boekenhoutskloof, Cederberg Five Generations, Fleur du Cap Unfiltered, Guardian Peak Lapa, Kanonkop, Stark-Condé Three Pines and Waterford. In production since the ’80s, with the latest generation introduced from 2009, the current release is the 2011 at a cellar-door price of R195 a bottle.

‘The Mint’ version has impressed too – only made in small quantities and going at the higher price of R265 pb for the 2012 vintage. There are bottles of the 2013 and 2014 Mint maturing in the cellar, but there wasn’t a 2015 and the block of ‘bluegum’ Cab with its menthol character (thought to be due in part at least to the eucaluyptus trees growing next to the vines) is scheduled for replanting in 2016, coming back into production only in 2021 or 2022.

But it’s Rabelais that’s destined to take over as Thelema’s flagship, if it hasn’t already. Premium-positioned at R390 a bottle at the cellar for the 2011, the blend comprises the farm’s “absolute best” Bordeaux components. Twenty months in barrel and two years in bottle before release. So a different Cabernet vineyard, different wooding, and then there’s the Petit Verdot, adding fruit intensity to the final blend. “Cherries and cedar wood spice on the nose…”

Simply put, according to the winemaker speaking about all three of Thelema’s top reds: purity of fruit, with more and more complexity the older they get. And the blend is expected to mature for quite a bit longer than the two straight Cabernets – up to 20 years after vintage. There have been five Rabelais releases to date, with the last four very highly rated. Click here if you’re curious about the story behind the name.


One comment

  • What did I like most in the Stellenbosch Kingdom of Cabernet line-up? Well, the 15-year-old Alto, the Kanonkop, Le Riche, the Rabelais, the auction wine of Jan Boland at Vriesenhof…