The Thelema Rabelais red blend originally started out as the prestigious Thelema Cape Winemakers Guild blend before evolving into the Rabelais label with the 2007 vintage, being produced originally from only Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. From 2009, Petit Verdot started to replace the Merlot portion and now the blend appears fairly settled at approximately a 90% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Petit Verdot mix. The Rabelais represents the very best Bordeaux components from the Thelema range where the wines clearly show concentration, polished ripe tannins and obvious refinement.
The last in a trilogy of drought vintages, the 2018 harvest produced fruit of sufficient quality for Thelema to produce their iconic Rabelais blend again. This year, the Cabernet Sauvignon portion comes in at 85% with the remaining 15% devoted to Petit Verdot yet again. After fermentation, the wine was left for 12 hours on the skins before pressing and racking into 100% new 225 litre French oak barrels for malolactic fermentation and further ageing for 20 months.
Thelema Rabelais 2018, WO Stellenbosch, 13.32% Abv.
RS 1.8 g/l | pH 3.46 | TA 5.9
Quite an individual wine, this 2018 Rabelais is beautifully characterful and expressive with vivid notes of sour black plum compote, saline black currant, kelp and oyster shell, unsmoked cigars and freshly cracked black pepper all tightly smothered beneath an aromatic iron curtain of graphite and cedar spice. The palate shows an impressively polished texture with sleek marble like tannins… firm but super tight knit and precise, a medium bodied harmonious weight of red and black berry fruits and an incredibly long, saline, rock salt finish. Plenty of attractive wet river pebble minerality combines with graphite, lead pencil and complexing brûléed wood spice nuances to offer all the ‘salt & pepper’ complexity that should evolve in bottle to one day make this a truly classy, complex Cape Bordeaux blend. Crack the odd bottle after 5+ years but keep the rest for at least 10+. A fabulous 2018 blend that speaks of the vintage.
The message seems to be getting out – the 2018 vintage in the Western Cape produced some seriously good wines. Or should the emphasis be on some of South Africa’s top producers who produced some very impressive new releases? Either way, the final results in bottle are impressing the critics and when the new edition of the South African wine bible, the Platter South African Wine Guide is released, I predict that the 2018 vintage will boast a broad new array of vinous treasures.
I recently started reviewing the various 2018 releases from one of my favourite Stellenbosch estates, Thelema Mountain Vineyards, and once again, the final results are head turning, none more so than the new Merlot Reserve.
Thelema Estate Merlot Reserve 2018, WO Stellenbosch, 14 Abv.
After the super impressive 2017 Reserve Merlot, who could possibly have thought that the 2018 vintage would serve up such a classic Merlot expression. The aromatics are rich and intense with complex notes of violets and sweet lavender, freshly collected sea shells, sweet red and black berries, blue berry compote, wet tobacco, graphite and subtle sweet sappy notes. The palate is medium to full-bodied and also boasts a pronounced maritime salinity supported by leafy black cherry notes, roasted coffee beans, black tea, tangy rose hips and spicy black plum nuances. This Reserve Merlot shows the power and density of a cool climate Cabernet Sauvignon with the suave, plump mineral tannins of a serious Right Bank Bordeaux Merlot icon wine. Concentrated, muscular but fleshy and finely balanced, this is yet another stand out red wine from one of South Africa’s true first growth estates and should evolve beautifully in the coming years. Drink from 2022-2038+
The Thelema Rabelais is a blend of the best Bordeaux varietal components from Thelema’s estate vineyards in Stellenbosch. The 2014 was suitably impressive in quality and was lauded as one of the best Bordeaux blends of the vintage on the South African market. But of course the epic 2015 vintage was a game changer, shifting to 6th gear in terms of quality, purity, balance and intensity.
The 2017 vintage was again a selection of the very best barrels identified and earmarked after harvest. The Cabernet Sauvignon vines were planted in 2002 on decomposed granite Hutton soils at a density of 2000 vines per hectare. The Petit Verdot vines were planted shortly afterwards in 2003.
The grapes were de-stalked, hand sorted, crushed and then fermented in stainless steel after a two day cold soak. After fermentation, the wine was left on its skins for two more days before pressing and then racked into 100% new French 225 litre oak barrels for 20 months of ageing.
(RS 2.0 g/l , pH 3.39, TA 6.2 g/l. 14 Abv.)
Thelema Rabelais 2017, WO Stellenbosch, 14 Abv.
The 2017 Thelema Rabelais Bordeaux blend sticks to its more recent successful recipe of 87% Cabernet Sauvignon with just a 13% splash of Petit Verdot to add extra interest. A fabulously deep garnet-purple colour, this expertly constructed work of vinous art slowly unfurls in the glass revealing complex notes of crushed black currants, earthy black plum, warm black berry crumble, sweet clove and cedar spice. There are also some distinctive dusty Cabernet Sauvignon aromas that mix harmoniously with notes of half-smoked cigars together with charged perfumed tones of violets, graphite and sweet black chai tea. Medium bodied and supremely tight knit and focused, there is a piercingly arctic fresh line of acidity that cuts through the plush textured fruit concentration like a surgeon’s scalpel through water paper. The intensity is awesome and the all round richness and opulence held tightly in check by the acids but also the super weightless, fine-grained polished marble tannins. The 2015 Rabelais was such an astonishingly great wine that it takes a modicum of courage to even suggest that this 2017 expression is every bit its equal and may well be superior. This great wine truly encapsulates the essence of where South African fine wine has come from but also where it is today. A wine that will give endless pleasure from release but has all the requisite building blocks to age gracefully for 20+ years. An exceptional must have Cape icon red.
There is no doubt what so ever that when you taste a new vintage of Thelema, whatever the cuvee, you just know that the estate is on the ascendancy again with wine quality rising to match its historical reputation as one of South Africa’s most famous and revered producers. This wine certainly is a real surprise for a South African Merlot and exhibits a taut, fresh palate texture and classism that has more in common with the great old Thelema Merlots from 1994 and 1995 than with more recent expressions from the early 2000s.
When I speak of Thelema on the ascendancy, I speak purely from a UK centric stand point as I am confident to say that in the home market, the Thelema brand has never been more revered or admired. This Merlot is yet another step in the right direction for Thelema as they strive to cement their rightful place in the international world of fine wine.
This wine exhibits alluring aromatics of dark pithy black plum, black berry spice, sweet leaf, earthy red currants, plum sauce and a cornucopia of led pencil wood spice, dried herbs and sweet cedar notes. Texturally, the palate weight is super sleek and taut harking back to the classical styles from the mid 1990s despite the elevated alcohol level at 14 abv. The tension, verve and stony minerality wash across the palate finishing with a long lingering note of sweet black bramble berry spice and a subtle cedar complexity. I love the linearity, precision and focus that is often absent in the majority of other South African single varietal Merlots. This wine’s crystalline acids bring an energy and crispness that frame the wine in such a classical manner. While I have never claimed to be a massive fan of single varietal Merlot unless from California, the Right Bank of Bordeaux or from pockets of Tuscany, I fail to see how much better this variety can perform solo in a South African context unless you blend in other grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc or Petit Verdot. This 2017 Reserve certainly tastes like a keeper. For the record, the 1994 and 1995 Thelema Merlots are still going strong! Maybe it’s time to drink up and replace with a few bottles of this impressive new wine?
Starting life out as the prestigious Thelema Cape Winemakers Guild blend, this famous South African red wine changed to the Rabelais label with the 2007 vintage, being produced originally from only Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. From 2009, Petit Verdot started to replace the Merlot portion and now the blend appears fairly settled at approximately a 90% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Petit Verdot mix.
With most 2015s already long since released, there can’t be more than a handful of epic Cape icon reds from the 2015 vintage that have not yet been proposed to the market. The iconic Kanonkop Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 is one such wine but undoubtedly, others will emerge. But what they don’t all have is a rock solid track record and of course a historical producer prestige worthy of the finest global collector. They just don’t come much more famous than Thelema, and without doubt, I can see this wine reigniting the engines of passion and collectability for this winery yet again on a global scale.
Thelema Rabelais 2015, WO Stellenbosch, 14.5 Abv.
What must surely be among the last of the great renowned 2015 Cape reds to be released, the Rabelais 2015 Bordeaux blend is an epic rendition of this classic Cape wine. Supremely dark, dense and almost overwhelming, this wine speaks loudly, boldly but also incredibly intelligently and at no point courts excess or any extremes of style. The nose is fantastically deep, dark and intense with hints of campfire ember smoke, black currant pastille allure, maritime salinity and a subtle note of freshly cut hedgerow. There is an oak imprint, but finer and more integrated at this “youthful” age it couldn’t be with the vanilla pod spice melting into seductive notes of cedar, cassis, graphite, granitic minerality and stony quarry dust tannins. I loved the 2013 expression of this wine and in preparation for this rating retasted the majestic Rabelais 2014 for added perspective. In the end, it is as clear as day that the Thelema Rabelais 2015 not only represents a benchmark of quality within their range but also a high point of hedonistic, compact opulence that may not be repeated at this level for a decade or more. A reassuringly bold, restrained, classical 2015 that will undoubtedly serve to move the market for this great vintage ever upward in desire and demand. Drink from 2021 to 2042+
Thelema Mountain Vineyards is an absolute Cape classic, located high on the slopes of the picturesque Simonsberg Mountain in the heart of Stellenbosch, the true Kingdom of Cabernet. With vineyards grown at elevations of between 370m and 530m above sea level, Thelema is one of the highest and coolest estates in the area with 100 percent of the fruit used coming from their own vineyards.
For the last few years, Thomas Webb has taken over the reigns from his father Gyles Webb, who established Thelema in 1983 by purchasing a run down fruit farm. The first wines were released in 1988 and they soon became some of the most sought after wines in the Cape winelands and pretty soon came to typify the new quality and modern style parameters that were being pursued in the post 1990 South Africa, ahead of the first democratic elections in 1994.
Chatting to Thomas at our recent 2013 red vintage horizontal tasting, I recalled how in the mid 1990’s I used to battle to secure even just a few bottles of their Chardonnay, Merlot Reserve and their famous Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines, despite their fame, we’re not produced in huge quantities and were actually quite a defined, limited boutique offering. Today, Thelema still sells a healthy 70 percent of their wines in the local home market, a revealing sign of their continued fame and fashion among local South African fine wine consumers.
Thelema Merlot 2013, Stellenbosch, 14.5 Abv.
Cool dark spicy nose showing black fruits, dried herbs, baking spices and macerated black plums. Also a noticeable dried bush veld and cherry skin pithiness. The palate is sleek, tight knit and cool, packed with fleshy black berry fruits, black plum, and black current. There is tension here and classical fine grained mineral tannins lurking underneath the elegant creamy texture. A Merlot definitely on the more serious end of the spectrum.
This wine shows evidence of a step up in quality and intensity with 100% new French oak being used for maturation. The nose is sweet and savoury revealing an alluring earthy vein along with blueberries, tannery leather, dried herbs, and a Cabernet-like cedary oak spice lift. The palate is rich and intense, showing very polished, textured and suave luxurious sweet tannins. There is extra power here and harmonious fleshy depth with cassis leaf, subtle herbal notes and sweet tobacco on the long vibrant finish. Impressive wine with only approximately 3000 bottles produced from vines planted in the mid-1980’s.
(Wine Safari Score: 93+/100 Greg Sherwood MW)
Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon The Mint 2013, Stellenbosch, 14 Abv.
A really individual style with a dusty lift of pronounced peppermint and sweet cassis spice together with cedary, mineral spice and boiled black currant sweets, pastille, and herbal mint tea notes. The palate is full and fleshy, rich and round, with fine purity and creamy, caressed tannins. The finish is modern and opulent, with black currant leaf, reductive saline cassis notes and that characteristic eucalyptus lick. Very enjoyable to drink. A real crowd pleaser.
There is officially no reserve Cabernet Sauvignon in the Thelema range, but this classic black label Cabernet Sauvignon is a serious piece of kit. Aged 20 months in 40% new French oak, there is lovely varietal typicity here (despite the sneaky splash of Petit Verdot in the blend), with a dusty mineral nose of dried basil and thyme, hints of fynbos, graphite, and perfumed potpourri dried herb spice. Beautifully textured, the palate shows great purity and precision and intelligent winemaking. Like all the Thelema wines, there are fine polished tannins, real elegance, focus and finesse. Classy and classical, this is an impressive expression of Stellenbosch Cabernet with complexity, age-ability, and confidence of style. Benchmark in everyday.
Alternatively called the Thelema Cape Winemakers Guild blend, this wine changed to the Rabelais label with the 2007 vintage, being produced originally from only Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. From 2009, Petit Verdot started to replace the Merlot portion and now the blend appears fairly settled on a 90% Cab / 10% PV mix. Dark, cool, broody black fruits reveal hints of cassis leaf, saline oyster shell, graphite, iodine and blueberry crumble. Palate is taught and fresh, with real precision and incredibly fine, pin point velvety tannins. A very elegant package, the acids give this wine extra tension and real steely cut. Classy and restrained, the Rabelais will improve immeasurably with at least another 10 years in the cellar.