After reviewing the Thelema estate Merlot 2019 recently, it’s always interesting to trade up and assess their Reserve Merlot. Annually among the top examples produced in South Africa, the 2020 vintage had its challenges for producers and many wines seem to show more accessibility early on.
But this Reserve Merlot displays plenty of meaty depth opening initially with leafy, sappy notes of sandalwood, wood spice, capsicum, black plum and black currants over roasted coffee beans and grilled herbs. Initially quite tight and broody as you’d expect from a young wine like this, with a few hours of breathing, the palate opens up beautifully to reveal a medium bodied depth and breadth, an impressive fruit intensity melting into integrated oak spice nuances and sweet polished tannins, a fleshy plummy texture with expressive black berries, black cherry, stewed black plums, brûléed espresso hints and a tangy fresh acidity on the finish. A classy and characterful red. Let this 2020 settle in the cellar for another year or two then drink over 10+ years.
Stellenbosch and its nine wards have basically made Cabernet Sauvignon its very own flagship grape over the past thirty or forty years. Indeed, it is when we open some of these older wines from the 1980’s or 1990’s that we see just how well suited the various terroirs of Stellenbosch are to making premium ageable Cabernet Sauvignon. Within the region, there are undoubtedly a handful of top producers who regularly push the boundaries of quality and finesse and Thelema Mountain Vineyards most definitely falls into this category.
Located high on the slopes of the picturesque Simonsberg Mountain in the heart of Stellenbosch, Thelema Mountain Vineyards can be considered an absolute Cape classic. 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. But 2019 was an unusual year with severe weather fluctuations during bud break and flowering, followed by cool windy conditions which contributed to less and more uneven bunches and certainly smaller berries making for wines with intensity and a surprising amount of elegance at lower alcohol levels.
Thelema Mountain Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2019, WO Stellenbosch, 13.5% Abv.
1.6g/l RS | 5.6g/l TA | 3.66pH
The 2019 vintage Thelema is a plush, dense offering with dramatic fleshy layers of red and black berry fruits and aromatics that show true Cabernet Sauvignon nuances of red currants, earthy cassis, hints of violets, sweet grilled herbs, sweet tobacco, capsicum and black tea. The nervy herbaceous notes are balanced by fleshy red and black fruits, spicy black plum, sweet yellow capsicum, coffee bean spice and a strong undertone of graphite and stony minerality. Medium bodied with a velvety texture, the wine has plenty of freshly tilled earth savoury complexity, a subtle integrated oak spice and powdery dry tannins on the elegant finish. Still showing plenty of youthful restraint and reserve, this is a classically constructed Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon that will reward at least 10+ years ageing in the cellar before drinking.
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 undeniable refinement.
As with so many Cape Bordeaux Blends of this quality, the Rabelais cuvee has now earned itself an impressive following, both at home and globally, making the wine increasingly sought after and necessitating tighter and tighter allocations at the estate. If you missed the impressive 2015 or the eye wateringly great 2017, it’s time to track down some of the delicious 2019.
Thelema Mountain Vineyards Rabelais 2019, WO Stellenbosch, 13.5% Abv.
The 2019 Thelema Rabelais is another incredibly refined creation being a blend of 90% Simonsberg Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Petit Verdot. Since the 2015 vintage, this flagship wine has shifted into a sixth gear and is now hitting some exceptionally high quality notes. Always classical and composed, the aromatics boast notes of perfumed violets, dried herbs, black cherry and seductive hints of crème de cassis with undertones of sweet cedar wood spice, brûléed coffee beans, brown toast and some dusty mineral strands of crushed slate and graphite. The palate is silky soft, predictably sleek and polished and displays impressive textural elegance with fine filigree tannins, fresh acids, subtle complex layers of black currant, cherry cola, capsicum and breakfast espresso. This is another head-turning, eye-opening wine that displays wonderful balance and harmony. Fabulously pure, precise and regal on so many levels. Simply outstanding. Drink from 2024 to 2040+.
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.
Thelema Mountain Vineyards is a true Cape icon estate, located high on the slopes of the picturesque Simonsberg Mountain in the heart of Stellenbosch, the true South African 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.
After the numerous block buster releases from the incredible 2015 vintage, including probably their greatest ever wine produced, the Thelema Rabelais 2015 Bordeaux blend, predictably all eyes have been on this estate as they prepare to offer their highly anticipated offerings from the lauded 2017 vintage. My recent review of the Merlot Reserve 2017 gave a snap shot view into the quality that connoisseurs and collectors have been expecting to see from this fine vintage.
But whatever heights South African Merlot can reach, it pales in comparison to the classic benchmark quality expected from the very best Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux blends. Make space in your cellar now – You are going to need it for this new release!
This is a fabulous expression of pure Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon in a style true to the 2017 vintage. The aromatics are perfumed and seductive showing nuances of tart black cherries, crushed black berries and warm brown toast spread with black currant jam. But it’s the saline cassis lift that melts into notes of kelp, graphite, sweet cedar, cigar box, crushed violet petals and iodine that really add some thrilling complexity. Like many 2017s, the palate fruit and concentration is sleek, elegant and super light on its feet without compromising any focus or intensity. The tannins are powder soft, sweet and ripe leaving the crisp bright acids to act as the main backbone and frame to the wine. Lovely cool fresh tart black berry preserve and black cherry fruits are so vital and pure, lingering long on a truly classical, Bordeaux-styled left bank leaning Cabernet finish. A very impressive wine in its youth that will undoubtedly age with great harmony and finesse if cellared for 15-20+ years.
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+
The Sutherland Reserve Range consists of three premium wines, a Reserve Grenache and a Reserve Petit Verdot, both cultivars not normally associated with Elgin, as well as the Reserve Chardonnay, a variety for which this region has become known as one of South Africa’s leading areas.
“Selecting the Chardonnay for the Reserve Range was a bit of a no-brainer. The cool climate, Tukulu soils and the proximity to the ocean that lies nine kilometres away makes for about as ideal a South African Chardonnay site as one could wish for,” says Gyles Webb.
The grapes for the Sutherland Reserve Range are hand-picked in Elgin and transported to the Thelema winery in Banhoek, Stellenbosch for vinification.
Sutherland Elgin Reserve Chardonnay 2016, 13 Abv.
Aged for 10 months in French oak, there is a mouth wateringly complex bouquet of spicy macerated lemons, boxwood, sweet bergamot zest, brioche and crushed gravel with high toned notes of lime peel and citrus blossom. The palate is super linear and taut with a pronounced steely acidity and serious verve and vigour. A supremely Old World proportioned wine that has masses of classical cool climate restraint and complex nuances of flinty struck match reduction that intermingle with lemon grass, dried thyme and sour green apple bon bons on a racy mineral finish. This is a wonderfully impressive Reserve Chardonnay from Elgin that will appeal to drinkers looking for a more sophisticated, restrained expression of Chardonnay. Drink now or cellar for 3 to 5+ years.