Visiting Thelema Mountain Vineyards in South Africa

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Ginny, a friendly dog with a rhythmically wagging tale, greets us as we enter the sleek glass doors of the Thelema winery situated on the top of the Helshoogte Pass about six kilometers outside of Stellenbosch.

The tasting room is large and spacious, yet what sets the room apart from others we’ve seen is a large, unusually ornate tapestry that looks as if it would be better situated in an Roman museum than here, in a rather rural region where baboons, instead of birds, feast on the grapes. The tapestry, with its bold vivid colors of burgundy, gold, and electric blue, is elegantly draped over the glass-enclosed barrel cellar below and depicts a merry feast of gorgeously dressed men and women playing instruments, dancing, and having a great time.

“Welcome!” says Thomas Webb, Sales, Marketing and General Management and the second generation of this family-owned winery. Relaxed and laid-back, Thomas explains Ginny (named for a gin-and-tonic, perhaps because of its color …) is a rescue dog and that the tapestry represents the name of the vineyard. It was named for the “Abbey of Thelema” from a story written by the 16th century French writer Rabelais. Apparently, Rabelais celebrated the hedonistic pleasures of the body …

… and in his story the followers of the Abbey of Thelema were fun-loving people who lived good life (you can read the entire story here).

Thomas ushers us into the tasting room, which is large and airy, with a breathtaking view of some of the vineyards and also the Drakenstein mountains, that look large and a bit scary in the distance. In the course of our visit, the mountains express their personality every few minutes with dark menacing clouds floating over their tips, then reflecting brilliant sunshine, then becoming dark again.

As Thomas gathers together some wine to taste, we learn the remarkable history of the vineyard. In 1983 Thomas’s father Gyles, the founder and cellar master, decided to leave his job as a chartered accountant in Durban and farm grapes. Starting a winery, even for today’s billionaires, is a gamble – the expenses can be enormous. Listening to the story, my personal thought was that it was an imprudent choice for an accountant, but then again, who better than an accountant to manage expenses?

According to Thomas, who was seven at the time, the farm was in a dilapidated state, so much work had to be done in the vineyard and it would be four years until the newly planted grapes would be ready to turn into wine. By that time Gyles had received an oenology degree at Stellenbosch University, and worked stints in South Africa and abroad, The first year they made wine at a neighboring property, with Thomas’s mother and grandmother visiting various restaurants to sell the wine.

In the fullness of time the family bought their own equipment, and bought other properties (in 2000 Thelema bought Sutherland, an apple orchard in the Elgin Valley which is a cool-climate site in Elgin). Here the family has 45 hectares of vines including Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Grenache, and Pinot Noir. The fruit is transported to Thelema for vinification and bottled under the Thelema Sutherland label.

We taste the Thelema Sauvignon Blanc 2011, which according to Thomas is their “bread and butter” – it is a dry style that is very easy drinking. The Sutherland 09 Viognier/Roussanne is a very aromatic wine with an aroma of saffron and east Indian spices. And of course, the Rabelais 07 is just as sumptuous as described …

A fabulous visit and wonderful success story of a hard-working winemaking family!

 Thelema Mountain Vineyards

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