On the slopes of the Helderberg, award-winning wine estate Uva Mira is showcasing the sophistication and versatility of Cabernet Franc, writes RICHARD HOLMES.
ELEGANCE. It’s a word Christiaan Coetzee returns to often as our conversation flows above the clank and bustle of the bottling line in the cellar below. It’s an exciting time on this boutique Helderberg estate, with a brand-new wine being labelled and crated, ready to be shipped out.
“If you think of Uva Mira and where we are situated, we have always worked to capture the cool climate that we have here. In both our white and red wines, there is always that golden thread of elegance,” says Christiaan, who in 2024 will mark his 12th vintage as winemaker on Uva Mira. And with each passing year, he has focused ever more on expressing the essential elegance of this unique site.
For this talented young winemaker, there are few varietals that capture that quality as succinctly as Cabernet Franc, a cultivar that thrives in precise pockets of the Helderberg’s cooler terroir. “There are very few places in the world that can really do well with Cabernet Franc and we know that the Helderberg is one of them,” he says, looking out at the vineyards that carpet the mountain slopes beyond the cellar.
Though Cabernet Sauvignon has long held the limelight, both in Stellenbosch and abroad, there is a groundswell of interest in Cabernet Franc, a cultivar often seen as little more than a blending component in Bordeaux-style red wines; a supporting actor to the supposed star that is Cabernet Sauvignon.
DNA testing has established that Cabernet Sauvignon is, in fact, the ‘child’ of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, and while Cabernet Franc may keep a lower profile than its more famous offspring, it forms the backbone of some of the world’s most remarkable wines.
In France, the Loire valley is the heartland of Cabernet Franc, but amid the ‘Right Bank’ vineyards of Bordeaux, it is the foundation of some of the region’s most famous villages and producers. Both Pomerol and Saint-Émilion produce some of the world’s most famous Cabernet Franc wines; simply look to the likes of Cheval Blanc – typically made up of two-thirds Cabernet Franc – or Ausone, blended almost evenly with Merlot.
SUBTLY FRAGRANT AND GENTLY FLIRTATIOUS
Allowing Cabernet Franc to truly express itself is no easy feat and winemakers agree that it is a demanding grape to grow.
“It can be a difficult varietal to work with,” admits Christiaan. “Cabernet Franc needs to be planted in the right place and in the right conditions. But once you have that, it’s capable of producing a truly refined world-class wine.”
Uva Mira’s Cabernet Franc vineyards are planted on Tukulu soils on the west-facing slopes of the farm, at altitudes as high as 470m above sea level.
“For most of the southern hemisphere these west-facing slopes are usually warmer, but here on Uva Mira they are actually our cooler vineyards,” Christiaan says. “It’s due to the way the sun rises over the Helderberg, as well as the prevailing winds coming in off the Atlantic Ocean, which is just 9km away.”
WE PICK OUR CABERNET FRANC UP TO THREE WEEKS EARLIER THAN THE CABERNET SAUVIGNON. WHEN YOU GET IT PROPERLY RIPE IT HAS THIS BEAUTIFUL FLORAL NOTE.”Winemaker Christiaan Coetzee
These cooler slopes create the ideal terroir for Cabernet Franc, which benefits from longer ripening periods. That’s particularly important for ameliorating Cabernet Franc’s naturally high levels of methoxypyrazines, which can deliver leafy, green and herbaceous characters when vineyards are planted on the wrong sites or mishandled in the cellar.
“We make sure to break out a lot of leaf cover on the Cabernet Franc, to bring in more sunlight and get nice airflow through the canopy,” adds Hilton Phipson, Uva Mira’s viticulturist. “We do that early in the season. Just after flowering, we start opening the leaves, so it has quite a bit of diffused sunlight. And we do it early so that the grapes become used to the sunlight and there are no sunburn issues.”
“Cabernet Franc has to get enough sunlight,” agrees Christiaan. “If you do that, but also plant in a cooler region where you get slower ripening and a longer hang time, you get what Jancis Robinson called this beautiful ‘feminine’ version of a Cabernet Sauvignon.”
Jancis, one of the world’s most influential wine critics and commentators, is undoubtedly a fan of Cabernet Franc, enthusing about the grape’s character being “subtly fragrant and gently flirtatious rather than massively muscular” and hailing the “charming and more aromatic relative” of Cabernet Sauvignon.
But it takes a keen eye and constant focus to get it right.
“We pick our Cabernet Franc up to three weeks earlier than the Cabernet Sauvignon and when you get it properly ripe it has this beautiful floral note. There’s a peppery perfume, a tobacco herbaceous character that adds freshness to the wine without being dominant. The tannin structure is more refined, which makes it more accessible at a younger age,” Christiaan explains.
That attention to detail in the vineyard is matched in the Uva Mira cellar where, during harvest, red wine grapes are hand-sorted in shifts, 24 hours a day, to ensure only perfectly ripe red fruit makes it into the fermentation tanks.
“We work very gently with the fruit once it’s in the cellar,” says Christiaan.
“We also do a bit of whole-berry fermentation to promote that perfume and floral note you get in Cabernet Franc.”
NEW ADVENTURES IN CABERNET FRANC
After more than doubling the Cabernet Franc vineyards over the past five years, today Uva Mira has split its red wine plantings almost evenly between Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. With additional vineyards and a greater choice of fruit for Christiaan to work with, the exciting news from the estate this summer is the launch of a brand-new addition to the portfolio, with the Mira Cabernet Franc joining The Dance and the Cabernet Franc-dominated signature blend, O.T.V.
The Mira Cabernet Franc has been launched to offer a more accessible entry point into the wines of Uva Mira. Both in price and style, it is pitched as a wine for everyday enjoyment rather than a special occasion. Produced in larger volumes than The Dance or O.T.V., Christiaan hopes this latest release will introduce a new audience to the estate.
“We wanted to offer something from the cellar that drinks really nicely at a young age, but also to help people feel more at ease with Uva Mira as a brand,” he explains. “People are moving towards lighter styles of red wine and, while Cabernet Franc is not as light as Pinot Noir or Cinsaut, it doesn’t have the heaviness of Cabernet Sauvignon. The Mira Cabernet Franc is a fantastic fit.”
The Mira Cabernet Franc has a lighter oak influence than The Dance, Uva Mira’s other single-varietal Cabernet Franc, bringing the fruit to the foreground and ensuring it’s a wine hugely accessible in youth.
“The fruit is more expressive and the structure of the tannins makes it a lot more accessible at a young age,” says Christiaan. “There are some herbal notes, which bring freshness, but it also has that amazing graphite quality that I just love in Cabernet Franc. Honestly? It’s a fabulously quaffable wine!” V