Uva Mira – wonderful grape – encapsulates in two words the essence of this wine farm, as succinctly as the view from its Helderberg vineyards presents the essence of the Stellenbosch Winelands. And captivates EMILE JOUBERT.
You need a view from a high spot, the right lofty vantage point, to fully understand why Stellenbosch’s wine region has been referred to as the theatre of the wine gods. Okay, not exactly in quite such dramatic terms, but it’s a thought inspired by Jan Boland Coetzee, that venerable sage of matters earth, soil, weather and wine who likes to refer to Stellenbosch as an amphitheatre.
Jan Boland’s comparison becomes abundantly clear when you look out across the spread of vineyards, mountains and ocean from Uva Mira Mountain Vineyards, a view that is truly a sight for eyes – sore or otherwise. Barbra Streisand must have had this place in mind when singing her hit ‘On a Clear Day, You can See Forever’.
Some 600m up on the Helderberg, Uva Mira presents not only a spectacular view, but a better understanding of the geographical wonder that is Stellenbosch. The amphitheatre incorporates the strip of mountain beginning with the Helderberg’s southern side from which the mountains run north to Stellenbosch Mountain before becoming the Simonsberg.
Heading west are the Bottelary Hills and then it’s south again as the Polkadraai slopes buffer Stellenbosch from the Cape Flats. This amphitheatre surrounds the drama’s centre stage, namely False Bay’s expansive spread of Atlantic Ocean that subjects the whole of Stellenbosch to the magnificently tempestuous effects of a southern maritime climate. Oh, and for good measure, Uva Mira offers postcard views of Table Mountain and Cape Point.
The mesmerising effect of standing on the mountain slopes at the farm is not limited to the visiting wine taster. In 2014, a Johannesburg businessman by the name of Toby Venter just happened to be standing there. A man well versed in excellence and aesthetics, he knew without a doubt that this was a property he had to acquire. After all, as CEO of Porsche, Bentley and Lamborghini in South Africa he is, you could say, driven by a desire for distinction, class and quality.
“I never really had a wine farm in mind,” says Toby, “and getting involved in the industry was purely by chance.” It was horses rather than cars that brought him and his partner Jessica Baker on a visit to the Cape. “We were looking for a place away from Johannesburg to keep and ride Jessica’s horses,” he says, “and popped down to have a look at some properties. By chance, some friends told us over lunch that there was a farm in Stellenbosch on the market; not any good for horses, but just a great spot.”
It took one visit and Uva Mira had Toby’s heart. “The place just spoke to me,” he says. “My father had studied at Stellenbosch where he became a wine-lover, and growing up in Potchefstroom and Gauteng I heard all his tales of the Winelands, great wines and the wine people. So when I came to Uva Mira and saw the vineyards on the mountain, then looked down to the sea and the Winelands below, well, it really was love at first sight. Oh, and the horses are still in Johannesburg.”
Toby is not the first upcountry businessman to have seen the potential of Uva Mira. Industrialist Des Weedon, the initial owner, established the brand and the winery in the late 1990s, although when he arrived, some vines were already supplying grapes to the KWV.
Christiaan Coetzee, winemaker at Uva Mira since 2013, says the farm is an example of the importance of the vision and dynamism that were released in the Cape Winelands three decades ago. “From up here down to the Annandale road, it was all one big property growing fruit and grapes for generic corporate brands,” he explains, guiding his bakkie up through 600m of Helderberg vineyards. It is perilously steep, the kind of extreme slopes one expects to see in the winelands of the Douro in Portugal or Germany’s Mosel region. The driver-winemaker continues: “The vision of people like Toby has given youngish winemakers like myself the opportunity to be involved in extreme, focused and committed projects in this ever-changing landscape of South African wine.”
Christiaan pulls over at some young Shiraz vines. For all the manicured entrance to Uva Mira, the elegance of the tasting room and the luxurious wine packaging, this here is rugged wine country. The soil is hard and gritty, the result of granite decomposing from the Helderberg and laid down on these mountain slopes over millions of years. Next to the vineyards, lush and verdant in early summer, aromatic patches of wild fynbos gather on the rocky mountain face, their resident insects shrilly announcing a wilderness presence.
“You are in nature, and nature is wine,” says Christiaan. But thinking of Toby’s ethos of excellence and almost seeing the handsomely sensual shape of a Porsche Carrera in my mind’s eye, I know where he is heading: in the direction of the ‘P’ word. “But to capture all the effect of soil and climate and ocean, precision farming and precision winemaking are what we do. We combat any sign of leaf-roll virus aggressively. We irrigate with a close eye on the fine border between over-hydrating and vineyard stress.
We farm as naturally as possible, deploying natural predators to terminate mealy-bugs and other critters, but not taking any unnecessary chances when conditions threaten to damage vineyard health.”
The 30ha estate features a highly focused wine collection: Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Shiraz, as well as a red Bordeaux-style blend. But it’s not surprising to find Uva Mira’s focus on Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, cultivars that in the past decade have progressed naturally to the top of Stellenbosch’s offering in terms of quality and recognition.
“Stellenbosch and the Helderberg, in particular, have traditionally been great for Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc; it sort of runs in the regional DNA, of the terroir as well as the people,” says Christiaan. “I haven’t been around as a winemaker for all that long, but if you look at what has happened in the Cape’s wine industry over the past 50 to 60 years in terms of quality and reputation, Stellenbosch and Cabernet Sauvignon appear to go together like hand and glove. You see it in the grapes and as the fermentation begins in the cellar. Soils of decomposed granite combine with the climate to create such balance and structure, and it all flows as the grapes are pressed.”
At Uva Mira, in the heartland of Cabernet Sauvignon country, the focus is on Cabernet Sauvignon, too, but it is Chardonnay that has seen a plethora of medals, trophies and stratospheric ratings coming the farm’s way in the past few years. And you have to admit, there is a truly distinctive character in an Uva Mira Chardonnay, something that is original, particular and exciting. There’s an attention-grabbing curiosity in the way that everything pure about this great Chardonnay grape is made edgier, exciting by the presence of something untamed and wild: a brush of fynbos; some saltiness from rocks that broke off the mountain in a time long forgotten; the rattling effects of a strong south-easterly wind.
“The previous owners of Uva Mira already saw the potential of Chardonnay, making really fine wines through the first decade of this millennium,” says Christiaan. “For a farm that has only been producing this variety for two decades, one has to be enormously excited about what lies ahead for our Chardonnay. It’s definitely a focus for Uva Mira – we already offer three different Chardonnays – and we look forward to seeing how the personalities and qualities of these wines mature as the vines and terroir develop a longer relationship.”
No longer is Toby looking down from Uva Mira on the amphitheatre. It is, simply, onwards and upwards.