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Uva Mira winemaker: ‘I pick purely on taste’

From his cellar on the upper slopes of the Helderberg, Uva Mira winemaker Christiaan Coetzee is finely attuned to the subtleties of the landscape, as Richard Holmes discovers.

Discover the wines of Uva Mira in the intimate tasting room, where a cosy leather couch stands by the fireside and a long central table creates a convivial space for groups. The best seats are over by the window, at a handful of tables that take in superlative views stretching from Cape Point to Table Bay.

From where we’re standing, high up on the northern flank of the Helderberg, the vineyards below are stitched together like a patchwork quilt of muted greens. Here a parcel lies fallow, sown with cover crops to allow the soil to rest. On a windy slope, neat rows await the new Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon vines that will soon be planted.

Across the valley, the hillside bristles with poles that, close up, are revealed as a vineyard planted stok-by-paaltjie (also known as échalas or staked vines) with Syrah. Those steep slopes wouldn’t look out of place in the northern Rhône. Further down, alongside the Uva Mira cellar, trellised vineyards are laid out along an undulating hillside, the neat rows interrupted only by a stately candlewood tree that has become a signature of this fine wine-producing Stellenbosch estate.

And Uva Mira’s winemaker Christiaan Coetzee knows every inch of this property, quietly and confidently channelling the character of this cool-climate estate within the boundaries of a style that has seen Uva Mira’s wines sought-after worldwide. Stretched across 127ha of the Helderberg’s northern slopes, Uva Mira’s 27ha of vineyard are planted across a remarkable diversity of terroir, the myriad aspects, soils and micro-climates easily missed by the untrained eye.

Uva Mira’s viticulturist Hilton Phipson (left) with winemaker Christiaan Coetzee (right).

Those variations in each vineyard may be subtle, but for Christiaan they are threads waiting to be woven together into each release: the warp and weft of the fabric that makes up the style of Uva Mira. Take the Chardonnay vineyard that stretches away from the cellar, for instance. Here the neatly trellised vineyards roll gently across the hillside, some facing ever so slightly inland, others turning their face towards the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a single parcel of vineyard, but each row, almost every vine, brings its own character to the cellar.

“I pick purely on taste,” explains Christiaan, who in 2022 marked his 10th vintage at Uva Mira. “I don’t take grapes to the lab. When you walk into this vineyard at harvest time you can taste the different flavour profiles. So we harvest this at different times, depending on when the grapes are phenolically ripe.”

While parcels are vinified individually – some using natural wild yeasts, others undergoing malolactic fermentation – for Christiaan it’s always a balance between terroir and consistency. “The vineyard gives us the character and we want to promote what the vineyard brings. So the wines are made in a way to express the site, but also to fit the Uva Mira style,” he adds. “It’s very important that the style of wine is consistent, so 90% is the vineyard and 10% is in the cellar. But it’s that 10% in the cellar that really elevates the wines.”

Uva Mira’s fine handcrafted wines consistently receive local and international accolades. The Dance Cabernet Franc received Platinum Best in the Category Bordeaux Varietals (Decanter World Wine Awards) and O.T.V. the Trophy for Best Bordeaux Blend (Six Nations Wine Challenge).

Elevate is a good choice of word, for it’s the estate’s unique location on the slopes of the Helderberg that defines the terroir of Uva Mira. The farm gates are found at 250m above sea level, while the highest vineyards are planted at around 500m. Combine that altitude with the farm’s proximity to the cooling breezes blowing in off the Atlantic Ocean – just 9km away – and you have a truly unique site for crafting cool-climate wines.

And that’s not just marketing talk. Globally the wine industry turns to the Winkler Index – which crunches data from average temperatures and ‘growing degree-days’ – to demarcate winegrowing regions into five broad climatic regions. Uva Mira falls into category two, which defines it as a cool-climate region.

Today Uva Mira produces three different Chardonnays, with The Mira pitched as an accessible first-tier release, competitively priced and over-delivering on quality. “It’s a very modern, very refreshing style of wine,” says Christiaan. “A lot of people don’t drink Chardonnay because of the big buttery style of the past. The Mira has a purity of fruit, a freshness, and it’s a wonderful way to introduce people to our Chardonnay.”

The Single Tree is the next in the portfolio, crafted in a richer style that makes it an ideal food wine, balancing a generous influence of oak with fresh acidity. But it’s the Uva Mira Icon that is the purest expression of the farm’s reputation for world-class Chardonnay. “This for me is Chardonnay, and this for me is Uva Mira. It has elegance and it has longevity. There is beautiful linearity to the wine, complexity and structure. These are cool-climate wines, which is a golden thread running through all of the wines of Uva Mira.”

In the tasting room, a pair of wine tasting flights is offered and those wanting to linger a while can order the generous tasting platters of Dalewood cheese, imported charcuterie and baguettes flown in (frozen) from France.

The nuances of the landscape play their part in shaping the red wines of the estate too. When you visit, pay attention to the Cabernet Franc vineyards that line the road to the tasting room. Here vineyards on the cooler south-western slopes deliver fruit for The Dance Cabernet Franc, a single-varietal bottling, whereas the north-eastern parcels are typically blended into the flagship Uva Mira O.T.V. “Because the O.T.V. is led by Cabernet Franc, with the blend we’re looking for more volume and richness on the palate,” explains Christiaan. “With the single varietal Cabernet Franc, on the other hand, we’re looking for the more elegant flavour profile of black fruit and perfume. We get that from the cooler southern aspect.”

There’s a duality in the Syrah bottlings too, with The Mira Shiraz and D.W. Syrah showcasing both Old and New World expressions of the property. A keen focus on playing to the strengths of the landscape is also what’s behind the planting programme that will subtly reshape the vineyards of Uva Mira.

The échalas vines I’d admired earlier – planted on shallow soils of Table Mountain sandstone to keep the vigour of Syrah in check – are also part of viticulturist Hilton Phipson’s strategy to enhance the longevity of the farm’s vineyards. “It’s a lot more labour intensive to harvest and a lot more expensive to plant, but we said we wanted our vineyards to spend longer in the ground,” explains Christiaan, who is impressed by the
efforts of the innovative Old Vine Project.

“Of course, you can argue about the quality produced by older vines,” he continues, “but from a financial point of view, it makes perfect sense. If you can get even an extra five years from the vine, it makes an enormous difference to your sustainability. We are very lucky to have an owner who understands our vision to handcraft the finest wines in the world and is happy to support all our efforts.”

Toby Venter, CEO of Porsche South Africa and the owner of Kyalami Grand Prix Circuit, purchased Uva Mira in 2014 after falling in love with the views and peaceful energy of the property.