At Play in the Wine Theatre of the Gods

You need a view from a high spot, the right high vantage point, and then it becomes clear 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 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 looking out across the spread of winelands, mountains and ocean offered by the view 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”.

Sky-high vineyards at Uva Mira.

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 which subjects the whole of Stellenbosch to the magnificently tempestuous effects a southern maritime climate. Oh, and for good measure, the Uva Mira wine farm offers post-card sightings of Table Mountain and Cape Point where the Agulhas and Benguela ocean-currents meet.

The mesmerising effect of standing on the mountain slopes at Uva Mira is not limited to the visiting wine-taster. In 2014 a Johannesburg businessman by name of Toby Venter stood there, an occasion by chance, and he just knew this was the farm he had to acquire. For excellence and aesthetics were not unfamiliar to him. As CEO of Porsche, Bentley and Lamborghini in South Africa one could say Venter is driven by the search for distinction, class and quality.

Christiaan Coetzee, winemaker.

“I never really had a wine farm in mind,” says Venter, “and getting involved in the industry was purely by chance.” It was horses instead of cars that brought him and 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. Perchance 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 Venter’s heart. “The place just spoke to me,” says Venter. “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, looked down on the sea and the winelands below, well, it really was love at first sight. Oh, and the horses are still in Johannesburg.”

Venter 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 Uva Mira is an example of the importance of vision and dynamism released in the Cape winelands three decades ago. “From up here, down to the Annandale Road was all one big property growing fruit and grapes for generic corporate brands,” says Coetzee, 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: “But the vision of people like Tobyhave given youngish winemakers like myself the opportunity to be involved with extreme, focussed and committed projects in this ever-changing landscape of South African wine.”

Coetzee 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 millions of years of granite decomposing from the Helderberg laid down on these mountain slopes. Next to the vineyards, lush and verdant in early summer splendour, aromatic lies 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 Coetzee. But thinking of Venter’s ethos of excellence and the mind’s eye almost seeing the handsomely sensual shape of a Porsche Carrera, I know where Coetzee 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. Aggressively combatting any chance of leaf-roll virus. Irrigating with a fine eye on the border between over-hydrating and vineyard stress. Farming as naturally as possible, including the deploying of natural predators to terminate mealy-bugs and other critters – but not taking any unnecessary chances when conditions threaten to damage vineyard health.”

For a 30ha spread of vineyard, the Uva Mira wine range is pretty expansive. Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Shiraz as well as a red Bordeaux-style blend. But it is not surprising to find Uva Mira’s focus being on the varieties of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, two cultivars that in the past decade have made a natural progression 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 sorts of runs in the regional DNA, of the terroir as well as the people,” says Coetzee. “I haven’t been around as a winemaker for all that long, but if one looks 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-in-glove. And one sees it in the grapes, and as the fermentation begins in the cellar. Soils of decomposed granite and the climate creates such balance and structure, it all flows as the grapes are pressed. And of late Cabernet Franc has really come to the fore in the region, with the potential to shoot the lights out in future.”

Bringing the two Cabernets together, Uva Mira’s OTV Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, named after Venter’s father, is a seamless yet expressive amalgamation of these two varieties exuding femininity and perfume together with a visceral power.

Uva Mira might lie in the heartland of Cabernet country, but it is Chardonnay that has seen a plethora of medals, trophies and stratospheric ratings coming Uva Mira’s way in the past few years. And one has to admit, there is a truly distinctive character in an Uva Mira Chardonnay, something that original, particular and exciting. 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 saltines from rocks broken-off the mountain in a time long forgotten. The rattled effects of a strong south-easter 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 Coetzee. “For a farm that has only been producing this variety for two decades, one can only be enormously excited about what lies ahead for our Chardonnay. It is definitely a focus of Uva Mira – we already offer three different Chardonnays – and really look forward to seeing how the personalities and qualities of these wines develop as the vines and terroir develop a longer relationship.”

Here there is no longer looking down from Uva Mira on the amphitheatre. It is, simply, onwards and upwards.

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