I’m not a consultant,” insists Rosa Kruger, who has played such an important part in launching a new wave of South African wine. “I’m a vineyard manager.” This statuesque 52-year-old is the great-great-granddaughter of Paul Kruger, the South African president and leader of Boer resistance, who died in exile in 1904. Part of her explanation for her occupation and preoccupation is that “I come from a family of lawyers and farmers”. She started out as a journalist and, with her big eyes, chignon and straight back, looks as though she would be more at home teaching ballet than vine pruning.
She too left a South Africa she felt uncomfortable in, married and had a son, although she came back in time for “that glorious day” when Mandela was freed. She then qualified as a lawyer but, having been raised on a farm, didn’t want her son to be a city boy. “By chance someone invited me to work – at a tenth of my previous income – on a farm near Elgin [one of South Africa’s new, cool wine regions] in 1997/98. We lived in a biosphere with just forest around it,” she told me contentedly on a recent trip to London. The set-up was great for her son. “He’s a climbing fanatic and was the youngest person in the world to climb Kilimanjaro – without his mother’s knowledge actually.”
She is almost as proud of having had no formal training as a viticulturist. “The two top scientists at Stellenbosch [university] took pity on me,” she said. “I’d give them food and wine and in exchange they taught me.” Somehow she was asked to take in hand the vines on a couple of wine estates – Uva Mira in Stellenbosch and Cape Point, both of whose wines have since enjoyed great acclaim.
At the Masters of Wine seminar on old vines that drew her to London recently she kept stressing, “I don’t like to speak about wines, only vines,” and repeated “I love viticulture” so often that one could hardly disbelieve her. “I do lots of practical, physical work. Working in heat that makes the sweat run down the tip of your nose and down your back is tough. But I work very closely with the labour, which I love. Working conditions and politics are all definitely improving.
“What makes me happy is being in the vineyard and I want to get even more involved in training farm labour. The first year we produced a Sauvignon Blanc in Elgin I got all the farm labourers round a table and got them to taste it. They were a bit puzzled but I asked them what they tasted and smelt. One of them who used to be an apple farmer said, ‘This wine smells like the grass between the apple trees when I cut it in the early morning.’” She beamed.
She has since moved away from the fashionable cool regions and those clustered around Stellenbosch, the traditional focus of South African wine, to live in the small town of Riebeek-Kasteel in Swartland, a warm inland wine region that is finding increasing fame. When the local wine industry ran to catch up with the rest of the world in the 1990s, growers concentrated on the international likes of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
But more recently Rosa Kruger has played a major part in the emergence of a new sort of wine, pioneered by Eben Sadie, a young winemaker determined to go his own way in Swartland, having been impressed by the special intensity of old vine produce in the region. She helped him discover the most likely plots of ancient vines – not just the Chenin Blanc that has dominated South African vineyards for years but also ancient Semillon Gris, Semillon Blanc, Palomino and Muscat for wonderfully tense whites, and Cinsault, Grenache and Tinta Barroca for reds chock-full of character rather than oak and alcohol.
“Eben is a friend,” she told me sternly. She does not work for him. But she now has five – do we call them clients? Perhaps not. Five vineyard playgrounds perhaps – one for each working day of the week and all very different, so that there is no conflict between them. “The first three old vineyards I found – Chenin and Semillon – I gave to Eben and they were an immediate hit. Because of that, old farmers will phone me to offer their old vineyards and it can so help them. Many of them have been losing land because grape prices are so low. There’s one farm far up the west coast where their grapes have gone from 800 to 6,000 rand a ton. It has changed their life.” Who buys? I wondered. “Oh, the young guns,” she said airily, adding with a smile, “though some of them, like Neil Ellis and Jan Boland Coetzee of Vriesenhof, are not so young now.”
She is much preoccupied with a project to catalogue all the Cape’s old vines. Until fairly recently the South African wine industry was regulated almost to strangulation point. So it was not perhaps surprising to learn that, although the authorities have a register of all of the country’s old vineyards (including nine that are more than 100 years old), the information is regarded as confidential. To be able to disseminate it she must have the consent of the owner of each vineyard, a laborious process.
She allows that there is considerable viticultural expertise in South Africa but the only relevant textbook is 15 years old and in Afrikaans. “I’m really sorry that so little research has been done on our old vineyards. As long as we keep on making bulk wines we’re not going to sell the really good ones, and these old vineyards can teach us so much. In South Africa viticulture has always taken a back seat. Winemakers are seen as gods but often don’t know much about vine-growing.”
She loves to travel, whether to Vega Sicilia last year, or just to a small farm “that might teach me so much about weather”. One of the most illuminating of her trips was to California wine country. “The Mexicans who work the vineyards there are so fast,” she told me admiringly, “and they arrive in the vineyards in their own cars!”
New wave, old vine Cape wines
Many of the more established wine producers have been re-evaluating old vineyards, but these are relative newcomers specialising in them:
• A A Badenhorst
• Alheit Vineyards
• Dewaldt Heyns Family Wines
• Intellego The Liberator
• Mullineux Family Wines
• Sadie Family Wines
Rosa Kruger’s ‘clients’
• Mullineux Family Wines
• Rupert & Rothschild Vignerons
• Solms Delta
• And one still under wraps
Tasting notes at JancisRobinson.com