WE drink English breakfast tea from white porcelain cups on the veranda of the Royal Hotel in Riebeek-Kasteel.
Rosa Kruger has come a long way (with a few sharp turns) since her young years as a journalist at Beeld to last year's place of honour in Decanter's hall of fame — one of the most important and prestigious awards in international wine. She is the first and only South African among the world's leading wine stars.
Rosa is not a winemaker. She is one of the world's leading viticulturists – although she prefers the term “vineyard manager" (and is probably the only one with four university degrees, none of which has anything to do with wine).
John Platter describes her as “the warrior queen of South Africa's modern wine makeover". The influential British wine writer Jancis Robinson cannot stop singing her praises and calling her (among other things) a “wine innovator" and “South Africa's famous vine nurturer".
Rosa has a master's degree in journalism and an LLB, but neither career path was in her heart. “I was a useless lawyer," she laughs. “And I never wanted to live in a city either. I easily became claustrophobic."
With a bit of a detour, Rosa became the manager of an apple farm in Elgin about 20 years ago. And it was a bad harvest that kickstarted her journey with wine.
“I've always loved wine. One day, a swanky neighbour suggested I farm with vines instead of apples. And I thought, gosh, that's a fine idea."
She laughs at her wide-eyed nerve.
She tried to get an appointment with Prof Eben Archer, at the time the head of Stellenbosch University's Department of Viticulture and Oenology.
“ ‘I don't know anything about you; you can't come and see me.' Those were his words on my first try," Rosa says.
But she nagged and begged.
“In the end I think he just felt sorry for me. At one point in our first conversation, he looked at me like that and said: ‘You don't know anything, not even that a vineyard needs to be grafted.'
“But I can learn, I said. You can learn anything you want. And that is precisely what I did.
“I did the courses after hours in my free time but didn't write the exams. He took a liking to me. He and Dawid Saayman, a fantastic soil scientist. They just took pity on me, and they would drive to Elgin and I would give them food and wine and they would teach me."
Thus begins Rosa's silent march to wine stardom.
She learned where she could. She devoured Decanter magazine and studied hundreds of textbooks. And she would jump on a plane to visit vineyards overseas every chance she got.
“I went overseas a lot, a lot, a lot. I used every spare penny to visit Alsace, Burgundy, Russia, India and Italy. I stopped counting at the 82nd time," she says.
“I remember looking for the world's best producer of sauvignon blanc. It was a man called Didier Dagueneau from Sancerre — a wild Frenchman with red hair.
“I arrived there and said: ‘My name is Rosa Kruger, and I'm from South Africa; please, I want to learn about Sauvignon blanc'.
“He wanted to know if I had an appointment. I said: ‘No, but I really, really…' I begged and begged, and finally I did three harvests with him.
“Cheeky beyond cheeky; I didn't have a clue."
“When you visit a European wine farm, they always show you their old vines first. And then suddenly I asked: ‘What is it about these old vines? And the person says to me, ‘Taste it.' "
She tastes. “And it's stunning, stunning. Completely different. The wine has a different texture and mouth feel, a bigger personality and more character.
“Then I came back to South Africa and thought: Jan van Riebeeck planted vines 300 years ago; where are they?" Nobody really paid attention to those vines at the time. Marc Kent from Boekenhoutskloof and Erina van Holt were the only winemakers thinking along those lines.
“I started asking around. I spoke a lot with vineyard workers from the farms… and then they said to me: ‘Madam, there somewhere... then you have to turn left at the windmill, then you have to go straight on, through a farm gate.' And that's how I got lost in my mind here on the West Coast. But I found old, old vines."
It was in her first year of treasure hunting that one day, she stood on a small piece of mountain in the middle of nowhere — between Clanwilliam and Lambert's Bay — and got “that feeling".
“I knew. Something is cooking. There was something flipping amazing under the soil. I called Eben Sadie and the young winemaker Neil Patterson from L’Ormarins and said, come and make this wine."
The vineyards she was standing in were near the sea and at high altitude, which meant cool nights. Then there was the deep, red, sandy soil with a layer of clay.
“The climate, the environment, the landscape were all clues," she says.
Rosa says she is not always right, but she was spot on that day. Those old vines and a few additional parcels she found on neighbouring farms made the world sit up and notice what was happening at the southern tip of Africa.
Sadie's Skurfberg Chenin, made from those grapes, was a forerunner in a wine revolution.
The lightning bolt of international recognition struck in 2012.
“Cathy van Zyl is South Africa's only master of wine," says Rosa. “To be a British master of wine is the highest qualification you can have. Cathy suggested we host a tasting in London. I'm not a winemaker; I don't even have a degree, but I said, ‘OK, let's try'.
“Myself and a winemaker from Australia got a bunch of wines together, and that event in London was an enormous, phenomenal, mind-blowing success. Our wines just presented beautifully that day. The weather was just right, the temperature of the wine was right, the moon was right… everything was right."
Jancis Robinson of the Financial Times is one of the world's most authoritative wine experts and writers. When Robinson speaks, the wine world listens.
That day, she was in the audience and approached Rosa for an interview. “She wrote this beautiful article. And then it was like a horse that had bolted. The Wine Advocate and all the big magazines followed, and we were doing tastings all over the world. t was fantastic."
Finding more vineyards
With the wine world's attention on South Africa, Rosa did further detective work to find old vineyards.
“We have an organisation called SAWIS — South African Wine Industry Statistics. If you want to plant a vineyard in South Africa and sell the grapes as wine, the vineyard must be registered with SAWIS. This means there is a database of all vineyards in the country. It's the only organisation of its kind in the world. I asked them if I could perhaps see a list of vineyards older than 35 years, but they said it was confidential information."
Rosa was back to hitting the road on weekends in her bakkie with a piece of paper on which she wrote tips and directions she got from people.
“Sometimes I drove all weekend and didn't find anything," she says.
In the end, SAWIS agreed to help her, but with one caveat: she had to get permission from each farmer individually.
“Now, how do you get hold of a farmer on the phone?" laughs Rosa.
“You call at seven, and the farmer is already out. At nine, he is praying with his staff. At one, he is taking a nap. A four, he is feeding the sheep."
Rosa asked four of her friends to help. They got together on Tuesdays and called one farmer after another, sometimes with interesting results.
“You would tell the whole story of Jancis Robinson, about whom they obviously knew nothing, and after half an hour at your expense, the farmer says: ‘My darling, that's a bloody cute story, but they just ripped up that vineyard.'
“Or the time one of my young friends with this sexy voice spoke to a farmer's wife. She gave the whole long spiel, and then the only thing the woman wanted to know is what her intentions were with her husband."
Rosa laughs her belly laugh.
Explosion of old-vine wine
Rosa started the Old Vine Project with the help and expertise of Andre Morgenthal. It certifies old vines and aims to train and inspire producers, winemakers, farm workers and viticulture experts in the “potential of old vines for brilliant wine".
“In the beginning, everyone thought this stuff was in my head. And that I have a fertile imagination is completely true, but there is more and more scientific researchunderlining the uniqueness of these old vineyards."
Dr Helene Nieuwoudt from Stellenbosch University researched the aromas of Chenin from old and new vines. And according to Rosa, she found “significant" differences. “Old vineyards provide a different set of additional aromas to the flavour spectrum of Chenin blanc."
“Another smart guy from Stellenbosch, Johan Burger, looked at the sub-difference between young and old vines. Even with the same clone, rootstock, soil type and variety, there was a difference in the composition of the wine," she says. “And theoretically, that underscored that the composition of wine from old vines was potentially better."
The Old Vine Project grew from eight members to 140.
“And it's not just the fancy guys. My principle has always been that we must be there for everyone. We are a vineyard organisation, and there are now similar vineyard organisations in Spain, Australia, and Argentina — all over the world. Jancis Robinson started an old-vine registry and South Africa is the leading figure. We never really had money like other countries, but we are the leaders in the field."
She tells me about a seal they developed for wine bottles to indicate the age of the vineyard from which the wine comes. This contributed hugely to the marketing of South Africa's old-vine wines.
“We are the only ones in the world who can do this because if we say a wine comes from a 1900 vineyard, then it is correct, according to SAWIS records. This is a huge plus for South Africa. There are much older vineyards in France and Spain than we have, but they are not documented. If a Frenchman tells you his vineyard is 70 years old, it could be a fable, whereas our dates are verified. And with that, the old-vine wine of South Africa just exploded."
Vineyards in South Africa
More and more people are keeping their old vineyards because they have become valuable.
“The number of vineyards in South Africa fell from 110,000 hectares to just over 85,000. People take out vineyards when there is no money for viticulture, but there are vineyards that have naturally survived, and there are several reasons.
“At the very top of the list is sentiment. Someone's great-grandfather may have planted it during the Boer War. We have nine or ten vineyards in South Africa that were planted in 1900; they're 123 years old. That was before the First World War, and they still carry grapes.
“But old vineyards are also increasing. Think about it. A vineyard is a year older every year, and there are ‘new' old vines. In 2016 we started with 2952ha; now we have 4,292ha. And the farmers love it because we suspect it has become financially more viable."
Now and then, Rosa still finds another undiscovered gem somewhere.
“The other day in the Skurfberg, now the most famous place in South Africa for old vines, I found 60, 70-year-old Palamino." (Palamino Fino is a cultivar planted in Spain and initially in South Africa for sherry.)
I can hear the awe in her voice as she tells me about the find.
“You must work gently with an old vineyard," she says. “You have to prune it differently. Many old vines die back partially; you must look for strong wood and build a new vine.
“And we work much more organically. We use fewer pesticides and work instead with cover crops, humus and organic fertilisers. And we also increasingly follow a more scientific approach where we try to understand why one vineyard died and why another has thrived for 100 years."
Johann Rupert to the rescue
Rosa's favourite time is sunrise; her favourite place is in the vineyard.
Along with the people who work it. Because her day job is to manage vineyards and design new ones.
Her other passion is training. Her pruning and vineyard schools, which she offers to farm workers, make her deeply happy.
“Seeing people develop under your hands is fantastic."
Rosa says her wine journey would not have been possible without Johann Rupert. She worked for him for a long time, and he gave her absolute freedom.
“And he was also the one who supported my old vineyard idea. I looked for money everywhere, but no one was interested, so I finally called him. I can't remember the amount, but he arranged for me to get it the next day. I was pretty overwhelmed.
“Without him, none of this would have happened."
It brought a seismic shift to South Africa's wine landscape. What Jancis Robinson calls “a new sort of South African wine".
“In the past, we couldn't market our wines overseas, so this tradition arose of the bulk of our wine being seen as cheap and cheerful. We never established a unique wine identity.
“Now, with our old vineyards, we have developed a new category, here and overseas. And it is no longer a case of only the big names like Kanonkop, Vergelegen or Klein Constantia that you will see in Hedonist, the big wine shop in London. There is now wine from smaller, previously unknown, but excellent producers on the shelves, with our certified seal, which is seen as a stamp of quality and exclusivity.
“It's a wonderful thing for South African wine, and it puts more money into farmers' pockets, which is also good for South African wine."
♦ VWB ♦
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