Updated: Mar 9
In my universe, the world of wine is one big tapestry of people, places and ideas. Within that tapestry there are some threads that meander through its entirety, as what I call “heart strings”. Follow one of these heart strings (of which there are about half a dozen, in my mind) and you’ll end up at its corresponding “anchor” – an origin from which the rest of the tapestry is weaved.
I don’t know how much Rosa Kruger would appreciate being called an “anchor” (she doesn’t even like being called a “consultant”) but in my book, she is one. Incidentally, she’s in good company here, because Dirk Niepoort, is another one of my heart strings, but that’s a story for another day…
Other people have perhaps more eloquently, called Rosa, a “champion,” a “guardian” and according to Tim Atkin, “the warrior queen of South Africa’s modern wine makeover”, but Rosa calls herself a “vineyard manager”.
The name Kruger might ring a bell – Rosa is the great, great granddaughter of Paul Kruger, the famous 19th century President of South Africa and founder of the county’s first game reserve, the Kruger National Park.
As Rosa puts it, coming from a historical family, “links you to the ground” and in Rosa’s case this connection is felt quite viscerally. “Farming is in my blood” she says, and she is indeed from a family of farmers and lawyers, even qualifying and practicing as the latter for several years before ultimately returning to work with land.
It is with no exaggeration when I say that Rosa Kruger swapping her “smart little dress and smart little car” for a pair of wellies and secateurs is one of the most significant events in South Africa’s wine industry since Jan van Riebeek planted the first vines in 1652.
That post-Apartheid South Africa has moved from an industry of bulk wine to an industry that gives us the work and wines of the likes of Eben Sadie, Mullineux and Leeu, Gabrielskloof, Chris Alheit, Duncan Savage, Peter Allan Finlayson (and Finlayson senior), Craig Hawkins and Norma Ratcliffe (Warwick Estate ) to name but a few, can greatly be attributed to Rosa’s herculean efforts in finding, protecting and promoting its vine heritage.
Today, Rosa is one of the founders of The Old Vine Project, an organisation dedicated to the national protection, certification and marketing of South Africa’s old vines.
During the early stages of her viticulture career, Rosa successfully introduced vines to the high altitude, cool-climate area of Elgin in the Western Cape (Iona Sauvignon Blanc anyone?) but it was her encounters with the old vines in Europe that led her to the pivotal question – “where are the old vines in South Africa?”.
The search began in the early 2000s and it was through Rosa’s relationship and trust amongst the farm workers, that local knowledge and word of mouth eventually led her to her first old vines in an area she named Skurfberg.
Today, these dry-farmed Chenin old vines are sourced by producers such as The Sadie Family, Anthonij Rupert, Botanica Wines, Klawer Cellars and Alheit Vineyards. (Read here for a wonderful account of a comparative tasting of some of these wines). Unfortunately, The Sadie Family Wines aren’t available in Ireland, but Alheit and Botanica are brought in and are sold by the inimtiable Éilís Cryan of Kinnegar Wines, and are available here.
Rosa and her team spent the entirety of the next decade (and then some!) searching, travelling and documenting the old vines themselves, before the SAWIS agreed to release the official records of all vineyards aged 35 or older in 2014 and thus in 2016 the Old Vine Project was born.
Today the OVP boasts over 100 members working with 3,693 hectares of
Heritage Vineyards, and has identified 10 vineyards that are over 100 years old, with the varieties of Cinsault, Semillon and Muscat d’Alexandria amongst these old timers (with Palomino vineyards also quickly approaching their centenary.) As part of her work, Rosa effectively, matchmakes these vineyards to winemakers, acting as custodian and making sure that their fruits get given to the right hands to make these special wines.
When I was lucky enough to chat to Rosa last year, she told me that “The OVP started as an opportunity that I saw, of making a difference”. As well as the positive economic influence the OVP has had on raising the price of the grapes sourced from these vineyards, and increasing the skills and the pay of those who work them, the OVP champions and safeguards the significance of the cultural heritage of what old vines actually are.
“Viticulture and wine is a longer story – wine tells the story of the people who planted the vineyard in the first place….the vines also come with a sense of our culture”.
Rosa tells me that in the OVP, they teach people to “plant to grow old”, encouraging the legacy and value of heritage and the culture and the values of the people within that heritage.
“Old vines, people have taken care of it, loved it for a hundred years.. with old vines, that love, shows in the wines” says Rosa, and I couldn’t agree more.
Old vines are a force of nature, quite literally older and wiser, old vines tend to self-regulate, look after themselves, resist disease, survive drought. Old vines produce quality wines with, I always feel, an effortless sense of glorious self, effortless (yet humble) excellence - a la Meryl Streep if you will – but it is the scientific knowledge that these vines offer that also make them even more important for the wine industry in the face of climate change.
Rosa agrees, that old vines (and not just in South Africa!) are the key to the future, and with that in mind Rosa tells me that one of her favourite aspects of the OVP is the workers training that she delivers, teaching them how to look after the vines, how to prune properly and how to “let the vine tell you what it needs”. I’m delighted by this comment as, telling Rosa about my short stunt pruning in the Southern Rhone a couple of years ago, I managed a rate of about a vine per hour, because, as I tried to explain to everyone when I got home, “you have to interview each vine!” to which Rosa throws back her head and laughs – “exactly!”.
So there you have it, you really do have to interview each vine – but don’t take my word for it, take Rosa Krugers!
For those wanting to explore some old vine South African wines, Kinnger Wines, is undoubtably the market leader in Ireland. Élís Cryan has been importing some of the best names for many years now and her wines are to be found in your good local retailer and also directly online at https://kinnegarwines.com/shop-wine/
With great probability of inevitably missing someone out, I should, however, also point out that our other fantastic suppliers also bring in other OVP members, such as Gabielskloof, Thorne and Daughters and Crystallum (Liberty Wines), Testalonga (Neighbourhood Wines), DeMorgenzen and Keermont Wines (Wine Mason) Delheim (O'Briens) , Hamilton and Russel (Pembroke Wines) ... so do yourself a favour and get acquainted with some of these OVP wines, if you haven't already!