Growing up on a farm in the northern Transvaal, Rosa Kruger was surrounded by nature and the perilous immensity of the veldt. From the age of five, she’d regularly pack a bag with food and water and head off, shoeless, into the wilderness with one or more of her five brothers and sisters. ‘We’d come back at darkness to have a bath, get some sleep or receive a hiding,’ she says. ‘We were pretty wild.’
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It’s an instructive tale, illustrating several things about her. Kruger is strong, independent of spirit and likes to travel. In short, she was never destined for a desk job, despite working as a journalist and then a lawyer until she was in her mid-30s. Instead, she has gone on to become one of the leading viticulturists in the world, although she prefers the term farm manager.
Kruger has also been a key figure in the development of the post-apartheid South African wine scene, promoting good labour practices, assisting a local nursery to import new European grape varieties such as Assyrtiko and Garnacha Peluda, and helping young winemakers to find special vineyards. And then there is her work hunting down, preserving, nurturing and promoting the Cape’s precious old vines.
‘Why me? There are lots of people who deserve it more,’ was her modest response when she was told that she’d been chosen as the recipient of this year’s Decanter Hall of Fame Award. But the woman once described by local wine writer John Platter as ‘the warrior queen of South Africa’s modern wine makeover’ is a deserving choice. She is the first viticulturist (or farm manager) to be so honoured, as well as the first South African.