– Emile Joubert. Above: Rose Kruger, the winemaker at Stellekaya.
The small town of Pniel might not be the most well-known address in the Cape Winelands, but it certainly is one of the most magnificently located. It lies at the foot of the Franschhoek side of the Banghoek pass, nestled between the majestic Simonsberg and Drakenstein Mountains, and situated close enough to the vineyards for Rose Kruger to have harboured ambitions of becoming a winemaker at an early age.
“Many of my school-friends at nearby Kylemore were children of wine-farm workers, and visiting them, I just fell in love with being among the vineyards, knowing that these produced grapes for making wine,” says Rose.
Workers in the cellar at Stellekaya wines.
One of Stellekaya’s wines.
“I was aware that, for people like myself, opportunities in the wine industry were limited at the time. But when it came to decide what I wanted to do with my future, those vineyards and wine cellars were top of mind.”
This focus and determination led to Rose embarking on a Bachelors Degree in Agriculture from Elsenburg Agricultural College, one of the two South African institutions where aspiring winemakers and viticulturists can qualify.
“From day one of my studies, I knew this is what I wanted to do,” says Rose. “I especially enjoyed the practical aspects of the course, such as being outside in the vineyards. And being in control of a natural, agricultural product from plant to the contents of the wine bottle. That was amazing – and still is today!”
After graduating Rose was selected to join the Protégé Programme managed by the illustrious Cape Winemakers Guild, a leading body whose members are the crème de la crème of the country’s wine industry.
Stellekaya Cabernet Sauvignon 2020.
As a protégé, Rose spent three years working side-by-side with some of the leading South African winemakers.
“This the kind of experience no money can buy,” says Rose. “My first mentor was Jeff Grier of Villiera, where I became totally enthralled with Cap Classique and the magic process of bottle-fermented sparkling wine. After that, Charles Hopkins at the famous De Grendel Estate gave me a solid understanding of white winemaking.”
And to top it all, Rose spent a period working at Kanonkop Estate in Stellenbosch, arguably South Africa’s most famous wine farm.
“At Kanonkop Abrie Beeslaar gave me tremendous insight into red wine, for which this estate is so well known. And the fantastic thing about working as a protégé was that the experience is real, practical and hard work.”
Stellekaya Winery, situated in Bosman’s Crossing in Stellenbosch, is her first full-time post where she is the winemaker in charge.
“I love working in this environment at Stellekaya as being a small winery I can have total control, a challenge I relish,” says Rose. “Owners Dave and Jane Lello have built a great brand, and it is my job to ensure that the wine quality I am responsible for does justice to their hard work and their commitment over the years.”
Stellekaya’s focus on red wine appeals to Rose, who is excited to have the chance of working with the Sangiovese variety used in the winery’s famous Hercules label.
“I spent a few months in Burgundy working with pinot noir, so have experience with fickle, thin-skinned red varieties,” she says. “Sangiovese is such a cultivar, and coaxing it through the cellar, allowing it to mature in older oak and seeing it develop in the bottle in to such a bright, complex red wine… that is what winemaking is all about.”
Stellekaya gets most of its grapes from its vineyards on the Stellenbosch Mountain, one of Stellenbosch’s leading terroir-expressions for cabernet sauvignon and merlot, which ensure Rose gets to spend enough time in the vineyard.
“In some other countries, the winemaker does his or her thing and never sees the vines. I can’t imagine that. To me, a winemaker must be in constant touch with the raw material and the natural environment that develop the fruit we have to work with,” says Rose. “Here at Stellekaya I am able to be involved at all levels.”
Many South African wineries also require the winemaker to put on a marketing hat. “Here I have got my work cut out!” says Rose. “Jane [Lello] is one of the sharpest marketers around, having been involved in jewellery and fashion, and who is now a trail-blazer on the wine-marketing front. She has done an amazing job in getting Stellekaya out there, especially in the American market, and she truly energises and inspires me to do the best I can do in the cellar.”
For Rose, the future looks as bright as one of the stars on a Stellekaya label. “There are tremendous opportunities for young winemakers, and South Africa is making some of the best wines in our history,” she says. “I look forward to playing my role in making them, as well as joining my peers in letting the world know that our country deserves to be recognised as one of the top producers in the world.”