WWC23 – Maureen Joubert, by Emile Joubert

A collage of pictures of Maureen Joubert

In this entry to our 2023 wine writing competition, wine writer Emile Joubert writes about his favourite wine person: his mother, Maureen Joubert. See our WWC23 guide for more.

Emile Joubert writes Emile Joubert is a South African wine writer and media consultant from Stellenbosch in the Cape Winelands.

Wines my Mother Taught Me

She is in a world of her own, slightly shifting her head upwards when I tell her that I am her son. This in the frail-care centre in Hermanus on the Cape’s south coast, where my mother catches my smile and my damp eyes, pursing her lips as I place my hand in hers, which is cool and limp. Yet still alive.

Today I tell her about two things in life which she, Maureen Joubert, loved: writing and wine. I don’t know if she can hear or understand, but I tell her, still. 

Because I have been tasked with a theme, Mother, and this is to recall in writing the person who has had the greatest influence on my reference-world of wine. And this can only be you. It was you who inspired me to read from an early age, and it was you who supported my first attempts at composition and the writing of stories. These I had to write, as my drawing has always been awful. 

And as my professional path unfolded, I took – like you – to writing about subjects close to our mutual hearts, one of which is wine.

I remember you and Dad drinking wine under the bright summer sun outside our home in Bellville in Cape Town’s northern suburbs, myself and my younger sister and brother playing on the lawn as you and your friends filled glasses with a pale-yellow liquid from a clear glass bottle on which there was a picture of a bunch of green grapes. A curious six-year-old, I asked to taste, upon which I shook my head, again, at the ways of you adults, now drinking something so abrasively sour and funky, and purporting to enjoy doing so.

Even so, you told me this was wine. And that it had been made from grapes, the bunches squashed to get the juice to run, and which was then fermented, something I could obviously not understand at that age - even less so than the fact that anyone would want to drink it. But you and Dad and your friends drank wine. There were the clear glass bottles of white wine next to the outside barbecue. And at night, on the dinner table, the green bottles with ordained-looking labels such as “Chateau Libertas” and “KWV” which also contained wine, only this liquid being a mysterious purple-red. It tasted even worse than the white stuff.

Then our world changed, Mother, when our family was sent to London in 1970 where Dad was made bureau-chief of the daily Afrikaans-language Cape newspaper. From sunny Cape Town we were instantaneously uprooted and perched in a flat in London, off the Cromwell Road. For all of us, this was another world.

And here it was your and Dad’s nightly gathering around wine bottlings that ignited something in my young mind, and this was that the wines you drank were from interesting foreign places. Initially, back “home”, I surmised that all wine was South African. But here in London, Dad was bringing home bottles from France and Germany; Italy and Spain; South America and Australia. My primary school brain still had to learn where some of those countries were. But once the bottles had been emptied, I would soak off the labels in warm water, leave them to dry on a towel set over the flat’s central heating rail.

Do you remember that? I don’t think so, but you once did.

And the next day I would take the dry labels, amazed at the foreign words and grand-sounding names. Then I’d get Dad’s atlas, seek the country on the label and try to find the place where the wine you drank came from. Vinho Verde from Portugal. Beaujolais from France. Spanish Rioja. And from various books that came my way, at St Mary Abbot’s school or at home, I learnt that wine had been made for centuries in different foreign lands. 

History and geography were already my favourite subjects. And discovering that wine featured in both, well, this made me look at you and Dad in a new light. You were not drinking just anything. This was some sort of exotic elixir drawn from the mysterious vagaries of time in places that were exciting and evocative in their distant foreignness. I was just disappointed that in the country where we now lived, in England, no wine was made.

For I would have loved to see the vineyards where the grapes grow, and the wines are born.

And then I turned eight, and you and Dad took us to Kitzbuhel in Austria for the summer holiday. I wanted desperately to “cheers” you and Dad with the clinking of a glass of wine, so you poured a small glass. It was a white wine. Instead of the usual sour tart, mouth-puckering stuff I expected, this wine was like sipping a summer breeze flavoured by pears and peaches; oranges and lemon. It was an Austrian wine and I had never tasted anything like it. 

Mother, you saw me emptying the glass, and you were quick to teach me the manners of wine at that early age: do not drink too quickly and drink carefully, for wine must be respected. Not only for the alcohol therein, but because a cultured product such as wine is deserved of respect.

There were times when you and Dad fell silent over a wine. Such as that one time per year when Dad returned to the flat carrying a wooden-box with a heart burnt onto the front-casing. It was from Bordeaux: Calon Ségur. As a journalist, the great wines of Bordeaux were – even back in the 1970s – above Dad’s pay-grade. But one of his Fleet Street friends had told him that Calon Ségur, though not as illustrious or acclaimed as wines they called Lafite and Margaux, was a fine Bordeaux for its relatively affordable price.

I loved the way you helped Dad opening the wooden case of Calon Ségur, marvelling at the gleaming green bottles with the red heart as if they were unexpected treasures, discoveries from a distant realm. These wines were kept back for a few years, opened with admiration and joy. Anything that made you and Dad that happy, I thought, must surely be special.

Mother, wine changed the course of your life. In London you had begun to write articles for Dad’s newspaper. And when we returned to Cape Town, the name Maureen Joubert quickly rose to the ranks of being seen an esteemed journalist, a writer of lifestyle stories and columns. And about wine, too. This led to me being taken to visit your friends on their wine farms, some of whom have gone down as icons of the South African wine industry. Nico Myburgh on the old Stellenbosch estate called Meerlust. On Kanonkop, your and Dad’s friend Jan Boland Coetzee was at that time the most famous winemaker in the South Africa, for his iconic wines and his status as a national rugby-player.

As a teenager, thus, I would run into those vineyards that smelt of earth and ripe grapes, a fragrant mist beneath the gun-steel grey of the Stellenbosch mountains. You took me into the cellars, cool and dark and where the silence hung in great pools above the wooden vats. The smell was as amazing and alluring as it is today.

And you let me listen while these great people of wine spoke to you, telling you about the way they crushed the grapes and bled the juice into oak barrels, which had to be French. I listened to each word, while you wrote in your notebook, nodded, sipped from the glass offered to you by the creator of its contents. You were enchanted. In a way I would’ve liked to be, too.

Now allowed a glass at dinner, I would ask you about what we were drinking. Grape variety. From which region of our country. And made by whom. If it was a Kanonkop or a Meerlust or a Neethlingshof I’d try to recall my jaunts through the vines and the visits to the old white-washed cellars, remembering that in each wine, I am drinking something that can only come from one place in this world.

How great did you not make me feel by, as a young man, asking me to be your partner to the Cape’s wine events while Dad was travelling or on a fishing-trip. There I was the Nederburg Auction or the Veritas Wine Awards or the Young Wine Show, sitting beside you among wine people, being encouraged to voice my opinion on the wines we shared on those tables. I drank-in this life of yours as eagerly as I sipped a fine Cabernet Sauvignon or cool Cape Chardonnay. You made me feel like a man, and not just any man. But the man you wanted your son to be.

My apple did not fall far from the family tree, and I, too, became a journalist. One tasked with hard daily news and then sport, followed by reviewing film, books and rock-music. I read your writing on wine with constant admiration for the way you conveyed your emotional relationships with wine and wine people and wine places with clarity and conviction. And I was pleased to see that your disdain for snobbism and pretentiousness about wine, which you warned me against, often surfaced in your sentences. “The best wine, is the wine in your glass. If you like it, no-one has the right to question your predilection and choice.”

You will remember, 25 years ago now, that I was modestly elated when I entered a wine writing competition and, lo and behold, won the second prize – not only was it my first foray in writing about this subject about which you had taught me so much, but the writing was in my second language of English. One of my prizes was a bottle of Pol Roger Champagne, and I drank it just with you.

Like a vine at the beginning of winter, your leaves are now beginning to wither. The body is failing, and when I push your wheel-chair across the hall of the care-home, the sparseness of the effort this requires brings a lump to my throat. Your green eyes, a gift from your Irish immigrant father, are lifeless and Dad thinks you can no longer see. As I talk, like I am doing now, you stare at the roof and move your lips from which come sounds, some of which are words. The sun from the window catches your hair, which is still thick and a beautiful russet.

Perhaps you are hearing me, perhaps you are not. If you comprehend these words, I just hope they strike true and make you embrace the gratitude I so very much would like you to feel.

When I leave, just now, I will go home. And there will be a bottle I shall open, which will be a Bateleur Chardonnay from the farm of your friend Danie de Wet in Robertson. The wine will run pale-gold into the glass, tinted with a slight emerald hue. It will smell like rocks and honey-suckle, and in it I shall taste a citrus-struck nuttiness and a life-affirming, joyous vibrancy.

This wine I will drink for you, as it will become a part of my body, just the way that I am a part of yours. Like many others, it will be a wine for memory and for gratefulness, something I would not have known were it not for you.

And I’ll pour half a glass and keep it to one side. Just in case. For life is like wine, and one never knows what may happen. 

But we believe in miracles.

The image was compiled by the author from photographs taken by his father, Fritz Joubert.