South African memories: Jo Locke MW
Do I want to give up buying South African wines? Of course not. Our buying regions are like extended family. I feel that so strongly with South Africa, after all these years, all those wonderful visits, people and wines, that right now it’s hard to let go. And yet, especially after our visit together last year, I pass the baton to Matthew with a warm blessing. I am convinced it will be good for both and, Matthew will not be surprised to hear, I will relish a detour to the tasting room whenever there are South African wines open!
I bought South African wines in a former life, before joining The Wine Society in 2004. It was a joy to go back after a decade of dramatic change, for the country and the winelands. Thinking of Nelson Mandela still fills me with emotion – and hope - and photographs of him at Cape Town airport feel like a ‘welcome home’. Since those exciting and momentous times, South Africa has gone from strength to strength, with another step change around the FIFA world cup in 2010. Yes, there are still enormous social challenges, not exclusive to South Africa of course, but things have improved and continue to get better, not least for all those working in the wine industry, where social and environmental sustainability are essential partners.
South African wine now stands equal on a world stage. The Cape has a pioneering old-vine certification scheme, and is leading in so many ways, not least the move to lighter reds, and more moderate oaking across the board. There is a refinement to the wines that was never there before, and you don’t have to pay a fortune to get it. I have received more recommendations from members for South African producers than for any other region, and understandably so. As Matthew is already finding, there is far more great wine out there than we have allocated space for (I am sure Matthew will be fighting for more!). I have tasted countless wonderful wines in the Cape, including venerable bottles - the last, rare living proof of the potential of the Cape’s ancient soils - and a wine in cask that honestly brought me to tears, something which had happened to me only once before, at Vieux Château Certan in Bordeaux. High praise indeed.
On my visit earlier this year I suddenly realised, with a heavy heart, that it might be my last. But I have had a Cape top-up through the samples I have tasted since, and the visit of so many South Africans for tastings this year. And I leave it, not only in good hands, but with a wealth of irreplaceable memories, from outsized hugs from some of the giants of the industry, to the smiles of small children in winery crèches, to seeing porcupines snuffling in indigenous vineyard borders at dusk, whales at play in the Indian ocean, all those winery dogs, to honestly the best pizza I have ever eaten - cooked, of course, on a barbecue!
We asked Joanna to reveal her pick of the wines from the Cape that represent what has fascinated her during her time as buyer.
And as Matthew steps into Joanna’s very big shoes, we asked him to reveal the wines that excite him as he takes on his exhilarating new role.
Looking forward to the future: Matthew Horsley
The first thing to say is that South Africa is in a great place at The Wine Society thanks to the hard work that Jo has put in over the 19 years she’s been buying from this fascinating country. She’s done a fantastic job at promoting the wines of South Africa when many turned their back on them. It wasn’t so long ago that South Africa was seen as a bit of a bargain basement, offering high volumes of affordable wine to please the masses. Today it is so much more than that, with some of the world’s finest and most sought-after wines being produced by some of the most exciting producers on the planet. The opportunity to work closely with old and well-respected properties in the Cape such as Meerlust, Kanonkop and Klein Constantia whilst nurturing and building on relationships with rising stars such as Chris Alheit, Sam Lambson, Ntsiki Biyela and Lukas van Loggerenberg is a real privilege.
I was lucky enough to join Jo in South Africa for Cape Wine in October last year before a further ten days touring the Cape. The quality across the board was simply breathtaking; as Jo says, the hardest thing is going to be deciding what not to buy! But my lasting memory is how wonderful the people are. They seem free from the pressures of tradition with the ability to express themselves both through their wines and over a beer and a braai well into the evening. That’s when the best buying decisions are made!
Taking over South Africa couldn’t come at a more exciting time, with a new Society South African red produced by Radford Dale about to be launched, and a First Release war-chest that’s fit to burst with treasures that members simply can’t get enough of.
I hope to continue the great work that Jo has done with South Africa and continue to bring exciting, delicious and great-value wines to our members. I can’t wait to get started!