Delheim is owned by the Sperling family. The late Michael Hans “Spatz” Sperling, was the Patriarch and also a South African wine industry legend. His wife Vera still resides on the farm.
Eldest son Victor Sperling and eldest daughter Nora Sperling-Thiel serve as Directors of the company and live on the farm with their families. The other two children, Maria and Nicholas, live in Europe.
The Simonsberg is named after the first Governor of the Cape, Simon van der Stel, after which Stellenbosch is also named. In 1699, he granted the freehold of this piece of land to Lourenz Kamfer, a German. It was originally named De Driesprong.
The farm had various owners until Mr Hans Otto Hoheisen bought it in 1938 as a retirement home for himself and his wife Deli. DELHEIM comes from the German for “Deli’s home”.
Initially they only planted citrus trees, which are not really suited to Delheim because of the wind conditions – they sustained much wind damage. German friends suggested that they grow vineyards and two years later Hans Otto planted the first grape vines.
The concrete tanks in the cellar were completed in 1944 by Italian prisoners-of-war.
During one of Deli’s visits to friends and family in Germany, she mentioned to her nephew that they needed help on their wine farm in South Africa. This was just after the Second World War and he couldn’t see any future in Germany, so he decided to join them.
This was Michael “Spatz” Sperling (Sperling is the German word for “sparrow” and Spatz means “baby sparrow”), who arrived in 1951 on the ship Winchester Castle with nothing more than £10 in his pocket.
He soon took a keen interest in the few vineyards Hans Otto had planted. He knew nothing about winemaking and there were no books or winemaking schools in South Africa at that time, so he taught himself through a process of trial and error and with some help from neighbours and visiting German winemakers.
Spatz began winning numerous awards and having established himself as a serious winemaker, he embarked on a series of pioneering initiatives in the South African wine industry in the decades that followed, for example creating the first “wine route” in 1971. The Stellenbosch Wine Route then had only three members and today it boasts more than 200: there are also 18 other wine routes in South Africa.
In 1971, the company bought another property up the road from Delheim. With its warmer, drier climate and sandier soils it is better suited to growing super reds. This property is called Delvera in honor of Spatz’s wife, Vera. The vineyards there are called Vera Cruz – Cruz meaning “cross”, allegedly for the cross Vera has had to bear during her long marriage to Spatz!
- 1 Jan 1699
- 28 Feb 1699 - 1 Jan 1939
- 1 Jan 1939 - 1 Jan 1951
- 19 April 1951 - 1 Jan 1957
- 1 Jan 1957 - 1 Jan 1971
- 1 April 1971 - 1 Jan 1980
1 Jan 1699
High up on the south-western slopes of the Simonsberg Mountain, named after Governor Simon van der Stel, one finds the land known as De Driesprong.
It was originally home to a Dutch East India Company servant, whose job it was to fire a cannon from the peak directly above the property, appropriately named Kanonkop.
This cannon was the third in a relay from Cape Town, via Koeberg, signalling the arrival of any foreign vessels in Table Bay. The Free Burghers of the surrounding areas would then hurry to Cape Town and trade with the visitors or defend the town against attack.
It is at this property that the Sperling and Hoheisen families have established the strong foundations, known to people worldwide as Delheim.
28 Feb 1699 – 1 Jan 1939
A farm carved from the land
Jan Andries obviously recognised the farming potential of the area, for he had been busy acquiring land adjoining De Driesprong for some years.
In 1813, he purchased a narrow strip extending up the mountain directly above De Driesprong, and in 1843 bought a further segment surrounding both his narrow strip and De Driesprong.
Finally, in 1857, he added De Driesprong itself. This large freehold remained as one unit until 1903 when the owners, Messrs. van der Byl and Porter, sub-divided the farm latitudinally. The upper portion did not include any of Kamfer’s original freehold grant.
It is one of history’s inexplicable mysteries as to how this 200 ha upper portion became known as De Driesprong, but this is what Hans Otto Hoheisen purchased in January 1938.
He initially intended the land, as a dream retirement home for himself and his wife, Deli, but these plans did not reach fruition.
Fruit trees and scrub were all that grew on De Driesprong prior to the Hoheisen’s arrival. The change to wine farming was effected partially on the suggestion of Hans’ German friends who knew the climate in the Cape to be suitable for the production of good wines. Hans also believed that wines made on small estates could be of far better quality than some of the other larger-volume wines he had tasted.
In 1940, he cleared the scrub that covered most of the land where vines could be planted around the homestead. The higher part of the farm was too precipitous for cultivation. Through his own research and consulting with the eminent viticulturist, professor Perold, Hans selected Cape Riesling, Pinot Noir, Cabernet and Hanepoot with which to commence his wine farming.
Hans and Del Hoheisen
The modern hi-tech cellar had humble beginnings, being built in 1944 when the war prevented the importation of any new machinery.
Hans put much careful thought into its construction and the design of the 25 concrete storage tanks was quite revolutionary for the time. With a capacity of 1000 gallons (4500 liters) each, it took until 1962 for production to fill all 25 tanks for the first time. A small basket press and a continuous press, hand pumps and a filter made up other very basic cellar equipment.
Bottling was done by gravity from a small cask situated on top of a concrete tank, and in this way 3000 bottles per day could be filled. Modern technology has increased that daily rate to 15 000 bottles!
Corking was also done by hand and labelling was a messy, laborious task. The labelling equipment consisted of a second-hand toothbrush, pot of glue, wobbly box to support each bottle, and most important for that professional look, a wet cloth to remove all traces of extraneous glue. All this was initially done without the aid of electricity.
Hans,with characteristic determination to do the best he could in his wine-making efforts, was the first in the valley to apply for this modern amenity. Hans Hoheisen was one of the pioneer wine farmers, whose endeavours were based entirely on trial and error.
Vines of all types were planted with easy access for harvesting uppermost in mind – thoughts of soil pH, suiting variety to soil-type and climate, let alone rootstock, were unheard of. Vines were vines and that was that – there was no grappling with the variables offered by different clones.
In the war-torn years of the 1940s, mere survival was what counted most. There were no oenological and viticultural experts to refer to for help, and for Hans Hoheisen it was often a case of standing over a tank of wine, text book on wine-making in hand.
Due to the lack of new machinery and other materials as a result of the war, ingenuity had to be exercised in the cellar. When it came to bottling and there were no bottles available, Hans used second-hand beer bottles for his wine. All problems and difficulties had to be overcome whilst some sort of income for the farm was still generated. All the more remarkable, then, is the success of wines such as De Driesprong HOH (Hans Otto Hoheisen) Muscat Dessert and HOH Cabernet. Hans considered these early efforts to be no more than ‘vin ordinaires’, dubbing them ‘Hell Of a Hangover’! Nevertheless, he managed to sell his wines to friends, but marketing presented several problems, as the drier style of table wine then played very much second fiddle to the fortified dessert wines, while brandy offered even greater competition.
Friends also said that HOH was too obscure a name for the man on the street. This criticism gave Hans a golden opportunity to permanently honour his wife, Deli. She had been a stalwart during all the ups and downs, helping Hans in the cellar, planting the vines, keeping the farm accounts, and being a constant source of encouragement. What better way for Hans to thank her than to rename the farm and its wines in her honour?
Thus Delheim – Deli’s home – was born in 1949.
19 April 1951 – 1 Jan 1957
A sparrow sails in: Spatz Sperling
The Hoheisens’ dream retirement home, with its acres of land demanded constant attention; there was more to farming and wine-making than had ever been imagined. The answer came when Deli Hoheisen took a trip to Germany to visit relatives.
Here it was agreed that Micheal “Spatz” Sperling, nephew of Deli, would join the Hoheisens in South Africa to assist with all farming activities.
Spatz set sale on the Winchester Castle, arriving on Delheim Thursday, 19 April 1951. After 60 years of hard work and dedication, Spatz has become synonymous with the name Delheim, he also has an unequalled reputation in the South African wine industry of today.
Delheim continued producing wine, despite almost insurmountable difficulties. The ill winds that had blown down the Simonsberg and ruined the fruit trees now also tore the vines apart.
Mistakes in my first few years
In the early 1950s, Hans and Spatz were on the point of planting the whole farm to pine trees, but the problem posed by the disposal of all the wire and poles, combined with their dogged determination to have another go at making a success of their wines, fortunately forestalled the plan.
Other problems arose from the dry and semi-sweet wines they produced. At that time there was little call for these styles, as the majority of people drank brandy or other spirits. Most of the country’s grape crop was distilled, with only a small amount made into fortified dessert wine or brandy.
Therefore, the profitability of the venture remained marginal, and in 1957 Hans decided to call it a day. He preferred to help his father in his new business and to indulge his love for wild life on his 14 000 ha farm at Timbavati in the Eastern Transvaal.
However, his wife and Spatz really loved Delheim, so rather than sell it, he left £1500 in the kitty to give Spatz a fighting chance of survival, and handed over the running of the farm to him on the agreement that Spatz would pay him a portion of any profits.
1 Jan 1957 – 1 Jan 1971
Learning to fly
While Spatzendreck helped to make Delheim a household name, it was two years earlier that heralded the first hint of the fine wines to come, and proved to be the beginning of a new era. In 1959 Delheim wines made their first appearance on the South African Wine Show in Paarl, and Spatz walked off with the trophy for the Best Dry White Table Wine.
The winning wine was his White French, or Palomino, which had competed against varieties such as Chenin Blanc and Colombard, which normally commanded much greater prestige.
This early success has continued, and grown – Delheim wines have never been out of the limelight since. Another welcome addition to the farm came in 1976, with the opening of the Vintner’s Cheese Lunch Restaurant. The restaurant was established to cater for the ever-increasing amount of people visiting the Stellenbosch Wine route. The food served is designed to complement the farm’s wines, and is entirely home made.
Learning to fly
However to remain in the limelight in an increasingly competitive market requires much insight and planning. Viticultural knowledge progresses as much as wine drinkers’ tastes change, and the successful wine producer has to keep pace with the one and ahead of the other.
To safely walk this particular tightrope, Spatz had to purchase land beyond the Drie Sprong boundaries. The Drie Sprong vineyards have Hutton-type soils, predominately sandy loams. Only 50 ha of this farm is planted to vine for two reasons. Firstly, the higher slopes are still too steep to cultivate, and secondly, the climate at this elevation (between 300 and 480 metres above sea level) is suitable for growing white varieties only.
When Spatz took over the running of the farm, his experiments proved that the climatic conditions were unfavourable to make the best red wines. The soils, combined with the cool, high altitude and an annual average rainfall of 850mm per year, favour the production of delicate white wines.
The only red variety planted on Drie Sprong is Pinot Noir, its crop being used in the production of the Dry Red blend.
1 April 1971 – 1 Jan 1980
April 1971 saw the founding of the Stellenbosch Wine Route, first of its kind in South Africa, by Spatz Sperling, Neil Joubert of Spier and Frans Malan of Simonsig.
These three became affectionately known as “The Three Angry Men with a Cause” following their heated debates with critics over the potential and value of the scheme. That they were right is proven every year by the more than 500 000 people visiting the Stellenbosch route, and by the establishment of a further thirteen wine routes in South Africa.
Spatz recognised the growing consumer interest in red wines in the early 1970s. Realising his De Driesprong vineyards would not enable him to compete in the “super red wine” market, Spatz searched for more suitable land further afield. In 1975, he found his new vineyards close by, purchasing 80ha of prime land on Klapmutskop, approximately three kilometres as the crow flies to the north-west of De Driesprong.
Now came Spatz’s opportunity to honour his wife in the same way as Hans Hoheisen had honoured his Deli. “Behind every successful man is a good woman” goes the saying, and Vera Sperling has been a driving and creative force behind Spatz – and also in the forefront of helping to build the Delheim name into what it is today.
The Vera Cruz (Vera’s Cross) vineyards were named after Mrs. Spatz. It has been suggested that it commemorates the cross and suffering she has had to bear since marrying Spatz in 1965!
These vineyards are noted for their Clovelly loamy-sand soils and extend on a gradual incline between 200 and 355 metres above sea level. The annual rainfall is approximately 30% lower than on Drie Sprong and the vines receive in the region of 10 to 12 days more sunshine. These conditions are ideal for those rich, muscular reds that are a hallmark of what has become known as one of the Cape’s top red wine pockets – the Muldersvlei bowl. Spatz had found the land he needed to compete with the best of the reds.
A scant winemaking ability did not deter Spatz Sperling, for his gregarious nature soon won him many friends among the numerous young German expert winemakers in the Cape, and he prevailed upon them to help him improve his winemaking skills. Weekends at Delheim were a mixture of “gemütliche” parties and forays into the cellar.
One particular Sunday afternoon, in between sauerkraut and swimming, Spatz led a very happy band of friends off to the cellar to taste his latest efforts. The contents of the second half-full tank, however, proved too much for even their merry state. As Spatz poured the brownish-looking liquid into one lady friend’s glass, her spontaneous – if rather sheepish – comment was: “But Spatz, this is now really dreck!”
Nothing could have motivated Spatz more than that insult – he was determined to make his friend drink her words. It was out of this disaster that Spatzendreck was conceived and perfected in time for the 1961 vintage to be launched on the market.
With his flair for the unusual, Spatz gave the wine both its name and its world-famous label, which achieved the ultimate accolade of winning Decanter Magazine’s Worst Label of the Year Award in 1970. Spatz’s first vintage in 1952 grossed a total of 18 tons; today the cellar has capacity for some 1200 tons annually.
THE LATE MICHAEL HANS “SPATZ” SPERLING
The Memoirs of Spatz Sperling (PDF document)
The following excerpt about the life of the Sperling family’s patriarch was written in 2012 by long time family friend, Peter Bishop, and is a fitting description of the family’s beloved “pappa”:
I was sitting at the computer humming ‘Oh leave me not to pine, alone and desolate’, when I pushed the keys to the Wines of SA site and up jumped the message: ‘Spatz Sperling honoured with 1659 award.’
I shouted for joy, as is not my wont. I never believed or dreamed that this dear friend – but to many others, a threat – would be honoured by an industry that he criticised, that he altered, that he challenged, that he loved.
To their eternal credit, the official industry called him a giant, and recognised the permanent contribution to the South African wine industry that he first encountered as a 19-year-old in 1951.
Born in 1930 in Tettnang, Spatz had been brought up on this East Prussia estate that was lost to the advancing Russians. His father was killed and his mom and younger brother fled to Dresden to experience the bombing. He did a bit of training in general farming.
Aunt Deli was married to Hans Hoheisen, a leading Cape Town architect who had bought the Driesprong farm in 1938, making Muscadel in small beer bottles. With ten pounds to his name, he arrived on the Winchester Castle, stayed at what he was later to name Delheim in her honour, and planted vegetables that they drove to the station market in Rondebosch every Friday – earning a pittance.
He pressed his first grapes in 1952, to be called HOH – Hans Otto Hoheisen. In 1962 he pioneered touring the country, wine in tow. He married Vera Felicitas Reinarz in 1965, and the love endured.
His first venture into modern wine (1963) was so vile that a lady friend called it ‘dreck’, giving rise to the gorgeous Spatzendreck – a veritable loss leader, but to keep Spatz smiling, and to keep him away from the marketing of Delheim under daughter Nora, and the viticulturist and vinicultural aspects under son Victor. It hurt not to be ‘Baas van die Plaas’.
The strength of this great man was that he made friends and enjoyed confronting enemies, and then befriending them. His dearest friend was Frans Malan of Simonsig.
A week before the February 2 honouring, Spatz nearly died in the farm pool, but clever thinking by Victor and eight-year-old Gabi saved him. All that he could recall was that “there were angels hovering and I saw the Simonsig cellars”.
With Frans Malan and the equally warm Niel Joubert of Spier, these three started the Stellenbosch Wine Route in 1971, two years before the Wine of Origin legislation was introduced. He also encouraged Sydney Back of Backsberg to start the Paarl Wine Route.
Wife Vera was the brains behind making the place presentable, while Spatz walked around ‘as if he owned the place’, scolding any employee who was not precise. He was always serious and sincere at wine presentations, but full of bonhomie at parties.
He encouraged young South African winemakers, acknowledging that they really understood red wine – Boland Coetzee, Beyers Truter, Jacques Borman – as well as those who worked for him: Kevin Arnold, Jeff Grier, Philip Costandius, Conrad Vlok and Walter Finlayson. Spatz always had a close link to Kevin and felt it deeply when he left to go to Rust en Vrede just after winning the SA Trophy for the 1986 Cabernet Sauvignon. Rather keep Kevin than the silver!
I met Spatz in 1978 at a Nederburg Auction. He said: “Are you that mad fellow who circulates your tasting notes? Some people say you write nonsense, but I tell them to show me one town except George where there is a monthly tasting of amateurs and their tasting notes are sent back to the industry.
“They could not – not even in Stellenbosch, so carry on and ignore your critics.” Even on my recent visit, he said “Show me what you are writing now.” Thus for 34 years, he has been my biggest fan. I use him for philosophical discussions, or to answer the questions he puts forward, like: “Why is there no fun anymore?”
Spatz planted pines on his farm, and saw a fire decimate it in 2000. He changed a piggery to DelVera (named after his wife Vera) – a Klapmuts farm that produced the Grand Reserve (the name grabbed from a brandy bottle lying around).
Other recent honours have been life membership of the SA Timber Growers Association and recognition as the founder of the Estate Producers Association. He built houses for his workers, joined them on Christmas Eve with the entire Sperling family singing along, and followed the Green Footsteps programme that has become an emphasis of son Victor.
No matter how much Spatz is to be commended, the wine industry needs praise for choosing him, albeit that he was born in a foreign land, and that he rode the waves of controversy if need be.
He joins some of his friends on that list – Frans Malan (1998), Niel Joubert (1983), Ronnie Melck (1990), Sydney Back (1996), and NC Krone (1988) – and even three national leaders: BJ Vorster (1978), General JC Smuts (1994) and Nelson Mandela (2003). He ‘walks with kings, nor loses his common touch’.
The citation of the 1659 (the year Van Riebeeck pressed the first grapes in SA) Award reads:
‘The inspiration and effective contribution to the development of the wine industry, where he left a positive contribution, influence and legacy.’ They added: “His passion and enthusiasm whereby he took leadership in the starting of the wine routes and other pioneer work and market initiatives have directly and indirectly developed wine tourism in SA.’
Criteria for winner of 1659 Medal of Honour:
The person or institution who receives the 1659 medal of honour should have made an essential contribution towards the industry, of which there must be substantial evidence. The industry (or a specific aspect thereof) must have been influenced positively by it and must have a lasting impact with all indications of a special legacy.
It must be worthy of praise and significantly changed the thinking and/or lives of people. There must be clear indications of intellectual conceptualising the idea which must be creative, innovative and unique and already been proved in practise. It should encourage and inspire others in the industry to do the same or even better.
Former winners of the esteemed 1659 Medal of Honour include Nelson Mandela, former KWV chairpersons André du Toit and Ritzema de la Bat and esteemed winemakers Günter Brözel, N.C. Krone and Sydney Back.