Delheim’s ‘Spatz’ Sperling’s 80th a time to celebrate

Date posted:
July 16, 2010

Michael “Spatz” Sperling, the German-born vintner who has built the Delheim wine farm near Stellenbosch into one of the most enduringly popular and commercially successful wine businesses in the Cape over the past half century, is being honoured this month by the wine industry, friends and family for his significant contribution to the South African wine industry. The focus of the celebrations will be this local legend’s 80th birthday on 19 July.

 

Spatz arrived in South Africa in April 1951 as a 20-year-old World War II refugee to farm De Driesprong, the humble mixed farm (fruit, tobacco, vegetables and wine grapes) on the steep slopes of the Simonsberg owned by Hans and Del Hoheisen (his mother’s cousin). A self-taught wine grower and winemaker, he was instrumental in turning Driesprong into a viable wine farm, renamed Delheim (Del’s home) in honour of the feisty farming spirit of Del Hoheisen in the 1960s.

 

Spatz’s first harvest in 1952 consisted of just 18 tons of grapes on about 10ha planted to marginal varieties such as crouchen blanc and white French (palomino), plus some gamay noir and the noble pinot noir. Today, Delheim takes in 1 000 tons off nearly 150ha of some 15 traditional and classical varieties, planted on selected terroirs. These include the Vera Cruz farm (named after wife Vera), prime Klapmuts viticultural land bought in the 1970s to supplement the home farm’s vineyards and source of some of Delheim’s premium, award-winning reds, including the flagship Grand Reserve and seminal Shiraz.

 

Delheim’s major cellar expansions (in 1971 and 1974) kept up with, and often led in, the field of modern winemaking requirements. Memorable winemaking milestones included the maiden Delheim Pinotage Rosé in 1976 (the country’s first rosé made from a specific variety); the maiden Edelspatz Noble Late Harvest in 1979 (one of the Cape’s groundbreaking botrytis dessert wines); and the maiden Grand Reserve in 1981 (following in the footsteps of the handful of first-time Cape exponents of a traditional Bordeaux-style red blend).  

 

Over the years, Delheim became a microcosm of Spatz’s visionary work in the greater Stellenbosch community and the Cape winelands as a whole.

 

In the early 1970s, together with two other late Cape wineland legends Frans Malan of Simonsig and Sydney Back of Backsberg, Spatz formed the Cape Wine Estate Producers’ Association. Their agitation led to the redefining of the “estate” concept regarding land appellation, wine varietal content, vintage denotation and the description of an estate. It was also instrumental in transforming wine estate legislation leading to the 1973 Wine of Origin system. The aim was to make producers accountable for the authenticity and integrity of the source and make-up of their wines, ultimately as a guarantee to the consumer of purity and quality.

 

The estate polemic continued over the next few decades, and attempts are ongoing to control through legislation and clarify to the consumer what the differences are between wine farms calling themselves an estate as opposed to a winery or appending “wines” or “vineyards” to their name.

 

The business of selling and marketing Delheim’s wines also occupied Spatz during the 1970s. It was one such exercise, in the form of a by-invitation-only ‘wine auction’ in Delheim’s cellar in 1974 to raise money for Stellenbosch Rotary of which Spatz was president, that provided the impetus for the inaugural Nederburg Wine Auction in 1975, still one of the Cape’s premier local and international wine sales and marketing events.

 

 

 

Left: A much younger Spatz Sperling busy filtering wine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Similarly, Spatz, together with his then winemaker Kevin Arnold (now co-owner and winemaker of Waterford Estate), initiated the formation in 1982 of the Cape Independent Winemakers’ Guild that markets its wines solely through an annual auction. This body of leading independent Cape winemakers, with membership by invitation only, is committed to pushing the boundaries of wine style and quality and serves as a touchstone for its members to share ideas and methods.

 

Another pioneering marketing tool devised by Spatz, again in collaboration with Simonsig’s Frans Malan as well as the late Niel Joubert of Spier, was the local wine route system. The Stellenbosch Wine Route was established in 1972 to bring visitors to the wine farms to taste and buy wine. Still the biggest, with over 100 member farms, it spawned a host of similar regional wine routes and smaller area wine growers’ trusts and associations committed to winelands tourism.

 

Delheim extended its own wine tourism interests in 2000 with the development of another Klapmuts property into the Delvera tourism centre.

 

The indomitable Spatz was the unwitting pioneer of public wine tasting events personally hosted by winemakers outside the winelands. In 1962 he embarked upon his first tasting tour, ferrying himself and his wines by car, train and plane to East London, Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg, the first producer to do so.

 

This initial personal contact with wine lovers was built on through Delheim’s newsletters, personally penned by Spatz from the early ‘60s, usually late on a Sunday night, with a glass of something at his elbow, relating news and anecdotes of life on a wine farm: early forerunners of the more formal newsletters, press releases and websites of any self-respecting modern winery.

 

Delheim had earlier recognised the natural symbiosis between wine and food and its role in wine appreciation by, in 1972, introducing “cheese boards” for wine lovers visiting over the lunch hour. These later expanded into the more substantial “Vintner’s Platter”, in turn becoming Delheim’s Garden Restaurant. The concept was quickly embraced throughout the winelands, with few Cape wineries today not offering a platter, picnic or fully-fledged restaurant, many among the country’s finest dining establishments.

 

Last, but not least, Spatz, having learned winemaking through trial and error and the support of his Cape wine industry colleagues turned the Delheim cellar into a “school” for young winemakers. Some of the now well-known names to have done a stint under his rigorous but good-natured tutelage, whether as winemakers, assistants or cellarhands, are Josef Krammer, Kevin Arnold, Jeff Grier, Phillip Costandius, Chris Keet, Kevin Grant, Martin Meinert and Conrad Vlok.

 

The ultimate wine industry recognition of Michael ‘Spatz’ Sperling’s extraordinary contribution to Cape wine came in 2009, the year in which the industry celebrated 350 years of winemaking. He was one the pioneers honoured with the 350 Celebration Scroll.

 

Ends

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