More South Africa: The Story of Delheim

Jun 15, 2010

In my previous blog, I wrote about the history of South Africa touching on soccer and the story of the first vines, the Dutch, the British and apartheid. Today, I'm going to focus on a particular winery with ties to Germany: Delheim.

TWO LIVES: VAN RIEBEECK AND SPATZ                      Jan van Riebeeck (1619-1677)
Vines have been growing in South Africa since the 17th century. For many, Jan van Riebeeck, a Dutch surgeon is often considered the founding father of the country's wine industry. He was in no way a viticulturist, or a winemaking pioneer, simply a doctor looking for a way to reduce the risk of scurvy for sailors on long sea journeys between Europe and Asia. By planting vines, he hoped to create a cure for the men stopping over in the nearby ports along the Western Cape. 

Like the Dutch doctor, Michael 'Spatz' Sperling was not a trained winemaker. Born and raised in what is now western Poland, Spatz fled to South Africa in 1951 at the age of 21. He was tired of the starvation years following the war and needed a change of scenery. Working on the communist state-run farms had fortunately kept him close to food and he often stole potatoes to get through the harsh winter months. 

In South Africa, he went to work for his aunt and uncle. Hans Otto and Deli Hoheisen owned a 494-acre farm on Simonsberg Mountain just outside of Stellenbosch (both the mountain and city are named after Simon van der Stel, the colony's first 17th century governor). Spatz's relatives produced a variety of products including a bit of wine. The name Delheim is actually named after Spatz's aunt - 'Deli's home'.

If you were to go back in time, back to the late 17th century, you would fine a home on the southwestern slopes of Simonsberg Mountain. Inside the humble dwelling lived a Dutch East India Company servant. When ships were spotted arriving in Table Bay, the servant would fire a cannon, the third in a relay. From there, it was up to locals of Cape Town to welcome the new arrivals and offer their wares or defend their city.  

The land passed through different hands, eventually a series of parcels forming the vineyard owned by the Hoheisen family. Before Spatz arrived, his aunt and uncle had a humble and basic set-up for wine making: a basket and continuous press, hand pumps and filter.

Now, the young emrigrée Spatz knew nothing about wine but as luck would have it, he became a student of traveling German wine experts who came to South Africa to teach the locals. Eager to learn, he absorbed what he could during the 1960s and made many mistakes at Delheim. One story goes that he was trying to impress a group of German tourists with a sweet-wine he had made. One of them remarked, "Spatz er ist noch dreck!" (The wine is really shitty...).

But Spatz was determined and improved the wine, calling it Spatzendreck. The name has a double meaning. Sperling is sparrow in German and Spatz is the diminutive. So it means both Spatz's 'shit' or 'Little Sparrow's Shit'. (Fondly enough, in 1979 Decanter awarded Sperling the 'worst label of the year' for the winery's label of a bird defecating into a wine barrel.)

In 1959, Spatz entered Delheim's wines into the South African Wine Show in nearby Paar, winning a trophy for his Palomino in the best Dry White Table Wine category.

During the 1970s fellow wine producers, Franz Malan of Simonsig Estate, Niel Joubert of Spier winery and Spatz came together to work on promoting wine tourism in South Africa. Malan had been to Europe and returned impressed by the wine routes he had seen in France. With little support from  both KWV and local road engineers, the three handed out maps showing tourists how to get to the participating wineries. First came the students from Stellenbosch University followed by their parents.

Eventually, the Stellenbosch wine route took off (today it is sponsored by American Express) and in 1976 Spatz with the help of his Dutch-born wife, Vera, opened up the Vintner's Cheese Lunch Restaurant to cater to the arriving tourists. Serving home-made food to compliment their wines, the establishment became popular and complimented the available wine and cellar tours.

Delheim is still operating today with Spatz as vintner and his son, Victor as viticulturist and general farm manager.
For soccer and wine fans, Delheim is featuring a venue to view the World Cup soccer matches.

In the LCBO, look out for Delheim 2006 Simonsberg Cabernet Sauvignon (on sale $13.40 in the Vintages section). A bouquet of red currant and green pepper; equally seductive on the palate with a smoky kiss of dark fruit. 

Robinson, Jancis, The Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 2003.
Taber, George M. In Search of Bacchus: Wanderings in the Wonderful World of Wine Tourism. Scribner, New York, 2009. 


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My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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