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The Spirit of Papa Spatz: Every bow-tie tells a story

29 October 2019  -  Graham Howe

Top winemakers and old family friends celebrated the eightieth anniversary of Delheim Wines – to pay tribute to the enduring legacy of South African wine legend, the late Spatz Sperling.

The eightieth anniversary celebrations of Delheim was one of the highlights on this year’s wine calendar. Founded in 1939, this pioneer of many firsts - wine tourism, the first wine route in South Africa, one of the first winery restaurants, cellar-door sales and modern wine styles, lies at the heart of South Africa’s wine renaissance. A handful of the illustrious ex-winemakers who worked under visionary owner Spatz Sperling over the years, gathered to show their respects in October 2019. 

Delheim was a nursery for a generation of trainee winemakers who made their mark as young guns in this iconic Cape cellar. Few wineries in the Cape claim a lineage such as Otto Helmer (in 1972), Joseph Kramer, Kevin Arnold (1979-1987, making the first flagship Grand Reserve before Rust en Vrede and Waterford), trainees Chris Keet (later Cordoba) and Jeff Grier (at Villiera since 1983), Philip Costandius, Martin Meinert, Conrad Vlok (Strandveld) and others. Sitting at a long lunch table among the old cement tanks in a cellar built by Italian POWs, guests were regaled with the stories of Spatz. Watching the house cats and Jack Russells running around the cellar, I recalled attending a memorable lunch presided over by Spatz at the relaunch of Spatzendreck just a few years ago. 

“Spatz was a great mentor and giver” recalled Chris Keet, “though he once called me Delheim’s worst winemaker ever! He had humility and respect for anyone who crossed his path from farm workers to competitors – and huge respect for the environment. He transformed the Cape wine industry and wine tourism”. Kevin Arnold who joined Delheim as an assistant in 1979 said he was thrown into the deep end when he was made winemaker only a year later – and learned how to work hard. “Spatz believed ‘Nothing is impossible’. There was great camaraderie in this valley.”Backsberg, Delheim, Muratie and Uitkyk were the first to lobby for legislative reform and sell to the public in the days when bureaucratic liquor legislation prohibited sales and food at the cellar-door.

The first lady of Cape wine, Norma Ratcliffe who settled at nearby Warwick in the early 1970s spoke about Spatz, the man once dubbed “the duke of Delheim”. “Spatz was an honest if brutal wine critic. When he tasted my first wine, he said it was terrible – and would give the valley a bad name! He was very helpful to young winemakers. He believed what is important is what winemakers make with each variety – making wine that defines each piece of the valley. We didn’t talk much about clones in those days. Vera Sperling was the creative spirit of this valley, a marketing genius.”

Delheim is a family affair. Daughter Nora Sperling, marketing guru at Delheim, said, “Spatz was a life which changed the wine industry. That’s the story. We’re launching Iconoclast 2012, a Cape blend, as a wine to honour Papa. He believed in breaking the rules – so to honour him, we’ve named the wine after the Greek name for a breaker of images”. Spatz was described as an iconoclast, a bold individualist who stomped on wine snobbery, in a Sunday Times obituary on his death at the age of 87 in 2017. The new blend is led by Shiraz (not Pinotage!) in an assemblage of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage and Petit Verdot. Spatz, a man who named his dessert wine Spatzendreck after a critic said one of his first wines tasted like dreck, would appreciate the humour of a rebellious Cape blend.

Chatting to matriarch Vera Sperling, she recalled spending the whole weekend in the early 1970s, making up cheese platters and cutting sausages for the opening of the first cellar-door restaurant in the Cape at Delheim. Larger than life winemaker Otto Helmer asked, “Who will make my lunch now my wife’s baking bread for all our visitors!” Vera recalled that shortly after she met Spatz, he toasted her at a party, and declared “Now we’re engaged. I’m sorry I didn’t ask you first!” They were married for 52 years until his death – and the Vera Cruz range of premium reds is named after her. (Founder Hans Otto Hoheison, Spatz’ uncle, named the farm Delheim (meaning Del’s home) after his wife.)

The occasion was a rare opportunity to taste rare wines from Delheim’s archives – including old fortified Hanepoot from circa 1942 – presented by old family friend Peter Bishop who oversaw the recorking of these wines back in 1986.Viticulturist Victor Sperling discovered this treasure trove of old wines under the floorboards of the old manor house when he was six years old – hidden in a pile of “ballasmeintjies” (cane baskets) along with priceless bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling from the war years. In recycled beer and brandy bottles due to the shortages of the second world war, theHanepoot (made from muscat d’Alexandrie grapes) still tasted fresh, vibrant and alive.We also tasted superb vintage Gewürztraminer from 2003-2004, Spatzendreck Noble Late Harvest 1990, Edelspatz 1990 – Pinotage, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Grand Reserves from 1990.

Among many firsts, Delheim was one of the first producers of a dry white wine blend in South Africa – labelled Heerenwijn in 1976 – as well as their best-selling Pinotage Rosé. (Coincidentally, the first commercial wine made at Delheim was the HoH (after founder Hans Otto Hoheison) white blend made in 1948). Peter Bishop recalls that Spatz, as chairman of Rotary, organised the first-ever wine auction in South Africa in 1973, inspiring one guest, SFW chairman Lothar Barth to organise the first Nederburg Auction the next year – and Delheim Goldspatz 1973 was the first wine on offer. Spatz, with Neil Joubert of Spier and Frans Malan of Simonsig, founded the Stellenbosch Wine Route in 1971 – and in the 1980s launched the Delheim Wine Road Show that Spatz had attempted in 1962.

A small museum at the entrance – a replica of Spatz’ office, along with his old typewriter, jacket, memorabilia, pictures of Papa and his beloved Jack Russell Nelson– is a nostalgic reminder of the early days of Delheim, the Sperling family and the Stellenbosch pioneers. In a poignant moment, Victor Sperling wore papa’s old hat and sipped from his flask while speaking at the celebration. The spirit of Spatz lives on – down to a copy of his trademark bow-tie around every bottle of Iconoclast. It occupies a prized nook in my cellar – under a bow-tie which tells a story every time a guest asks.