A VISIT TO DELHEIM
The Cape Winelands have a long, 300-year-old history – one of the oldest of the New-World wine regions – that was built by family hands. Over centuries, their knowledge of growing wine at the southern tip of Africa was passed down from one generation to the next, cultivating a unique approach to winemaking that has cemented South Africa’s legacy as one of the world’s top wine-producing countries. And while traditional, wholly family-owned-and-operated wine estates are in decline, it is heartwarming to find that there are still those wineries who continue to build their legacy on a sense of family, community and heritage.
THE GERMAN CONNECTION
The farm on which Delheim stands today hails from an era when the very first vineyards were being planted in the Stellenbosch region. Though the farm’s German connection can be traced all the way back to 1699 when Simon van der Stel granted this piece of land – known as De Driesprong at the time – to Lourenz Kamfer, it passed through many hands until a certain Mr Hans Hoheisen (also German) bought it in 1939 as a retirement home. He and his wife first planted citrus trees there, but the wind conditions on this slope of the Simonsberg, they soon discovered, were most inhospitable to the task, and so, at the suggestion of their friends, they transformed it into a vineyard, and Delheim was born, named after his wife, Deli.
After WWII, Deli visited her native Germany to see her family. While there, she mentioned to her nephew, Michael, that they needed help on their farm in South Africa. With very few prospects in Germany at the time, Michael made the journey to his aunt and uncle’s farm in Stellenbosch on a ship by the name of Winchester Castle in 1951, arriving with little more than £10 in his pocket.
Somehow, Michael “Spatz” Sperling had found his calling in winemaking, despite knowing almost nothing about wine at the time, other than that he liked it. What he learnt over the coming years, he got from books, neighbourly advice, the wisdom of German winemakers who came out to visit, and engaging with his new calling. His wine started winning awards, and he soon became one of the country’s top wine pioneers, even founding the Stellenbosch Wine Route (the country’s first) in 1971.
That same year, Delheim expanded its borders by acquiring another farm nearby, which Michael named Vera Cruz after his wife Vera, whom he met in South Africa, but who was originally from the Netherlands, and still lives on the farm today. He proposed to her in the garden where the Delheim Restaurant currently stands in a moment when she felt it prudent to inform him that they should break things off, as she was intent on returning to Holland. But fate had other plans.
THE LEGACY CONTINUES
Today, Delheim is run by Michael and Vera’s son, Victor Sperling and daughter, Nora Sperling-Thiel, both of whom are passionately involved in the estate’s operations. Delheim is also an official conservation champion, meaning that the vineyards are carefully managed to consider the greater environment. At regular intervals between rows of vines, one encounters corridors of naturally occurring flora that, since the Sperlings have planted them, have attracted a diverse array of insects and animals, effectively restoring the vineyards’ biodiversity. Nora has also developed a keen interest in the medicinal qualities of the various fynbos that grow in the area and has played an integral part in eradicating much of the alien plant species on the farm to allow the indigenous species to flourish, and so, restore the farm’s ecological balance.
But the strength of a family-run farm is often best exemplified by those outsiders who find resonance in the family’s ethos, and general belief in what they do. Upon visiting Delheim, it becomes immediately clear that every person involved in the running of the farm – the enthusiasm of the vineyard team and the dedication of the management and winemaking teams – love this place and contribute just as much to its story as the Sperlings themselves.
When asking Delheim’s winemaker, Roelof Lotriet, whether there’s a difference between family-produced wines and those produced by more commercial operations, his immediate response is, “Of course there is!” Having worked at wineries at regular intervals in France, Roelof’s approach to wine is decidedly an Old-World one.
“I don’t think the French have a secret recipe for making wine,” he says, “but there is a definite connection between the estate, the vineyard and the wine. When holding a bottle in your hand, it’s their family pride, in a way… it’s who they are. When working for a bigger operation, which I’ve done, you’re just making wine.
“To me, putting in all that time – so much of you – has to mean more than just making money. It’s the story that makes the difference.” Roelof remembers, “When I saw Delheim were looking for a winemaker, I immediately jumped at the chance. I mean, right now, I’m reaping the rewards of the guys who planted the Chenin Blanc vineyards here 35 years ago. I’m part of a greater story.”
But Delheim seems to have been blessed in other ways as well. Despite being situated in Stellenbosch against the Simonsberg, a region that often suffers from extreme heat conditions in summer, Roelof finds that the farm might very well be colder than parts of the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, an area famed for its cooler climate, brought on by its proximity to the Atlantic.
“If you had told me before I came to work here that you could grow Gewürztraminer and Riesling here, I would have gone, ‘In Stellenbosch?!’” Roelof laughs. “It’s cold enough, but our neighbour on the other side of the hill is in a completely different pocket.”
In the wine world, few times of the year are as exciting as harvest season, which usually occurs between January and March in South Africa. “We still harvest by hand,” he says, “there’s no better way. And being in a relatively cold pocket, we don’t need to harvest too early. The picking is quite straightforward, but sorting has made great leaps technologically.”
As part of Delheim’s conservation-first ethos, Roelof has embraced the use of technology to work as effectively as possible. All the water used during the winemaking process in the cellar is recycled and used for irrigation, for instance, and Roelof is constantly exploring new ways to make wine more simply and effectively.
“But when it comes to the actual making of the wine, I still prefer the Old-World methods, like punching the skins down in an open-top tank, so I can see the colour of the wine and what it’s doing,” he says.
“To me, the focal point with any wine is when you harvest. You can taste how the wine was harvested immediately. Wine that was harvested too early will taste green and unripe and will have a different flavour profile to what you’d expect from that wine. Too late and it will have a jammy, raisiny quality; a ‘warm’ taste.”
The question on everyone’s lips these days is what the impact of climate change will have on our wine industry. “You’ve got to prepare for the fact that things could change drastically in the next few years,” Roelof agrees. “There are those who say that Stellenbosch might get colder. As winemakers, we need to be aware of what the climate is doing, and we have to adapt. This year, for instance, we’ve had to start harvesting earlier. But in the end, it’s all part of the story. Is there any other beverage that has the same link to everything that’s going on around it as wine has?”
DELHEIM GRAND RESERVE 2015
Delheim produces a range of award-winning wines, led by the majestic Grand Reserve, which since its maiden release in 1981, has been honoured with many prestigious accolades. The Grand Reserve is a stately expression of the most exceptional red wine the cellar has to offer with each vintage. The 2015 vintage of this Bordeaux-style flagship is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Classic in its own style, it has aromas of truffle and mint cassis with nuanced flavours of red berry fruit.
Order your Delheim Grand Reserve 2015 HERE and get 20% off when you quote the discount code JANDEL20. This offer is valid until 31 March 2021!