SA Wine Legends: Vera Sperling

Delheim was the furnace for many of the things we associate with a day out in the winelands. Things we take for granted now, such as an authentically styled tasting room, a restaurant to complement the estate’s offering, vineyard tours and the like. It al started here. Delheim radiates hospitality from its very entrance where complimentary mulled wine is waiting to greet guests. I’m here to have lunch with the estate’s matriarch, Vera Sperling.

Delheim Sperling Family 

Our winelands was the Wild West before these niceties came into play—though it wasn’t just window dressing, but a considered effort into creating not only a wine estate, but also the nascent Stellenbosch Wine Route, and the vision of what it could be.

Vera cuts a slim figure in her grey blazer; her neck is wound with scarfs of warm pink and orange. We settle in the estate’s intimate restaurant with views of the tailored gardens. The waiting staff greet her warmly as Tannie Vera, and she promptly orders a bottle of Delheim’s Gewürztraminer 2017.

Her husband, the legendary winemaker and proprietor of the estate, Michael Hans ‘Spatz’ Sperling passed away at the age of 87 in 2017. (Sperling is the German word for “sparrow” and Spatz means “baby sparrow”.) Known as Mr. and Mrs. Sparrow, Vera and Spatz were the original power couple. 

“I knew my husband for two weeks when he proposed,” says Vera. Her parents moved to South Africa just before the war and when they separated, her father remained, while Vera and her mother went abroad, spending time in both Holland and Chile. In typical Vera fashion she says: “In Chile I had to learn Spanish, so then I could at least participate at the dance parties!”  She regularly came to the Cape to visit her father, who had by then set up a successful furniture design company called Binnehuis.

A Young Spatz Sperling with his  family (wife: Vera daughter: Nora and son: Victor)

Creative by nature, Vera studied art in the Hague, specialising in interior architecture. For her practical year she came to work with her father in his company, who at the time was renting a house at nearby Muratie (the estate downwind from Delheim). She quickly immersed herself in the social life of Stellenbosch.

“I remember this one party, it was terribly hot,” she says reminiscing. “All the students went to swim in a cement dam; the girls went in their underwear, but I’m Dutch I do things properly—and I didn’t want to sit in wet underwear all night, so I went nude.” She says she came back from her swim, and her clothes were gone. “I spent the night dancing in a mosquito net!”

What a debut into Stellenbosch society, it was no wonder Vera caught Spatz’s eye. The pair soon started spending time together at Delheim. At just 20-years-old, Spatz had arrived in South Africa from Germany in 1951 to help his uncle and aunt on their farm, Delheim. It was here Spatz wooed his soon-to-be wife. Vera tells me stories of meetings on the porch, of hot days in the pool; as she does she gestures to areas of the garden where it all took place—though changed now, the Delheim of 60 years ago dances vividly in her eyes as she describes these incumbent scenes.

On one such day, two weeks after they met, he had invited her and some other friends around for drinks. “He brought out these crystal glasses and bottle of champagne. Once glasses were filled he said, ‘Vera stand here’ and he tells his friends we’re engaged—that was the first I had heard of it!”

“That’s how he was. He didn’t twijfel!”

Once married, they got to the business of wine farming and life building. Social upliftment was important to them from the start. They were one of the first farms to ban the morally reprehensible ‘dop system’.  They were also inspired by the communal hall that Nicky Krone had built for his workers at Twee Jonge Gezellen, and built one of their own; a place for their staff to get together, to eat and socialise. Today, social responsibility is still a cornerstone of their ethos.

Spatz was a self-taught winemaker; and it took him a few years, and many parties to get it right. Weekends at Delheim were filled with "gemütliche" parties. The story goes that one merry afternoon Spatz took some friends into the cellar to taste his latest batch.

Not impressed with his efforts, legend has it that one of his friends said: "But Spatz, this is now really dreck!"

This motivated Spatz to improve his offering, and with his tongue firmly in cheek he named the resulting wine, Spatzendreck—and the 1961 vintage put them on the world wine map. Not to mention the wine also had the dubious honour of winning Decanter Magazine's Worst Label of the Year Award in 1970.

Things got more serious with the winemaking, and in 1975, he acquired vineyards on Klapmutskop, which he named Vera Cruz after his wife—Cruz meaning “cross”, allegedly for the cross Vera has had to bear during her long marriage to Spatz. It was from this site that Delheim’s flagship was born; the Cabernet-led Grand Reserve (first produced in 1981) was among the first Bordeaux-style blends in the country.

In between all this, Vera and Spatz had a growing family. The pair went on to have four children: Victor, Nora, Maria, Nicholas, and now grandchildren six too.

Then in 1971 they founded the Stellenbosch Wine Route along with Neil Joubert of Spier and Frans Malan of Simonsig. The route was the first of its kind in South Africa. Then it was a collaboration of 12 farms, today it boasts over 200 wine producers as members, and draws in over 500 000 visitors, annually.

Though it wasn’t quite smooth sailing in the beginning…Stellenbosch being a university town soon saw wine estates being overrun by raucous students. Vera laughs when she tells me she had deal out a few smacks to overly salubrious youths.

His wife: Vera and daughter Nora

She soon started refining the offering, and Delheim became the first wine estate to offer food; going from simple platters of cheese and bread to a celebrated restaurant. Her culinary 15 minutes of fame, was when in a bid to rid the vineyards of snails, she started collecting them and cooking them for the restaurant. She laughs, “people still ask me about the snails.”

To draw tourists she dreamed up a vineyard tour, and designed a carriage, which was pulled by a tractor through the vines.

All around Delheim is evidence of her hand; from the beautiful tasting room she designed – “I didn’t put the cobwebs there, they came later,” she laughs –to the idyllic gardens, and the gentle spirit of hospitality that runs like a bubbling brook throughout.

- Malu Lambert