Thursday, June 12th, 2014

Delheim embraces its ‘Dreck’

A few weeks ago, the Sperling family of Delheim provided a nostalgic glimpse into how things were done way back when, inviting selected guests to celebrate 70 years of winemaking at the historic Stellenbosch farm as well as the honouring of patriarch Spatz Sperling with the relaunch of Spatzendreck.

Sperling is legendary for his cantankerous mulishness, known far and wide in the industry as “daai blerrie Duitser” (“that bloody German”) but also for his gregarious nature and incredible generosity of spirit. Along with Simonsig’s Frans Malan and Spier’s Niel Joubert, he pioneered the Stellenbosch wine route four decades ago.

Now in charge of the business are son and daughter Victor Sperling and Nora Sperling Thiel. They relished the opportunity to tell stories, not just about ‘Papa’ Spatz but about Spatzendreck and the early years of the modern South African wine industry – when the young turks of the day would gather for long drawn out and well lubricated pool parties at Delheim. And they had the home videos to prove it! Victor took great delight in some footage of Spatz playing golf. “Watch the ball at his feet – and keep watching it,” he prompted the audience. In spite of three atrocious hacks at it, the ball rested serenely on its tee … with everyone roaring with laughter at Sperling’s lack of prowess! Fortunately the audio was indistinct at that point…

Over bowls of homemade soup from wild mushrooms foraged in the forests on the Simonsberg slopes, and with weiss and leberwursts, sauerkraut and typical German family fare, the event served as a reminder of a less frenetic and formal time, when wine farms were family run and somewhat makeshift. Because of international exports as well as local competition, the emphasis nowadays is on hard-nosed business with efficiency, management and sound systems the order of the day. “That’s progress!” commented former Wines of South Africa chairman Johann Krige.

But the Sperling siblings, now in charge of running Delheim and ably supported by winemaker Reg Holder and viticulturist Etienne Terblanche, have decided to fully embrace their inherited ugly duckling – Spatzendreck.

Holder and Terblanche conceded that they were partly to blame for rejigging this somewhat overlooked wine. The second generation happily concede that they’d axe it if consumers allowed it! Being new to the fold – both winemaker and viticulturist joined in 2012 – they familiarised themselves with the property and its vineyards, and came across some fantastic old vineyards which were a touch neglected. It was at their instigation that the Spatzendreck was raised to prominence again, but in a natural sweet guise rather than as a late harvest.

The story goes that Spatz pulled a sample of his maiden late harvest Riesling from tank 13 during one of the jovial Sunday afternoon gatherings – only for one woman to comment that it was ‘dreck’ (German for rubbish). Adding to the allure of this wine was the label – considered quite cheeky at the time of its release in 1961. It showed a cartoon sparrow (since Sperling in German means sparrow) pooping into a barrel! Decanter magazine didn’t agree, lauding it with the title of Worst Wine Label in the World in 1971! Nora recounted further that it won that dubious honour not just once but twice. “What can you do but own that? We’ve tried to hide it, to change it, to forget about it – but nothing works. The customers love it.”

Until the intervention of Holder and Terblanche the wine had always been 100% Chenin Blanc. In its current natural sweet iteration from the 2013 vintage, it is a blend of Riesling, Chenin and Muscat de Hambourg – and just 2 400 bottles were made. For fans of this sweet ‘rubbish’, the sugar level has almost doubled from 75g per litre to 130g but the vibrant acidity of the Riesling more than compensates, making for a beautifully balanced mouthful.

Appropriately, the wine is only available at the farm and commands a suitably iconic price of R165 per bottle. But only 2 400 bottles were made so stock is limited. It’s well worth the drive up the farm road, for the nostalgia, a posed photograph with Palazzo Pippi and a glimpse of the family’s energetic and ever-present Jack Russells as much as anything else.

Delheim - Spatzendreck 2013 LR (1)Delheim Spatzendreck 2013 tube  bottle LR (1)

– Fiona McDonald