The wonderful world of wine estate cobwebs

Wednesday, May 28th, 2014

WOSA uncovers the most impressive cobwebs in the winelands.

In a winery’s tasting room or cellar, cobwebs and dust aren’t a sign of bad housekeeping; but rather of time. A woven clock of vine growing and winemaking.

The architecture in the winelands is as diverse as its terroir. With more contemporary cellars emerging, wine estates preserving their cobwebs are no longer so easy to find, but there are a few who still give their resident spiders free rein.

 Starting in Stellenbosch, Delheim is one such destination. Dating back to 1699, the history is palpable here. The wine farm is situated on the southwestern slopes of the Simonsberg Mountain, and has been in the care of the Sperling family since the 1950s. In fact, owner Spatz Sperling was one of the original founders of the Stellenbosch Wine Route in 1971 (along with Neil Joubert of Spier and Frans Malan of Simonsig).

 Yes, Delheim certainly is historic. Expect to be greeted by antiquated farming equipment and keep some coins handy for the wishing well, guarded over by a seemingly ancient bell.

The buildings and curiosities are framed by the sheer beauty of its location in the Knorhoek Valley; picture a wild tangle of green foliage, the staggering backdrop of the mountains and a fan of vineyards splayed over rocky slopes. Interestingly, the name Knorhoek roughly translates to ‘growling corner’, attributed to the Cape leopards that once stalked the Simonsberg in great numbers. (There are still reported sightings of these magnificent cats.)

 Then, of course there’s the tasting room: the front window is the centrepiece, draped in thick cobwebs with wine bottles caked in layers of dust.

“We leave the window slightly ajar so the spiders can come and go as they please,” says a tasting host.

“The cobwebs have been there for over 40 years now.”

To think, among this living still life, there may be a silken strand from the time that Stellenbosch first came to be an official wine route.

 Just around the corner from Delheim is Muratie Wine Estate. Established in 1685, it’s one of the oldest farms in South Africa. Outside, like a plaque for fallen soldiers, the owners are listed through the decades.

And what tales those names tell. From the forbidden love that saw its inception, a German soldier and his slave girl wife, to South Africa’s first Pinot Noir grape plantings in 1927 by fine artist, George Canitz.

The ghosts of these stories are made tangible in the volumes of cobwebs that dress this historic estate. Green wooden doors creak open to reveal a warren of mystery, leading to the famous cobweb-covered tasting room. In fact, it’s so celebrated, a painting of its likeness is at the entrance.

On the wall of the tasting room, a calendar hangs as a marker of when the webs started to gather in 1977.

Like layers of gossamer fabric, cobwebs adorn paintings by George Canitz (including portraits of both his wife and mistress) and wine bottles, and a spider-made curtain catches the light spilling through the main arched window.

Here, in this place of romantic dereliction, tasting hosts pour glasses of wine and port. Do they ever worry about the webs? “The spiders keep to themselves,” assures one.

From the slopes of the Simonsberg to the Helderberg. Annandale Wine Estate, established in 1688, also wears its dust and cobwebs with pride. The farm has a long heritage of winemaking and, in recent history, was a shelter for horses, until current owner Hempies du Toit came along in 1996.

The former Springbok rugby player and fifth-generation winemaker re-established the winery, and it now produces sterling reds—which are aged in the barrel for eight to 10 years, rather than in the bottle.

The tasting room here owes its cobwebs to the time of the horses. “They’ve been here since 1954,” says the tasting host. “The previous owner didn’t believe in killing the spiders, as she wanted to live in harmony with nature.”

“And, when Hempies bought the farm, he promised her he wouldn’t change a thing.”

Travelling from Stellenbosch to the oldest wine cellar in the Overberg, Beaumont Wines in Bot River has held onto its cobwebs too.

Dating back to the 1700s, when it was an outpost for the Dutch East India Company, there are clues to its heritage everywhere, from the crumbling farm buildings and the region’s oldest working water mill to the cobwebs adorning the tasting room and cellar.

The tasting room was built around two of the estate’s original barns, and the cool stone walls have played witness to generations of wine and, well, spiders. Their ancestral home? A window spun with webs and decorated with antique winemaking tools.

Family-owned and run, the Beaumonts have been making wine here for 40 years, and in that time the cobwebs have been left in peace.

“The spiders help us out during harvest,” says winemaker Sebastian Beaumont. He says they don’t use chemicals for controlling miggies or vinegar flies in the cellar. This must be how the spiders earn their keep.

When asked why they like to keep the historic aesthetic, Sebastian says with a smile: “We’re not bling in Bot River.”

So much more than wine, these estates offer a brief glimpse into the tangled web of tales which make South Africa’s winelands such an exciting place to explore.

– Malu Lambert