Delheim: Terroir with Soul

Anyone driving up the road to Delheim Estate, the rows of vines ahead and that sight of the majestic Simonsberg towering over the landscape, will understand that the Sperling family are somewhat impassioned about Delheim’s sense of place. It is a home and the source of their livelihood, namely vineyards and wine. And, of course, there is the magnificent natural beauty the Sperlings have been taught to conserve, protect and guard-over since their first breath of fynbos-scented mountain air.

Place and address are aspects that people are inextricably attached to. Place of origin defines their being and determines their routes in life. Nobody can take it away from you. And wine people know that place and origin are also vital features in the pedigree, quality and provenance of that finished bottled product.

This is where that much-used term terroir comes in. Terroir is the geographical fingerprint of the patch of earth on which grapes are grown and from where wine is made. Soil, topography and climate differ on all four corners of the globe and are ever-changing. The effect of this terroir on vines grown on a specific place determines the final quality of the wine originating from the specific address. It is this characteristic that makes wine the captivating product that it is, and the most diverse agricultural endeavour the human race has undertaken.

The young Sperlings on Delheim: Nora, left, and Victor on the right with Spatz and Vera.

This is what draws people to wine, the geographical difference. A Cabernet Sauvignon wine made from grapes grown in Bordeaux in France, for example, will differ from wine made in Napa, California from the same grape variety, as will a Cabernet from Stellenbosch. The reason? The difference in the soils, climate, aspect…the terroir of the different countries.

The same applies to regions within a country. Take South Africa, where the winelands are relatively close to Cape Town, but the geographical features of these regions are so diverse that wines from Stellenbosch, Paarl, Durbanville, the Swartland and Hemel-en-Aarde – to name a few – all have their own unique identities due to the differences in terroir.

For an old wine country like South Africa, which has been making wine since 1652, it is surprising that the Cape only fairly recently realised these geographical variances. Up until the late 1960s there was no legislation in place to determine and validate the origin of the vineyards from where the various South African wine labels sourced their grapes. It was, quite frankly, a situation of “anything goes”.

The wheels to legislate and recognise the importance of origin withing the Cape wine industry were, in fact, set in motion on Delheim. In 1969, over a lunch of sauerkraut and sausage, Spatz Sperling and his two similarly outspoken friends Sydney Back of Backsberg and Frans Malan of Simonsig decided that South Africa needed a system validating the importance of wineries’ and wines’ origin and address. To create a more authentic bloodline for the country’s wine offerings.

In those days, the wine industry was largely controlled by the big corporations who would source grapes from all over the Cape to make wines that might have been acceptable in terms of quality, but had no provenance and individual identity. Sperling, Malan and Back knew, as did many other wine farmers, that to progress and to gain a better image, South African wines needed to underscore the uniqueness of their diverse vineyard sites and points of origin. Just look to Burgundy or Bordeaux, for example, where a quilt of separate pockets of earth each produce wines of individuality and uniqueness from one umbrella region.

From this meeting of three men on Delheim, and the strength of the personalities concerned, a major turning-point came for South African wine. First there was the formation of the Estate Wine Producers Association driven by Sperling, Malan and Back, allowing official recognition of wines made and bottled from vineyards grown within the boundaries of a specific wine estate.

This led to the Wine of Origin System of 1973 which eventually permitted South African wines to, like those of France, Germany, Spain and Italy – to name a few – show-case their geographical authenticity through official indicators on the respective bottles’ labels.

This Wine of Origin System changed the way South African wine farmers saw their product. Now, with the wine consumers able to access and understand wines with regional typicity instead of a few mass-volume homogenous blends, the excitement of diversity and regional uniqueness swept through the local wine world like a breath of fresh air.

Today it is address and geographical uniqueness that underscores Delheim’s place in the wine world. The Simonsberg is one of Stellenbosch’s unique areas, and Delheim’s 116ha of vineyards are situated on the steep slopes of the Simonsberg as well as on the lower parts of the mountain three kilometres to the west in the region of Klapmutskop. The decomposed granite soils that dropped down from the mountain millions of years ago are unique in the world, and their ability to drain-off water which then lies in the clay underbed to sustain and cool the vines’ roots create a terroir suited to making some of the finest red and white wines in the world. Wet winters and sun-drenched summers, and an exposure to the breezes from the south-east in summer and north-west in winter add to the specificity of the terroir.

However, if one listens to Victor and Nora Sperling, terroir and its influence on wine is more than climate, soils and topography. It is about the human spirit in which the vines grow and the grapes ripen. It is about people. The heritage of family.

“Being a second-generation family wine farm is, for us, a major part of our identity and our offering,” says Nora. “Growing-up on Delheim, the making of wine and growing of grapes was in the Sperling-family DNA, the result of our father who planted the vineyards, got to know the land and began the history of Delheim wine. It is a fact that that influence formed the ethos of the estate and all who have lived and worked here. To be custodians of that vision and those goals is a great honour, and I think that like other family wine farms in South Africa and other parts of the world, this heritage and the generational involvement of family is vital in the quality of our product and the reputation of the brand.”

Victor felt the red mountain soils before he could walk, and for all his working life had been between the vines of Delheim. “I learnt everything from my father, who farmed the vineyards and made wine with an intuition he drew from this piece of Simonsberg earth that inspired him since he landed here as a young man,” says Victor. “Following in the footsteps of one’s ancestors, a wine farmer blends in with the physical terroir, making your personal contribution to the way grapes are grown and wine is made an integral part of the soul of the vineyards and the final bottle product. Delheim wine is a part of who we are, and I am sure that if wines and vineyards could talk, they would say that the Sperlings are a part of them.”

Thoughts of wine and family, both of which run more than skin-deep.

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2 thoughts on “Delheim: Terroir with Soul

  1. Great piece Mr Wine Goggle! Captures that spirit of human intervention where great soils meet great souls ( profound and a I’m claiming it!)

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