Carrie’s Corner: Remembering ‘Spatz’ Sperling – Delheim’s Nora Thiel

Wine Expert Carrie Adams chats with Nora Thiel, daughter of the legendary Michael Hans ‘Spatz’ Sperling, about her pioneering father and his amazing story in the SA wine industry. Nora is the director of Delheim Wines. – Jarryd Neves

Nora Thiel on Delheim’s history:

I’m going to rewind you to 1930.My dad was born in 1930 in Germany and World War II hit them in ’39. At the time, his aunt and uncle were living in South Africa. They were architect builders, initially in Johannesburg, and they moved to Cape Town with his father to help build UCT and the harbour.

If ever you visit Delheim, look at the house that was built by them when they purchased the farm. A lot of the features are replicated out of the UCT buildings. Even the ivy growing on the house has a similar flair from those beautiful buildings. You might spot a granite slab or two on the steps outside the house.

In 1939, they bought the farm. It was more an investment in land – being Germans and realising there was a World War at hand. Not really being farmers, they had a few friends to suggest that they try wine. The even built a cellar in 1944, with Italian prisoners of war. And so the foundations were laid.

On her father Michael Hans ‘Spatz’ Sperling’s involvement:

It was after the war that they traveled to Europe and bumped into my grandmother. She asked them if they didn’t possibly have work for my dad – who after World War II had lost his father. So he was shipped off in 1951, via Southampton. He arrived here with prospects of starting work on a farm which was, at that stage, doing a little bit of wine – but mostly fruit and vegetables.

The lady of the farm and very keen on farming. Vegetables were her love. Between her and my dad, they got going and started making what they could out of what was here. They even used old beer bottles to fill the wine into initially, because there wasn’t bottle supply. They picked up second-hand bottles from recycling dumps to put wine into. They made trips to the vegetable markets on Fridays to cash flow the business they were trying to get going.

From his memoirs that he wrote and the stories he told us, he had a love for trees. You’ll see pine trees on land where he planted pine trees. He initially put a cow into the fynbos – that promptly died three days later – because the fynbos wasn’t wasn’t giving the cow enough substance. He always said that fynbos was useless, but today we protect our fynbos. To me, it’s a part of what we need to look after.

On how the winemaking started:

Slowly but surely they – through trial and error – planted grapes and vines. He had a very good friend, Hans Ambrosi – who with him and another friend – got involved in the wine industry, through bumping into my dad down the valley. He was very instrumental in rootstocks and experimentation. Through all those connections, they were very much trial and error. Planting, making, seeing if it worked [or] didn’t work. It was stop/start all the time.

On ‘Spatz’ Sperling’s involvement in the wine estate legislation:

They were instrumental in a few things, but it was my dad and his associates who realised that the big brand names were putting ‘estate’ on their labels. They realised that by putting ‘estate’ on a label without actually giving it the sense of origin, people were thinking that these wines had a sense of origin.

 My dad was always the outsider. He was the German. One of his associates was Jewish – so he was also an outsider of the industry. I always giggle at what was possible down here. You wouldn’t be able to do this today. I mean, they took the industry head on and said, ‘this is not acceptable’. they sat down and wrote legislation that said, ‘protect the wineries [and] the name estate’, so that [gave] people who grow and make wine on their property estate legislation. If you didn’t have a sense of humour back then, I think you wouldn’t have made it the way they did. 

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