Stellenbosch Winelands’ roots of the routes

Understanding the terroir of your land is key to producing superlative wine, and who better to understand than someone who has grown up on the land, as did their father, their grandfather, their great-grandfather…

On the hills and in the valleys of the Stellenbosch Winelands, the neat trellised rows of Vitis vinifera send their roots deep into the soil, tapping into the world-class terroir of South Africa’s most famous winemaking region. Yet, these vineyard roots barely compete with the roots of the winemaking families who have shaped these farmlands for centuries and whose names have swung on the farm gateposts here for decade after decade.

Stellenbosch Wine Routes
Delheim’s vineyards on the slopes of the Simonsberg, where the Sperling family continues the tradition of making remarkable wine.

The Malan family of Simonsig has certainly left an indelible mark on the South African wine landscape. It was the late Frans Malan, a co-founder of the Stellenbosch Wine Routes, who in 1971 produced South Africa’s first bottle of Méthode Cap Classique, the proudly South African bottle-fermented sparkling wine that has won accolades and awards round the globe. 

While it was at the time a giant leap into the unknown, Frans’ pioneering Kaapse Vonkel kick-started an entirely new category of South African wine, encouraging generations of winemakers to conjure forth bubbles. Today the Kaapse Vonkel remains a much-loved favourite and a proud tradition that is continued by the second and third generations of the Malan family who work the farm to this day. 

Over five decades of producing sparkling wine, the quality has only improved. Little surprise then that cellar-master Johan Malan won the coveted Diners Club Winemaker of the Year Award in 2020 for his 2015 Kaapse Vonkel Brut.

Across the R44, in the Knorhoek valley on the slopes of the Simonsberg, the Melck family of Muratie cast a similarly long shadow in the history of the Cape Winelands. The farm dates back to 1685 and the Melck name has been associated with this heritage property for centuries. Today, the oldest building in the Stellenbosch Winelands, built in 1689, still stands on the farm. 

Stellenbosch Wine Routes
The three founders of the Stellenbosch Wine Routes – Spatz Sperling, Frans Malan and Niel Joubert – raise a glass to 21 years.

The neighbouring property of Delheim also boasts a rich family heritage. Michael ‘Spatz’ Sperling arrived in South Africa from Germany in 1951 and soon developed a passion for viticulture, working the handful of vineyards on his uncle’s farm on the slopes of the Simonsberg. Through trial and error, and no shortage of determination, over the next half-century Spatz transformed the estate into one of South Africa’s most beloved wine brands, as famous for its elegant red wines as for the quirky Spatzendreck dessert wine. Though Spatz died in 2017, today the Sperling family continues this proud heritage under the energetic direction of his son Victor and daughter Nora Sperling-Thiel.

The tradition of the cellar keys – and knowledge – being handed from father to son is also the hallmark of Alto Wine Estate. Although established in 1693, Alto acquired its first vineyards only in 1919, thanks to the foresight of Hennie Malan and his son, Manie. They named the property Alto for its cool site high on the northern slopes of the Helderberg. In 1959, they sold the estate to Piet du Toit, who entrenched its reputation for superlative red wines. In 1983, his son, Hempies swapped the rugby field for the wine cellar and continued this proud tradition, before handing the baton to a new custodian, winemaker Schalk van der Westhuizen, at the turn of the century. Fifteen years later Schalk’s son, Bertho took the cellar keys, becoming only the fifth winemaker in Alto’s century of winemaking and bringing with him a renewed focus and energy on crafting superlative red wines from this unique corner of Stellenbosch terroir. 

Stellenbosch Winelands
Spazt and his wife, Vera, with their children Victor and Nora. 

In the realm of red wine, Meerlust has long been hailed as a standout Stellenbosch cellar, its Bordeaux-style Rubicon blend a byword for quality, integrity and heritage. That’s little surprise, given that current owner Hannes Myburgh is the eighth generation of his family to farm here in a lineage stretching back to 1756. It’s an intrinsic tradition of commitment to quality that has often put Meerlust on the world stage, perhaps most notably for winning the 2006 Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande trophy, awarded to the estate for the world’s Best Blended Red Wine at the International Wine and Spirits Competition in London. 

The Myburghs and the Malans are just a couple of the innumerable families who have made their mark on the Stellenbosch Winelands. There are the Truters of Beyerskloof, renowned for their deft touch with Pinotage. The Le Riche family that works similar magic with Cabernet Sauvignon. The Winshaws of Usana, the Steytlers of Kaapzicht and so many others. Over the generations and centuries they have all forged deep roots and dedicated decades of toil to creating the world-class Stellenbosch Winelands of today.