If Ntsiki Biyela were a wine, my guess is the tasting notes would include some of the following: profound, unexpected, a complex varietal filled with promise, distinctive gout de terroir (flavor of the soil), excellent longevity, deliciously bold, creates a lasting impression, substantial flavor offset by surprising delicacy.
Biyela, South Africa’s first black female winemaker and 2009 Woman Winemaker of the Year, is a pioneer and an inspiration. Straight from college, after interning at Delheim Estate, an acclaimed family winery in South Africa’s Western Cape winelands, she was invited to join the team at the then-fledgeling Stellekaya boutique winery. The reds she crafted during her 13 years as their resident winemaker have been credited with putting Stellekaya on the map.
There have also been accolades for the two Suo Collection wines made to date in collaboration with celebrated Napa Valley boutique wine star Helen Keplinger. Now, Biyela has realized a long-time dream; establishing her own label, Aslina. Launch in 2017, her vintages — a sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon and a Bordeaux blend (cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and petit verdot) — are available in Germany, Denmark and Taiwan as well as in the U.S.
When I connect to make a date and time to speak with Biyela, she’s busy harvesting. Four days later, the harvest is complete. She’s done the crush and the juice is resting in barrels. It’s the first batch of her fourth Aslina wine: a chardonnay.
What defines her wines, I ask?
“Not intervening too much but letting nature take its course,” she tells me.
Like many boutique winemakers, she buys her grapes. This gives the winemaker tremendous scope to choose the microclimate, the vineyard, the varietal, the soil, the terrain — things that impact the vines, the fruit, and in her case, the integrity of the final product.
“I like to let the wine do the talking about its origins,” she adds.
That Biyela, as a black South African woman, is making wine is as remarkable as how she came to be making it.
She grew up in rural Zululand, in a village far from the lush winelands of the Western Cape and cosmopolitan Cape Town. A village with no electricity, where the women collect water in containers from the river and water points and chickens scratch in the dust between the simple dwellings where Biyela, along with the other children, would most likely tend to the cows barefooted. Simple, basic living. Her mom worked away in the city as a domestic (house cleaner). Her grandmother cared for her and her siblings.
Her teacher spotted that she was super-bright and hard-working, which is how she was directed to apply for a scholarship. She thought she could maybe study engineering. But when the scholarship was offered, it was to study viticulture and oenology at Stellenbosch University, way on the other side of the country.
Biyela saw the scholarship as “an opportunity to change my life” and jumped at the chance, even though she had never tasted wine and up to that point, had no idea such a career existed.
It was no smooth sailing. Besides being a product of a rural village school — these schools typically have no libraries, no labs and few basic facilities — she was isiZulu-speaking, with some English. But classes at Stellenbosch were in Afrikaans.
And then, the first time she tasted wine, she hated it.
But Biyela is not one to complain or be deterred. She is clearly driven by adventure and challenge. She got stuck in and excelled, proving herself. Something she’s done again and again.
These days Biyela lives in Somerset West, a bucolic Cape wine country town surrounded by an amphitheater of mountains. She has worked a harvest season in Bordeaux, France and learned about sangiovese in Italy. She’s made wine in the Napa Valley. So it is no fluke that she launched her own brand.
“Since I started working, I’ve wanted this,” she says.
Why now? It’s a relevant question, especially the “why” part.
“I have learned,” the warm and friendly winemaker with the ready laugh tells me, “that the ‘why’ is what drives you. When you forget the ‘why,’ you can get diverted.”
Biyela realized this after she was nominated, in 2015, to be part of the U.S. State Department’s African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program. The three-week program took them to Chicago, Washington State, New York and Washington, DC. Participants were learning the practicalities of doing business in the United States and being guided on how to implement what they were learning in their respective countries.
During one coaching-style workshop, someone asked a question that spoke to Biyela. She wanted her own company. But she realized she had lost track of the motivating “why.”
“Why did I want my own company? My own brand? Once I remembered, I thought, okay, the time for excuses has run out.”
The answer to the “why” question was: so she could go back home to Zululand — not to live, she has moved too far from there in too many ways — but to do things for her village and community.
“We do not have a community center. There is no place to access information. If you want to fax something or mail something, you have to take a taxi to town. People have their cell phones but that’s it.
“You grow up. You don’t know what’s outside. You’re not exposed to the bigger world of opportunities. In the cities, students have libraries and people go into the schools to talk to them. In my village, there is nothing.
“That is what I want to give them at some point. A community center. Access to the world.”
That is her bigger-picture dream. It is in the background as one of the drivers of her more immediate business and life goals.
“My vision? I would like a winery. My winery. I want to own it. Not vineyards, but a facility for winemaking and wine tasting. Somewhere I can provide training for young people. With a restaurant? Sure. But someone else can run that.”
Same as in the Napa Valley, many of the successful Cape wineries are either family-owned or proof of the purchase-power of big-money. It is possible, but it just takes more time for others such as Biyela to stake their claims; make their mark. She currently works, as is the practice among boutique winemakers who don’t have their own winery, out of shared facilities. And she has offices both in Stellenbosch and at her home.
Biyela’s Aslina wine label is a picture that speaks a thousand words. It is simple. Elegant. There is a calabash, typically a vessel used for traditional home-brewed Zulu beer. The beer the adults brewed and drank in her Zululand village. The only alcohol she knew about growing up.
Only the calabash on her label is filled with grapes. “A blend of the African and what I think of as the Western,” she laughs. The grapes representing the fruit of the vine and the wine she’s learned to love; the natural palate and genius for creating superior wine she discovered she has.
These days, give her traditional Zulu food: pap (like grits), chakalaka (a spicy tomato, onion and pepper dish, often with beans), a lamb chop and wurst (sausage) and a mouth-filling and delicious Bordeaux blend to complement them and she’s happy.
For the availability of Biyela’s wines, check online at www.wine4theworld.com. For more updates, follow her on Twitter and Instagram. You can also learn more about her story in the documentary “The Colour of Wine” by filmmaker Akin Omotoso.