Meet South Africa's First Black Female Winemaker
"I've made wine all over the world. I've consulted and won awards. I believe I'm just an iconic winemaker now," says Ntsiki Biyela, smiling, without any arrogance, during our Zoom chat. "Certain things run their course."
She's seated in Somerset West while I'm behind a screen that's closer to her hometown, Mahlabatini in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Biyela is serene and measured, but there's an unmistakable sparkle in her eyes — mischief even — perceptible despite the partial pixelation.
After winning a bursary in viticulture and oenology, Biyela traveled more than 400 miles to study winemaking in the country's unofficial grape capital of Stellenbosch. "Jabulani Ntshangase tried to get Black people into the wine industry and sourced students to study winemaking. I was one of them, but my application was not based on winemaking. I just wanted to study...I had applied for other bursaries and wanted to do chemical engineering, but I was getting rejection letters," Biyela recalls matter-of-factly.
Then, her face transforms with a grin. "It was meant to be. This was supposed to be me."
Biyela graduated (in another language to boot, since lectures were conducted in Afrikaans) and began her first job at a boutique winery, called Stellekaya, in 2004. She won her first award in 2006. And just three years later, Biyela beat out 64 wine entries from 28 female winemakers across South Africa to be named Woman Winemaker of the Year in 2009, breaking bias after bias in the overwhelmingly white industry.
In 2016, she established her own company, Aslina Wines, naming it after her grandmother.
The branding echoes Biyela's journey — the marriage of Zulu culture and heritage with old world winemaking. Biyela notes, "The label features the calabash, a traditional clay drinking vessel. Although used typically for beer, we have added a unique twist by adding grapes to the calabash, transforming it into a container for our distinctive wines."
Diversifying Accessibility in the South African Wine World
"The 20-year-old me would be amazed and in awe of this success never imagined," says Biyela. "We've worked hard as Black people to get recognition. We're making award-winning wines now. Getting into the industry was the key to realizing [how much] we were excluded, whether it was coming into the industry to do business or just to enjoy wine for leisure."
Starting as an outsider in this industry has earned Biyela an eye for why, and she uses this insight to make the daunting world of wine more accessible for others.
"Look at wine tasting and tasting notes — we've just been following what the European palate has been saying. You know, that this wine goes with that food," says Biyela. "I was in Italy and looked at tomato-based meals paired with certain wines. With time, I felt it was important to pair the wines with food that I eat at home. I love chicken curry (my grandmother's favorite). I love dumplings and chakalaka (a traditional spicy, tomato-based sauce with carrots and onion). When I talk to people [about wine], they can associate more easily."
Her success has undoubtedly encouraged more diversity in South Africa's centuries-old wine industry, and facilitated awareness about the lack of color in the field in general. Some might find it a burden, but Biyela accepts the responsibility with nothing but joy. She received the Diversity and Transformation Award for her pioneering work at the prestigious 2021 Wine Harvest Commemorative Event, plus she serves as a board member of Pinotage Youth Development Academy (PYDA), where she has been giving back for 10 years.
"I got involved with PYDA at the inception, first as an advisory board member, then as director of the academy. We're training young people through the entire value chain of the wine industry. We also help with job placements so that these students can make a difference in their own spaces, environments, and families, and then in society at large," she says. "When I'm with the students, they humble me. They remind me of who I am, where I came from, and the amount of work I still need to do".
An African Icon
There are currently five different wines under the Aslina range, but Umsasane must be the most emblematic bottle.
"First the name. Umsasane is the Zulu word for the acacia tree — an icon in Africa. It was my grandmother's nickname, so this wine is a double dose of grandma," says Biyela. "What I like about it is its complexity. It's a cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and petit verdot, and these are all different personalities. When I get home, I can open a cab and drink it, but I must know my story when I open an Umsasane. I must have a reason to open it. I must approach it with respect. It must be a ceremony." Her love for gogo (the Zulu word for grandmother) and passion for winemaking is palpable through the screen.
Biyela continues with a dreamy expression, her hands finding a phantom glass to swirl as she says, "When you taste it, it gives you the fruit. It's very soft on tannins. When you think of a Bordeaux blend, you think of tannins punching you in the face, but this one mellows on your palate. You pick up the fruits, the hints of earth...All these beautiful characters keep on changing. You'll soon have an empty glass, and that's my favorite moment — finishing the wine. I can keep smelling the glass. The aroma stays with you long after you finish the glass".
Biyela champions quality, authenticity, and consistency when coaxing a glass from the grapes. Quality comes from the ground: "I always allow nature to display itself," she says. "Just guide the wines and let nature do the rest."
She adds, "When I make wine, I make a wine for myself to enjoy. I know that if I love it, I'm going to meet some crazy people like me who like the wine, too. I cannot make wine for someone else. I'll never satisfy everyone." This is the authenticity that sets her work apart.
"When I started Aslina, I could finally indulge curiosity. I've always been curious. For example, what happens when you ferment white wine on the skin? I knew we did that to the reds and use grape skin to get the color, but what happens with white wine? I remember talking to the winemaker at Delheim — I'm blessed with many mentors — and he said, 'Is that the risk you want to take?' I said, 'Absolutely!' What makes me so happy about it? The picture in my mind translated. It's been a beautiful journey. I'm still floating on that excitement of that chenin."
Nineteen million glasses of South African wine are enjoyed worldwide every day. I know why my next one will be one of hers.
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