As South Africa’s first black female winemaker, Ntsiki Biyela is a pioneer. She is the winemaker and director of Aslina Wines and has received numerous awards for her wines, including gold medals from the Michelangelo Wine and Spirits Awards for her 2016 and 2017 vintages.
Ntsiki grew up in Mahlabathini, a rural village in KwaZulu-Natal, and matriculated from high school in 1996. Having spent a year as a domestic worker, she was awarded a scholarship to study winemaking at Stellenbosch University in 1999. She graduated in 2003 with a BSc in Agriculture (viticulture and oenology) and joined boutique winery Stellekaya as their winemaker the following year.
Ntsiki’s ambition to create her own wines grew following a collaboration with Californian winemaker Helen Kiplinger as part of Mika Bulmash’s Wine for the World initiative. It was over dinner and a glass of wine with her new colleagues in the USA that she shared the story of the inspiration behind her ambition.
Her beloved grandmother was the guiding light in her life and it became obvious that her new brand should be named Aslina in the matriarch’s honour. The Aslina Wines label depicts a calabash, a traditional drinking vessel from Zululand, filled with a bunch of grapes, thus linking Ntsiki’s childhood in KwaZulu-Natal and her career as respected winemaker in the Western Cape Winelands.
Ntsiki was voted Woman Winemaker of the Year in 2009 and has been the finalist for two consecutive years for The Most Influential Women in Business and Government. She is an inspiration to women across the world and in particular to people of colour who are starting out their careers in the wine industry.
Ntsiki, tell us, how you got started in wine?
I got to winemaking through a scholarship from SAA, studied winemaking at Stellenbosch University and worked part-time at Delheim Wines. When I graduated I got a job at Stellekaya, worked there for 13 years and started Aslina after that. I am from the rural village and we didn’t grow up in a winemaking environment.
What has surprised you about being a winemaker?
Nothing really, it is just more understanding that we are dealing with nature.
What are your most memorable moments or goals that you have achieved in this industry?
My first medal as a winemaker and what it represented, and the realisation that we were not a lot of black people in the winemaking industry. Also relationships that I have built in the industry, as well as finding myself in spaces I have never imagined.
What goals in winemaking are you still working to achieve?
I think as a winemaker I am looking at making the best wine ever with every vintage, and also to make a difference, no matter how small it is, to people and communities.
In the world of wine, who do you most admire and why?
There are many people, naming one or two will really not be ideal.
What is your favourite wine to pair with your favourite meal or snack?
I like making my own food with Aslina Cab, whether it is dumplings or pap and chakalaka, it just goes beautifully. A Sangiovese also works magic on the food.
Is it challenging, making wine year in and year out?
I think it creates excitement to have different challenges in different years. The festivities of the harvest for me are gratifying.
What stands out for you when you taste a particularly great wine?
Balance, just to sum it up. The richness of the wine.
Do you have any “guilty pleasures” when it comes to wine?
It is not a guilty pleasure, but I like my chicken curry with my reds, it depends how the curry is made.
Any stories you would like to share about your experiences working in wine?
I used to get people who always wanted to show me that they know, I was ok with that because I knew how dangerous a little knowledge is.
Also I once saw a snake in the vineyards, and while I was trying to run away from it I fell down, and turned my head only to see the snake’s head lifted up!
More about Aslina Wines
A complex, fruity Chardonnay, creamy and full. Partial wooding gives this wine the edge and shows a beautiful tropical fruit and limy character. Good acidity balancing the fruit and wood.
Every sip encapsulates the passion, elegance, and vision with which this Chardonnay was crafted. Discover the magic of Aslina wines, an expression of love, beauty and serenity embodied within it.
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This wine is made from grapes from the Stellenbosch region and has been in barrels for 16 months. A full-bodied wine with hints of minty characters, cigar box and lots of dark fruits. Bold palate with chewy tannins. Pair with rich meals such as lamb (but avoid spicy pairings).
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