Meet Ntsika Biyela – A Winelands Trailblazer

by Jared
 * This article first appeared here in Celebrating Women

Swirling the golden elixir in my glass, I celebrated the work that went into the Chardonnay – one that enticed me to keep sipping. Even more so, I celebrated the inspiring and certainly uncommon story of this premium wine’s creator, Ntsiki Biyela.

Hailing from a village in Kwa-Zulu Natal, her work life began as a domestic worker, but thanks to her excellent science results, a later bursary opportunity meant leaving her provenance and heading to the Western Cape – a move that would eventually see her graduate from Stellenbosch University with a BSc in Agriculture (Viticulture and Oenology).

What’s more remarkable is that when she had been accepted, she’d never drank wine before. She explains how in rural areas, people are really not exposed to wine, but rather beer, whiskies, and spirits. Following her graduation, she embarked on a 13-year journey at Stellekaya, until in 2016, established her own brand Aslina Wines – named after her grandmother.

In such a significant journey from domestic worker to the country’s first black winemaker, there have doubtfully been obstacles to navigate. I asked Ntsiki what some of these were – particularly at the beginning of the journey: “Other people’s realisations and expectations, I was not the typical winemaker that people have in mind. There were people who would come into the winery asking for the winemaker. When I’d come in, they’d say, “No, I’m looking for the winemaker, not the supervisor.” So I’d be like, “OK,” and send them to the office to speak to my boss, who would turn them around and send them back to me.”

Approaching an impressive two decades of work in the industry, I asked Ntsiki about the changing role of women in the industry – how you’ve seen that change over time? The women are leading now, we are becoming leaders. There are more opportunities for women now.

While much of the industry remains male-dominated, it’s not all doom and gloom. I chatted with Maryna Calow, the Communications Manager for WOSA, and she reminded me that the grass is not always greener on the other side: “South Africa is one of the most progressive of all the wine regions in the world as we have a decent number of women who are actively making wines, but it is true to say that the industry is still very male-dominated. Some of our top winemakers are women and it is most certainly a trend that we hope to see grow in years to come.”

Asking Ntsiki what advice she would give today to new entrants in the market, she pointed me to the role of the PYDA, of which she is a board member. The organisation is a year-long work readiness programme for students looking to make a positive change in their lives – focusing primarily on the Wine and Tourism and Fruit sectors. She went on to add: “The PYDA offers all the grounding which I never had when I started. I would they must stay grounded, build the bridges, see and be seen.”

Lastly, I asked Ntsiki what was currently in her glass and she was quick to respond: “I’m currently enjoying our Chenin Blanc Skin Contact. It’s the wild child of the family. It’s a thought that has finally come into a glass.” And in Ntsiki’s case it’s clear that her cup overflows – or rather her calabash: look closely at the logo and you’ll notice it’s a traditional Zulu calabash, aptly overflowing with grapes.

Side Bar: Meet the Wines

  • Méthode Cap Classique: A premium Blanc de Blanc Brut that expresses green apples and cucumber on the nose with a lime and butterscotch finish.
  • Sauvignon Blanc: A medium-bodied Sauvignon with the expected tropical, lemon, and green notes, and present acidity.
  • Chenin Blanc: An approachable Chenin with subtle hints of honeybush tea. The prolonged skin contact allows for extra flavour development.
  • Chardonnay: A Chardonnay with a delicate balance between oak, citrus, and pear notes. Perfectly enjoyed on its own but weighty enough to pair with food.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon: A classic Stellenbosch Cab Sav with blackcurrant and tobacco on the palate. Well priced at R185 per bottle.
  • Umsasane: A bold full-bodied Bordeaux Blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot with pronounced tannins and dark fruit. Umsasane is isiZulu for the umbrella acacia tree and also a nickname of her grandmother.

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