Interview with winemaker Ntsiki Biyela
- 7 min read
Ntsiki Biyela is a South African winemaker and businesswoman who runs Aslina wines. Previously, she was head winemaker at Stellekaya Wines, where Biyela became the first black female winemaker in South Africa. In 2009, Biyela was named the South Africa’s Woman Winemaker of the Year. At the end of October 2019, a group of second-year students had the honour to enjoy her visit at Hotelschool The Hague, campus Amsterdam and they took the opportunity to ask her their burning questions:
Tell us more about your story.
I am from KwaZulu-Natal province, South Africa. The province is known for sugar cane, bananas and other agricultural products but not wines. Vineyards only started recently.
I wanted to become a chemical engineer, but my application was rejected. Then I got a job as a domestic worker for a year. During that time, I was recruited to study winemaking in Stellenbosch University on a scholarship basis offered by South Africa Airways. I told myself “you’re going to be studying wine making”, which I had no idea of what it was at that time, but all I wanted to do was study. When I got to the Western Cape, the person who had recruited us, Jabulani Ntshangase, gave us my very first wine tasting at his house. He told us about various wine range and food pairing for those wines, which was a great experience. I also remember that as he spoke, all I could think was, “can he just stop talking so that I can taste it”.
To my surprise, when university started, some of my classes were conducted in Afrikaans. I was willing to learn the language because giving up was not an option. I didn’t understand most of the things I was doing, mainly because of the language barrier. Getting myself to be an intern at Delheim wines brought more clarity to what wine making involves. At Delheim’s interview, they asked me: “Do you know anything about wine?” and I said: “Nope”. Luckily, Delheim management hired me and they placed me at different work stations around the farm. This way I learnt everything in a practical way, from the basics of vineyards to the complexity of wine making.
When I finished my studies, my journey as a winemaker began. The wine industry in South Africa was a white male dominated industry. Therefore, when I became a winemaker, it was a shock to many people when they see a black female winemaker. Some would say, “I’m coming to see the winemaker” and I would respond, “yes that’s me’’. They would insist and say, “No I’m coming to see the wine maker”, then I would just say, “okay fine”. My next move would be directing them to the office, and my boss would come back with them to also inform them that I was the winemaker of Stellekaya. It never really offended me to know that it was a shock for them, I got used to such situations happening. During my wine making journey, a friend of mine said, “See and be seen”. As young people, we get afraid to do certain things and we want to know the end result of something before doing it. But you will not know beforehand, so just jump in and do it, and let others watch you doing it!
I have experienced several harvests internationally, while on a quest to understand the wine industries in other places, e.g. Italy, France, United States and New Zealand. Those initial days of travelling internationally, brought more enlightenment of how wine industries run beyond the South African boarders.
I started the company in 2014 after a collaboration with Californian winemaker Helen Kiplinger. The project that assisted me to do a collaboration was established by the USA wine importer Mika Bulmash from Wines for the World, whose goal was to support emerging winemakers through partnerships with US winemakers. The company was operational while I was working full time at Stellekaya. As the Aslina brand increased without any collaboration in the picture, I realised I had to resign from my job and give it my all towards building Aslina Wines. We have grown from 1,800 bottles to 30,000 bottles and now we export to Netherlands, Germany, United States, Taiwan, Japan, Canada, Swaziland and Ghana.
Where does the name of the wine company comes from?
The company was named after my grandmother. In addition, my inspiration to make it in life was drawn from her, thus honouring her through a brand name was something I gladly did.
How did you get familiar with the business side of things?
During my first job as a winemaker, the company was still small and there was no job that was not mine. I was a winemaker, but I also did everything around the company to fill in for lagging tasks, including business administration tasks if need be.
You did not like wine the first time you tasted it, how did you begin to like it?
By trying more wines! I remember starting with the sweet wines and then going to the dry white wines, then red. The more I understood the passionate art behind wine making, the more I had an appreciation for the taste of wine.
At what moment did you think, “Now I got this running”?
I do not think there is a point where you think, “I got this”. Right now, whenever I bottle a new wine vintage, I do it based on the market that exists, particularly by doing a sales analysis in relation to our financial statements.
South Africa has become very popular in the last decade in terms of wineries. Is there a characteristic specific to South African wines that set them apart?
When you look at South Africa, we have been making wine for more than 350 years, but at the same time we are categorised as a new-world wine. I perceive that more attention recently came to SA wines because you can now get two characteristics in a single wine glass, that is, when one drinks, they might pick up the old-world wine characteristics, and at the same time pick up the new-world wine characteristics which are fruitier. This has also made South African wines to stand out.
Can you further explain your Umsasane wine?
Umsasane is a Zulu name for Acacia tree, which is a tree that is traditionally known for the way it provides a cooling shade even under a scorching heat. With the same concept in mind, my grandmother’s love has an umbrella protection towards the family, and it made her be called Umsasane as her nickname.
As for Umsasane wine, it is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. It is kept in oak for 16 months and matured separately in French oak barrels. Also, looking at the company logo, it has the Calabash and grapes because it represents both the wine industry culture and my traditional roots.
Where do you get all this energy from?
I think one of the things I have come to realise is that understanding your foundation and what fills your cup is important. I go through each day with a mind-set that I am going to enjoy whatever I have to do and going to keep trying my best. Love, passion and being an inspiration to other people has also kept my drive going.
What about the food culture in your region, did that influence your wine making?
I do not think it did, but it did help me understand which food goes with which wine. I had to question, “why can’t this wine go with a particular meal?”. To get answers, I started cooking all different kinds of foods and drank wine along to see what fits best. One time I cooked a chicken masala that my grandmother used to cook all the time. I then opened a bottle of Merlot and I remember when I tried it, it was an outstanding pairing.
In food, you are always told that this dish should go with this sauce, but this is not always the case, and that also applies to wines. There is no need to stick to the norm all the time. One must keep experimenting to get the best out of food and wine pairing. The more wine you taste and the more you mix it with food, the more you will start picking up new exceptional pairings. When I started selling my wines in Japan, I expected whites to sell more because of the fish and sushi there. However, it turns out that red sells more.
In terms of sustainability, what do you do or not do? What are your values?
I work with different people in the industry that have the same standards of integrity as me. I have something to offer to the world, which represents part of who I am as Ntsiki Biyela. Staying authentic has contributed so much towards my brand sustainability.
Tell us more about your involvement with PYDA?
We are involved with an academy that offers training to young people, so that they understand the value chain of the wine industry. We also organise job placements within the industry. One of our goals is to train more people who come into the industry, already having a deep understanding of wines whilst, diversifying the industry through our enrolment criteria. The academy has been running since 2012 and I enjoy working with students. I get even more excited when I see them confidently going abroad to be representatives of the SA wine industry. I see a younger version of myself in them.
For more information, please visit https://www.aslinawines.co.za/