Thought Leadership

Infinite Possibilities - South African women making waves in business Ntsiki Biyela, winemaker

August 2022
EDITION #6

For some, very few indulgences come close to rivalling the wonderful experience brought on by a sip of full-bodied and balanced red wine, the exuberant flavour eruption from cigar box flavours that boast an unyielding abundance of smoke which evoke an air of reminiscence or the oak-aged and eternally buttery blend of toasty Toblerone textures from a white wine. With that bourn in mind comes the extraordinary tale of a woman who went from initial revulsion at the taste of her first sip of red wine, to attaining legendary status in the world of winemaking.

In celebrating Women’s Day, Siyakhula showcases Ntsiki Biyela; a true ambassador where the collaboration of women and wine is concerned as well as the first black female winemaker in South Africa who simply states: “I make wine that talks to me. I believe that there are crazy people out there quite like me who enjoy the same things in life that I do!” Growing up in the rural village of Mahlabathini, Kwazulu Natal, Ntsiki was permanently immersed in some of the country’s most fertile, densest and picturesque natural landscapes. An environment ripe for the cultivation of even the wildest musings as this may be, she had no idea the scenic route life was to take her down.

Ntsiki’s ambitions in the field of chemical engineering were futile following the rejection of her application for a bursary. While working as a domestic aid the year after completing high school, she applied for and received a scholarship from South African Airways to study Winemaking at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University. Neither acquainted with a winemaker nor having ever tasted a glass of wine herself, Ntsiki was completely out of her depth. As a prerequisite of her new profession, it was here that the soon-to-be worldclass winemaker suffered her first taste of wine.

Upon arriving at Stellenbosch University, an enormous university which spoke a language she couldn’t speak a word of (Afrikaans), Ntsiki was met by an otherworldly culture and the total upheaval of all she knew. She was flung head-first into an abyss of the unknown and was naturally wrought by insecurities. As opposed to the obvious implosion some may succumb to under these circumstances, Ntsiki instead referred to the grassroots lessons imparted by her grandmother to navigate through tumultuous waters. The importance of perseverance, how crucial ambition is in this competitive world and self-motivation are some of the cornerstones she referred to when all seemed lost. The deep reverence and love she had for her grandmother steered her clear of the rocks and ensured she maintained a true course. Still, traversing the path presented challenges Ntsiki nor her grandmother with her seemingly infinite wisdom couldn’t pre-empt.

Being the only woman in the faculty, she constantly found herself at the centre of all manner of prejudices. The slew of obstacles Ntsiki faced on a regular basis often made prospects of a career in winemaking a seemingly insurmountable mountain. True to her grandmother’s tutelage however, she persevered and graduated with a BSc in Agriculture (Viticulture and Oenology) in 2003. She then joined Stellekaya Wines as a winemaker about a year later.

Thrusting herself into the unknown became Ntsiki’s signature of sorts. Never allowing herself to become comfortable or complaisant, she always sought after the next achievement and was constantly looking to push the boundaries of the status quo further. Being named South African Women Winemaker of the year in 2009 stoked an already ravenous flame within her to take her craft to unprecedented levels; this is when she began to seriously consider establishing her own wine company. The venture that some may regard as the final catalyst that prompted Ntsiki to branch out on her own was the collaboration with Californian winemaker Helen Keplinger. This alliance was established by the wine importer Mika Bulmash from Wine for the World, whose goal it was to support emerging winemakers through partnerships with US winemakers. This initiative saw these world-class winemakers collaborate on a red blend project called Suo, which means to join in Latin, inferring the joining of diverse winemaking styles and disciplines in the name of a single common goal: the creation of outstanding wines through the production of smalllot, hand-crafted wine projects. After spending 11 years with Stellekaya Wines and racking up awards and a plethora of experiences, Ntsiki finally established her own company. Aslina Wines, named after her grandmother, was established in 2016 and continues to produce award winning Bordeaux blends, chardonnays and sauvignon blancs.

True to the ever advancing nature the wine industry has come to know and expect from her, Ntsiki was awarded the Diversity and Transformation award for her pioneering work in the industry at the 2021 Wine Harvest Commemorative Event. Ntsiki applies herself wholly in positive impact work, throughout the Cape Winelands and through the Pinotage Youth Development Academy, where she is a member of the Board of directors. This Academy develops and prepares the disadvantaged youth of South Africa for a career in the wine industry, hospitality and tourism sectors, which attract students from Stellenbosch and Paarl.

Ntsiki Biyela is without a shadow of doubt, a winemaking legend. Most would stop at being the first female black winemaker, Ntsiki’s accolades however read like those of a winemaker twice her age: featured for on CNN, Forbes, on BKWine Magazine, and participation in the prestigious Winemakers’ Collection at Bordeaux’s Chateau D’Arsac to name but a select few. Ntsiki reminds us that "Passion should drive you”, while advising the next generation of female winemakers “not to be afraid to ask for help, there is always someone willing to assist. Do not make challenges a stumbling block, rather look at them as an opportunity to grow." Sound advice from the woman who relentlessly summited every obstacle in her wake and gracefully willed her aspirations to life.

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