Ntsiki Biyela didn’t follow a typical path to the wine cellars of Stellenbosch. There was no family farm to inherit, or long-held passion for Pinotage. Not even a lightbulb moment when an aged Chenin Blanc sent her rushing to her oenology textbooks.
Rather, for this tenacious winemaker from rural KwaZulu-Natal, it was a scholarship from South African Airways that saw her pack her bags and head for Stellenbosch University in 1999. “Back then I didn’t even know that wine existed. I simply wanted to study, and the winemaking scholarship was a way to university,” says Biyela. “Not everybody’s born with a passion for something. It can also develop over time. But as I learnt more about wine along the way I got more and more excited about the industry.”
After graduating with her BSc Oenology degree she didn’t stray far from the streets of the Eikestad, taking on the role of winemaker at Stellekaya winery in the Bosman’s Crossing precinct.
Particularly famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blends, Stellekaya’s grapes are drawn from selected vineyards in the so-called “Golden Triangle” on the slopes of the Helderberg. “The first thing we do is look for terroir, and because we want consistency we work with the same farmers year after year, including fruit from our own vineyards,” says Biyela, who likes to let the grapes do the talking. “For me the wine should represent where the grapes came from. It’s a natural product, and by fiddling with it too much in the cellar it’s not being allowed to express its character and soul.”
Ntsiki’s own wine: Aslina
After 13 years as resident winemaker at Stellekaya, Biyela has also launched her own wine label, Aslina. “It’s named after my grandmother who was always a pillar of strength in my life,” says Biyela, adding that her Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux-style red blend, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay have already picked up orders from Germany, Denmark and the US.
Inspiring the next generation:
Along with building her own reputation as a winemaker, Biyela is passionate about inspiring a new generation of students. She sits on the board of the Pinotage Youth Development Academy, which “trains people of colour to help them get involved in the wine industry, training them throughout the value chain of wine industry, from vineyard to cellar to tasting room to marketing. We also do placements in wineries when they’re finished.”
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Words: Richard Holmes | Images: Supplied