At just 42 years old, Ntsiki Biyela is already regarded as a legend in her field. After taking the helm of Stellekaya Wines in 2004, she became South Africa’s first black female winemaker. A decade later, she launched Aslina, a self-funded venture where she now makes award-winning chardonnays, sauvignon blancs and Bordeaux blends. Here, she talks about her journey and what lies ahead for one of the world’s fastest-growing wine regions.
How did you get into the world of wine?
I started studying in Stellenbosch [University] in 1999. I came from the province of KwaZulu-Natal, and everything was different. I didn’t know the language, and I didn’t know the culture, which made the studying much more difficult. I had no idea that wine existed! I applied for a scholarship that said if you study winemaking we’ll pay for it. And I knew I wasn’t going to go back home. So I dedicated myself to this.
What was the winemaking scene like in South Africa when you started, compared with how it is today?
The wine industry hasn’t changed much demographically. But when it comes to actually looking at the people who are winemakers, I do see more young winemakers now, a lot of innovation, and new grapes coming up. There’s more experimentation now, looking at the ancient ways of making wines and bringing it back, because it had long been abandoned, to see how it works in the current situation.
What are the biggest challenges to being a winemaker in South Africa?
Well, there are the obvious elements. Global warming is definitely affecting us. We see that every day, with our analysis and harvest time each year. We were not used to pulling red wines in February, and now we’re doing that. We’re trying to find new ways of cultivating the vineyards.
Describe some of the specific hurdles and obstacles that you had to overcome when you were entering the scene.
It wasn’t just that there weren’t any black women; there weren’t many women in general. When I look back, when I was a student, I was sent to a winemaking seminar. It was a scary scene that I saw because there was one lady in the entire seminar. In my mind I thought, Well, at least there’s one other woman here. But she was just the one working the registration! It freaked me out. I didn’t feel like I was supposed to be here. I’d get asked every day [in school], “Why are you here?”
With all of this adversity, I thought it was going to be hell once I started actually working. But interestingly, when I started, I could pick up a phone and call a winemaker that I had never met and ask for help. And I would get help.
So people were immediately accepting?
There were people who would come into the winery asking for the winemaker. And 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 [laughs]. I understand it was a shock, because we know how a winemaker is [supposed] to look. And this gender doesn’t represent a winemaker.
Is it still that way in South Africa?
No. There are more women involved, and there are more women starting their own companies. So there’s growth, there’s progress.
Do you believe you were instrumental in that progress?
Yes. Within the industry and outside the industry too. What I have realized is that I inspired [women] to say to themselves that they can break through into industries where they were not [traditionally] welcome.
What makes your wines unique?
I make wine that talks to me. I believe there are people who are crazy like me and are going to enjoy the same things that I do. As people, we are the same but different. I used to specialize in reds. But when I opened my own winery, I started working with whites, as well. Now, I have four [wines] that are very diverse but each with a distinct house style. It’s about what excites my palate. When I look at the chardonnay that I make, I generally blend the cold climate and warm climate [fruit], because I like both characters. I don’t like wines that are too bold.
What projects are next for you?
The current mission is growing Aslina to be a global brand and to try and get a home for Aslina. Aslina doesn’t have a home—a vineyard and a visitor center. The biggest markets currently are the U.S., Japan and the Netherlands. But we’re building up Canada, Ghana, Swaziland and Taiwan.
What was the moment when you really knew you had “made it”?
When I finally had retailers coming to me asking for my wines, rather than me having to go knock on their doors.
What changes would you like to see in the industry?
We’re working on ways to get it more inclusive, not just to make it easier for [marginalized] groups to break in but to create more interest for them as well, and not just in South Africa but globally.