Many winemakers are well known through regularly being quoted or written about, not just because they produce good wines. Other winemakers, producing equally good wines, even enjoying an international reputation, are less in the public eye, but are happy to quietly get on with the job at hand. Ntsiki Biyela fits well into that latter category.
Growing up in a village in Kwa-Zulu Natal, Ntsiki excelled at science but knew nothing of wine, which wasn’t drunk in the family home. It is also a long way from where the wine vine grows in the Western Cape.
If her move post-high school to Stellenbosch University in the heart of the winelands to study Viticulture and Oenology then seems unlikely, it arose from her ability at science and a drive by South African Airways to give bursaries to black South Africans.
The practical rather than theoretical side of her studies proved the more attractive to Ntsiki, who worked at both Delheim and the University cellar as part of her course. After graduating and applying for winemaking positions, it wasn’t long before she was employed by Dave and Jane Lello of Stellekaya, who had just moved their winemaking business into the old KWV brandy cellar, at Bosman’s Crossing in Stellenbosch. ‘It was a good fit,’ Ntsiki confirms; ‘when I joined in early 2004 Stellekaya and I were like two kids growing up together.’ Although she is no longer winemaker, she is still involved.
Ntsiki’s first love is red wine – Bordeaux-style blends in particular. She has been lucky enough to work in Bordeaux, participating in the Winemakers’ Collection at Chateau D’Arsac in 2013. Under this project, significant prestigious winemakers are invited to make a wine, choosing everything from the grapes to winemaking, blend and oak regime. Other luminaries who have participated include Michel Rolland, his wife Dany, Susana Balbo and Zelma Long. Ntsiki admits that the year she was invited, 2013, wasn’t a great vintage; ‘France has made me realise how much easier our conditions are in South Africa,’ she confirms.
Another significant partnership featuring Bordeaux-style blends was forged with Napa Valley winemaker, Helen Keplinger under the Suo Collaboration Series for Wine for the World, a US import company.
Over the years this down-to-earth Zululander has learned that winemaking becomes more exciting when one puts together the whole story of a bottle of wine. ‘After a day in the cellar, I like to go into the peaceful environment of vineyards and reflect how their fruit belongs in the cellar.’ But that doesn’t quite complete the story.
Ntsiki has now embarked on another journey: her own label, Aslina, named after her grandmother with whom she had a special relationship. Of course it includes a Bordeaux-style blend, Cabernet-based with Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, ‘my new-found love’, a Chardonnay and a Sauvignon Blanc, the last to be replaced with a Chenin Blanc.
The Aslina label depicts a calabash, a traditional Zululand drinking vessel, filled with a bunch of grapes, thus uniting the link between Ntsiki’s childhood in Kwa-Zulu Natal and respected winemaker in the Western Cape winelands.