In South Africa we celebrate the women who fought against Apartheid on Women’s Day, which falls on 9 August each year – a fitting month to celebrate our women winemakers too.
Warwick’s First Lady wine range was named after Norma Ratcliffe, who is often referred to as ‘The First Lady of South African wine’, as she was one of the first women in the country to make wine in this traditionally male-dominated arena. Norma has not only played a pivotal role in the success of the family-run wine estate in Stellenbosch, but in a wider sense has impacted the local wine industry as a whole by being the first woman to become a member of the prestigious Cape Winemakers’ Guild and the only woman to have served as its chairperson to date.
Norma paved the way for many more women winemakers to come to the fore. One of these early pioneers was Catherine Marshall, who now has her own eponymous wine brand based in Elgin. Others more recently include Trizanne Barnard, who is based on the Cape Peninsula and has her own label too, and American-born Samantha O’Keefe with her wines under the Lismore label in Greyton.
Andrea Freeborough is the cellarmaster at Nederburg in Paarl who stepped into Razvan Macici’s role – serious winemaking boots to fill! The passionate viticulturist on her team is Unathi Mantshongo, who had no idea what her degree entailed when she was awarded a bursary to study viticulture and oenology. Today she feels that she is at the ground roots of change in the South African wine industry.
A positive post-Apartheid development has been more women of colour entering the wine industry, the first winemaker being Carmen Stevens, who has been making wine at Amani in Stellenbosch’s Polkadraai Hills since 2005. Carmen has held her own in a competitive industry ever since she completed her studies at Elsenburg in 1995.
Nonsikelelo (better known as Ntsiki) Biyela, the first black female winemaker in South Africa, hails from KwaZulu-Natal. She was recruited by Jabulani Ntshangase at high school to study viticulture and oenology at Stellenbosch on a full scholarship from South African Airways. She simultaneously completed an apprenticeship at family-owned farm Delheim on the Simonsberg foothills just outside Stellenbosch.
Ntsiki, who has done harvests in Bordeaux, France and Tuscany, Italy; and was selected Woman Winemaker of the Year in 2009, has been the winemaker at red-wine boutique winery Stellekaya at Bosman’s Crossing in Stellenbosch for 12 years. While she remains at Stellekaya as a consultant, Ntsiki is focussing more on her own label, Aslina, named after the beloved grandmother who raised her. Ntsiki’s very first crush at Stellekaya in 2004 produced an award-winning wine which she took back to her home village for her granny to taste – a first for this proud ‘gogo’!
Another first for Ntsiki was the collaboration with iconic American winemaker, Helen Keplinger of Kelinger Wines in the Napa Valley of California for Wine for the World. This organisation brings together emerging winemakers from abroad and established winemakers from the US aiming to highlight talent, promote exchange, and make the wine world ‘just a little smaller’.
It’s still early days for Ntsiki’s fledgling label, Aslina. She is currently making her wines at Stellekaya and buying in fruit. Her style of winemaking is hands-on, from basket pressing to manual punch-downs: “The fruit and wood must always be in balance to preserve the characteristics of the variety and the integrity of the brand!”
Aslina’s maiden vintage was the 2013 – a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec which sold out quickly. She is currently exporting her Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 mainly to the US as well as Denmark and Germany, but plans are in place to start selling her wines locally too.
Ntsiki’s next step will be to add white wines to her range. She is looking forward to bottling a Sauvignon Blanc from fruit sourced in Stellenbosch and a Chardonnay from Paarl next month, though she also has her sights set on cool-climate Elgin in the future.
– Lindsaye McGregor