There is something endearing about having a conversation with Ntsiki that is tricky to articulate in words. She radiates a warmth and ease that permeates the screen. She feels familiar, like someone I’ve known all my life. Maybe it’s her contagious optimism about the future, her straight shooter attitude or perhaps it’s the fact that we were both raised by gentle and stern grandparents who imbued love, tenderness, and tenacity into us.
Ntsiki was born and raised in the small enclave of Mahlabathini in Kwazulu Natal in South Africa, by her maternal grandparents. Her face lights up when she talks about them and there’s a gentleness and softness that projects in her voice as she recounts memories of growing up with her grandparents. Ntsiki graduated with a BSc in Agriculture (specializing in Viticulture and Oenology) from Stellenbosch University in 2003 and then joined Stellekaya as their winemaker in 2004. After harnessing her winemaking and wine marketing skills within the industry, locally and in Tuscany, Bordeaux and the USA, she established her wine brand Aslina in 2016, named in honour of her grandmother.
She articulates the intention for starting her brand as emanating from an intrinsic desire to create a legacy. “It is important that we create a legacy and generational wealth, both in terms of economic and knowledge wealth that can be passed down to the next generation.” When I ask her about some of the challenges that have come with running a successful and profitable business, especially in this seemingly saturated South African and global wine industry, Ntsiki chuckles. For her, all challenges have been great opportunities that have helped her reach beyond a particular point, to explore other avenues to grow her brand and to chart her own path. She explains that although she couldn’t get financing from banks, due to not owning land or other collateral she has discovered various other ways of forming rewarding partnerships, that have been instrumental to the growth of her wine brand.
True to her goal of imparting knowledge and skills to future generations, Ntsiki also sits on the board of directors for the Pinotage Youth Development Academy (PYDA), an institution that provides a yearlong readiness program that equips future wine, tourism, and fruit sector professions in the Cape Winelands with technical and interpersonal skills.
As if that’s not encouraging enough, Ntsiki’s awards are plentiful. She was named South Africa’s Woman Winemaker of the year in 2009, a finalist in the Most Influential Woman in Business awards for two consecutive years, named in the Top 20 Most Innovative Women in Food and Drinks by Fortune magazine, named in the Top 15 Women in Wine to Watch by Food & Wine magazine in the USA, was awarded the Transformation Award for her revolutionary work in the South African wine industry in 2021 and has recently been honoured by the Hue Society in the USA with the Winemaker of the year 2021 award. Her wines have also received numerous accolades including gold medals from the Michelangelo Wine and Spirits Awards in South Africa and the Sakura Awards in Japan for her 2016, 2017 and 2018 vintages of Umsasane (the red Bordeaux blend) and the 2018 vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon. Additionally, the South African Old Mutual Awards have awarded bronze medals to her 2018 and 2019 vintages of Umsasane and the 2018 vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon, and silver and bronze medals to the 2020 vintages of the Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.
Ntsiki describes her brand and wines as a labour of love, imbued with a gentleness that was characteristic of her grandmother. Her wines are revered worldwide and are available in South Africa through the e-commerce platform, from Dry Dock in Parkhurst-Johannesburg, in Botswana, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Ghana, the USA, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, Japan and are breaking ground in Korea. With incalculable grit, Ntsiki Biyela has been able to push back against an industry that has always held a monolithic view of itself and has created award winning wines that have caused a seismic shift in the wine industry zeitgeist.
Seven Questions with Ntsiki Biyela
Nomad Africa: To what extent has your environment, culture and heritage influenced the wines that you produce?
Ntsiki Biyela: I was raised by my maternal grandparents, who were farmers. My grandfather believed that there was no such thing as a job for a girl, so I looked after cattle, took them to the dip, milked them, brought the goats back from grazing and fetched wood and water. I did everything. I was an allrounder. My grandmother was also very independent, she ploughed the fields and ran the household. She did not wait on my grandfather for anything. I learned independence, dedication and perseverance, all characteristics that have been invaluable to my business.
I’ve also had many other people who have advised me, inspired me and been on this journey with me. To name a few, my sister in Durban, has been integral to my spiritual grounding. Phillip Constantius, the winemaker at Delheim’s passion and dedication for winemaking inspired my winemaking desire and dedication. My boss at Stellekaya was remarkable and his desire to make the world a better place, encouraged me to do the same. My friend and the owner of the High Road gave me great advise about being intentional and clear about where I expand my energy and resources. There are many other people not mentioned here that I have encountered, from whom I have also learned a lot.
Nomad Africa: How would you describe your style as a winemaker and your wines?
Ntsiki Biyela: I would describe my wines as gentle. When I have a glass of wine, I want to enjoy every single sip. I don’t want wine that I have to contend with. No harsh tannins and acidity. No tug of war. Nuanced. Bold, yet smooth. The fruit of the vine must show in the glass. The balance must be right.
Nomad Africa: How do you know when you have a good vintage?
Ntsiki Biyela: With a good vintage, there is no struggle, no conflict. The winemaker does not have to try to fix anything. There is harmony. This is nature. This what we have been given. God gave us the crop. We are not making it. Whatever was found in the vineyards is perfect. We are simply creating an environment that enables the fruit to express itself. The wine has everything in it, and I just need to guide it to the bottle.
Nomad Africa: Are there unusual wine tasting notes that you use to describe your wine that may not necessarily be commonly used?
Ntsiki Biyela: Hahaha, Yes. When we taste wine, we are retrieving memory. I remember going to a wine tasting, one of my earlier wine tasting experiences and all I could smell from the wines was cow dung. It turned out that the wines had Brett (a naturally occurring yeast in wines that creates a distinct scent), and for me the scent of Brett in the wines evoked memories of cows in the crawl and dung.
I also remember tasting a wine and being told that the wine smelled of truffles and I hadn’t tasted truffles before. I then had the opportunity to taste truffle oil, cooked and raw truffles, and for me this scent was reminiscent of Amasi and milk at the bottom of a calabash. We are always tasting from our own memory. So, when tasting wines, think about what you know. This is why it is so important to diversify wine language, demystify wine enjoyment experiences and make wine more relatable to consumers.
Stakeholders in the industry need to understand that Black people are not coming to take their share of the industry pie. The pie is big enough for all of us.
Nomad Africa: Most of your wines are exported internationally, and a focus on the local market started only recently. What was the reason for a more international focus over the domestic market?
Ntsiki Biyela: When I worked on the marketing of Stellekhaya wines internationally, I noticed the disappointment on consumers’ faces whenever they asked me whether the wine I was marketing was my own brand, and I said no. I realized that consumers in the USA were yearning for my wines. There was a sense of anticipation and excitement at the thought of my wines. So, the international market was a low hanging fruit for me in the sense that export would have been easier to start with. I have also previously produced wines as a part of the Suo Wines of the World collaboration series in the USA, and this became a catalyst to creating my own brand. I was also known more internationally than locally, due to media coverage that I had received, and this made the international market entry easier. Locally, the Dry Dock in Parkhurst was the first local shop in Johannesburg to sell Aslina wines and I’ve now also partnered with Ultra Liquors for distribution across various provinces in South Africa.
Nomad Africa: What change do you think the industry needs to create a conducive environment that supports Black wine professionals?
Ntsiki Biyela: A culture change. Stakeholders in the industry need to understand that Black people are not coming to take their share of the industry pie. The pie is big enough for all of us. The notion of living from a perspective of lack, makes us feel like we don’t have enough.
But also, the culture of the industry has historically been set to reflect one dimension of the population. When I created Umsasane, the red Bordeaux blend also named after my grandmother, her nickname was Umsasane which is the strong and towering acacia tree that provides shade and shelter for people and animals, the marketing person’s response was “Umsasane, what is that? No one will buy this”. Naturally, I went ahead with the name and this is currently my best-selling wine. Go figure!
Nomad Africa: What role do you think consumers can play in challenging and shifting culture, within the South African and global wine industries?
Ntsiki Biyela: We as consumers, I see myself as a consumer too, need to be aware of what we are buying and why. We have the ability to set the tone for retailers, distributors etc. Currently, there has been a huge global shift in ethics, and this is particularly driven by consumers. I was recently at a conference on diversity in the industry and was still one of the only Black people there. Diversity across the entire wine value chain is minimal and we therefore need people to be more conscious and socially aware.
Food diversity is also very important when it comes to wine pairing. Chefs, restaurants, and their managers must be more intentional about what they are serving and consider people that they are cooking for. Link in African food in wine pairings. We don’t have to continue with an exclusively Eurocentric focus to wine enjoyment. Let the food complement the wine that is being served and acknowledge that We Are Here.
To read more about Ntsiki Biyela and explore her wines, visit Aslina Wines