Ntsiki Biyela began studying wine in 1999—only five years after the end of apartheid in South Africa.
Fast forward to today, and Biyela is a pioneering figure as the country’s first black female winemaker. Born in a small village almost 1,000 miles east of the Western Cape Winelands—where she creates her wines today—Biyela got a winemaking scholarship that changed her life. Armed with a degree in oenology from Stellenbosch University, she’s gone on to produce award-winning bottles as resident winemaker of the Stellekaya winery in South Africa’s Cape Winelands. She’s also deepened her knowledge of wine by working harvests and collaborating with fellow winemakers in the United States and Europe.
Now Biyela is taking her ambition to the next level and has launched her own company, Aslina, which will produce four wines from the grapes of Cape Winelands farmers: a chardonnay, a sauvignon blanc, a cabernet sauvignon, and a bordeaux blend. She expects them to be available in South Africa later this year.
Biyela tells AFAR how she got her start in wine—and explains why the picturesque Cape Winelands are worth a special trip to South Africa.
Did you like wine upon first sip?
“No, I didn’t. It tasted horrible. I was 20 years old and it was a red wine—I can’t remember the name.”
Why the fascination with wine and winemaking?
“I was drawn by the fact that it was an entirely new thing to me, and I had a lot to learn and understand. I also realized that winemaking is like life: It is ever changing in its content, and you never really get to pin it down.”
When you first started making wine, what was the winemaking landscape like in South Africa? What did you want to do differently?
“I harvested in different countries, including France and Italy, and then came back to implement some of the things I learned. My ultimate wine experience was in Tuscany, Italy. Now I’m focusing on tasting wines from other countries to compare and learn.”
Photo courtesy of Ntsiki Biyela
How many years in the making is Aslina?
“I started my brand to be able to give back to my community through mentorship in the wine industry. It has been four years in the making. It all started with my 2012 collaboration with Helen Kiplinger of Napa through Wine for the World, an initiative that puts the spotlight on up-and-coming wine regions, spearheaded by New York City–based Mika Bulmash. Helen and I created a couple of wines together, and it helped me raise the funds I needed to start my own venture. I named the label after my grandmother to honor her. Having raised me, she played a prominent role in my life.”
How would you characterize the wines are you making under the Aslina label?
“Wines are about expression: They’re about representing someone’s personality and passion. Balance is the word, and each individual will experience it differently. I have included white wines in my portfolio, which I haven’t done before, and the grapes I’m using, including chardonnay and petit verdot, are from different vineyards. The aim is not to compare what was done and what is going to be done. It is simply to express the growth, love, and passion I’ve developed while working in wine.”
Which of your wines can you find today in the USA?
“Currently Suo, a collaboration series I’m doing with Helen Keplinger. Aslina will be following later this year and will be available first in South Africa.”
What was last bottle of wine you drank?
“I can’t say what the last bottle was, as I try different wines all the time! But recently I drank the merlot from Petra wines in Tuscany, the winery where I did a harvest as a visiting winemaker.”
Why should travelers visit South Africa for wine?
“South Africa is one of the most prominent wine regions in the world. It’s also very hospitable. Aside from the beautiful landscape, there is a wide variety of wines, from pinot noir to riesling, and different small regions to explore. Winemakers are always trying new things and new cultivars. If you love to explore, there are so many things to get excited about in the Cape Winelands.”
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