33.9321° S, 18.8602° E
‘Having the best of both worlds is our unique point of difference as a country.’
Gems in this
Ntsiki Biyela’s unlikely story is layered, complex, and celebrated around South Africa — just like a bottle of one of her award-winning wines.
Raised by her grandmother, Ntsiki received a scholarship in 1998 to study viticulture at Stellenbosch University. Fast forward two decades and she’s one of South Africa’s pre-eminent winemaking talents, and her company, Aslina Wines, is one of South Africa’s best-known contributors to the world of wine. As part of her job, Ntsiki constantly travels the world’s great wine regions. But if you ask her, she’ll tell you that her favourite growing region will always be her home of Stellenbosch in the Cape Winelands. We talked about winemaking, breaking down barriers in the wine world, and her Travel Playbook for Stellenbosch.
On your upbringing
I grew up in Mahlabathini in KwaZulu Natal — it’s about 2000 kilometres from the Western Cape but instead of open green spaces it’s mostly bush. I grew up under my grandmother's guidance, and when I finished high school I had hoped to get some scholarships so I could study. But I didn’t receive a scholarship. Instead I got a job as a domestic worker for a year. I applied to study chemical engineering at Mongosuthu Technikon, but I never went through with the studies because I got a call to say there was a scholarship to study agriculture at Stellenbosch University, to do with winemaking. I didn't hesitate!
On overcoming language barriers and cultural differences to learn about wine
I applied, got accepted, and then they called and said it was actually going to be taught in Afrikaans. We had to ask our lecturers for extra classes, so that we could at least understand what we were doing. I would attend a class, and then after class I would go to a tutor, where it would be explained in English. This was a huge cultural difference that made everything difficult. I also started to go to counselling to figure out how to navigate such a complicated system. You are on campus and there are so few people who look like you, and you can barely understand what’s being said. I told my counsellor that I could not go home, they would have to help me out — which they did.
On your first jobs in wine
I passed my first year, and in my second year I got a job in a winery, where I began to work with sommeliers. My next job is where I started to learn more about wine, and I met one winemaker there named Philip. He was so passionate about wine, but he too struggled with language, just in reverse: he struggled to speak English as he could only speak in Afrikaans. I could tell how much he wanted to teach me everything he knew, and were it not for these cultural differences, he would have been able to do so more easily. His passion, despite that, is what helped to keep me driven.
On starting a wine company
One thing I always knew, in my 12 years as a winemaker, was that at some point I would start my own company. So I made sure I learned as much as I could and ensured I was involved everywhere in the business — even in the accounts. In 2013, I was in Bordeaux for a winemaker’s collection and I met someone, Mika, who is now my importer in the US. She had been trying to get a winemaker to collaborate with an American winemaker, and so I did a collaboration with Helen Keplinger in Napa Valley. We made wine in 2012 and 2013, and the wine we made was the stepping stone for Aslina. I went to America for the African Women Entrepreneurship program, and once I came back from that I resigned from my job to start Aslina. I already had the cabernet and the Bordeaux made from my last collaboration; all I needed was to make a white wine. So I did the white wine in 2015 and Aslina launched in 2016.
‘Being a woman winemaker in the industry says, ‘We are here … We are breaking the ground, cracking the ceiling and moving forward.’ It’s the change that I want to see. And I need to be a part of it.’
On the representation of women in wine
When we look at the representation of women in the industry globally, it’s not a lot. Being a winemaker and being a woman winemaker in the industry says, ‘We are here, we are also doing this, we can grow into it. We are breaking the ground, cracking the ceiling and moving forward.’ It’s the change that I want to see. And I need to be part of it.
On South African winemaking
South Africa has been making wine for more than 300 years. We fall under the Old World wines, but when you taste our wines and styles, we also fall into New World Wines. We are in a class of wines that represents both. And having the best of both worlds is our unique point of difference as a country.
Travelling inspires me — whether I’m sitting on the plane, talking to people, eating food or drinking wine. I was once going to France, flying from Amsterdam to Bordeaux, and as we’re about to land, I’m sitting and looking out the window, and it took me back to when I started in the wine industry. At that moment, I knew what name I was going to give to the blend I had back home, and I couldn’t wait for the plane to land. So travelling actually refreshes my mind: whenever I come back I have a different view about the business.
‘We’ve got mountains, we’ve got wine lands, we’ve got culture, we’ve got good people. It’s just that warm South African humanity.’
On window vs aisle seat
Depends. If it’s a local flight, a window. If it's a long-haul, aisle, because I want to stretch and stand up without asking somebody.
Stellenbosch, for me, is still a place of work. It’s a great place and I’ve been here for more than 20 years, but it’s still a workplace. But I think it’s still among the most beautiful places in South Africa. It’s phenomenal. And when you’re visiting Stellenbosch, you’ll experience a lot of different things. We’ve got mountains, we’ve got wine lands, we’ve got culture, we’ve got good people. It’s just that warm South African humanity.
On the importance of collaboration between Black winemakers
I’ve been in the industry for about 20 years, and one of the key things for Black people is that you have to understand the lack of space in the Southern African wine industry. Land is very expensive, so you — probably — can’t afford it, and we don’t always have our own facilities. You could, however, start a new collaboration with an existing farm. They could help you make your wine, but you won’t have a place where people can go taste the wine, buy and move along. You can only have access to sell to the outlets, but you can’t do tastings. It’s important for people to have a destination to experience. This is why The Wine Arc was created. It’s the home of Black-owned wine brands, a historic place. There wasn’t anything like it, and now all of a sudden you’ve got a place where people can go taste different wines made by Black-owned business people and winemakers. So that is my number one pick for Stellenbosch.
On your favourite wineries in Stellenbosch
Delheim is a historic winery that’s been around for ages, but it’s also my favourite, because that’s where I learned about wine. And then we’ve got Stark-Condé, which I like. I just love the space. Postcard Cafe at Stark-Condé is a beautiful restaurant — it’s in front of a dam and you sit there with beautiful views of the mountain while you have your platters, your lunch or your tasting.
On your favourite gallery — and a great restaurant close by
Stellenbosch has a lot of galleries — in wineries and in town. One good gallery is GUS - the gallery run by the Department of Visual Arts at Stellenbosch University. I used to walk in there when I was a student; it was actually how I started learning about art. I would go in, even though I couldn’t understand it at the time, because it was interesting to see. And in the market in town you’ll find a lot of people in these little shops selling drawings and little sculptures from different countries around the continent. So Stellenbosch does bring the continent into one place. To eat, I love Pane E Vino! When I was working for a previous company they were my neighbours. Pane E Vino is also run by Italians, so when I went to Italy it was the closest experience to what I experienced there. What I like is that it's more like a good look into someone's house than a restaurant.
On getting into nature around Stellenbosch
I love hiking. Everywhere I go, I look for a place where I can just walk and be in nature and listen to the birds chirping and be in an open-air space. And I do that here at Coetzenburg, which is walking distance from town. And there’s a trail that goes all the way up to the mountain, so on the weekend I’ll do the trail that goes all the way up. During the week, I’ll just do the beautiful trail that goes around it.
‘Ubuntu is about sharing and knowing that we protect each other and serve each other.’
Nowadays when you talk about ubuntu, people just use the word without its depth. Ubuntu means that my neighbour cannot go hungry, whilst I am eating and being filled up. It is about sharing and about knowing that we protect each other and serve each other. That is the culture of ubuntu. So I am because you are. That’s what it is. And I do hope that, as the world changes, it will spread and be the key to everything we touch as humans.
On one song to describe Stellenbosch
Stellenbosch is known for its cabernets, so I’m going to say ‘Red Red Wine’ by UB40.
On where else to travel in South Africa
Outside Stellenbosch, if you go to Cape Town, there’s Table Mountain. But I always like Lion’s Head, because it’s got a picnic area with a beautiful view of the sunset. It’s also got a hiking trail. For things like safari, most people always go to Kruger National Park. It’s the well-known one; it’s so huge. And I’ve been to Kruger actually. It’s not guaranteed, but if you go at certain times you can see as many animals as possible.
On one word to describe Stellenbosch in one word
Wine. In South Africa, needless to say, when you say Stellenbosch, you say wine.