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Q&A: Ntsiki Biyela, Stellekaya Wines, South Africa

L-R: Stellekaya winery; Ntsiki Biyela with her "Woman Winemaker of the Year" award; a Stellekaya wine
© Ntsiki Byela | L-R: Stellekaya winery; Ntsiki Biyela with her "Woman Winemaker of the Year" award; a Stellekaya wine
Ntsiki Biyela is South Africa's first Zulu winemaker. Despite never having drunk wine, she was offered a university bursary to study oenology and is now resident winemaker at Stellekaya Wines. In 2009, she was named South Africa's Woman Winemaker of the Year.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in a village in KwaZulu-Natal with my grandmother.

When you were growing up, what did you want to be?

I wanted to study civil engineering. My grandmother wanted me to be a land surveyor, so I thought I would do civil engineering, and then I thought I would do chemical engineering. But I ended up in the wine industry because I couldn't get bursaries [for engineering]. And then South African Airways offered me a scholarship to study winemaking in Stellenbosch and I thought, 'Yeah, sure I'll do it.”' Because the scholarship was with an airline, it confused people; they thought I was going to be a pilot.

Had you drunk wine before then?

No, we were not exposed to wine. Even now, in rural areas, people are not exposed to wine. They drink beer, whiskies and brandies.

What happened after you graduated?

When I was still a student I was working at Delheim wines. I was studying wine [at university], but this helped me to understand what I was studying towards. I took a job at Stellekaya as a junior winemaker in 2004 and then in 2005, I had to take over.

What have been your highlights?

There are so many. The first highlight was when my first wine got a gold medal, in 2006. Another highlight was when I took that gold-medal wine home to my grandmother. She was really excited and then she tasted the wine. She said it was nice, but her facial expression was something else. So there was that, and then being named Woman Winemaker of the Year in 2009.

What have been your lowlights?

There was a point when a wine was affected by volatile acidity. You don't want to get stressed about it but you feel like you want to explode. It turned out all right in the end, but I could see so much money going down the drain.

Biyela in the vineyard; the Stellkaya winery's tasting room
© Stellekaya | Biyela in the vineyard; the Stellkaya winery's tasting room

What are your goals?

I do have goals but I don't want to tell anybody because I don't like pressure from outside. I like to do things at my own pace. I want to enjoy the journey.

Are you seeing black South Africans getting more interested in wine?

We are still in the minority but in Johannesburg, they love wine. They are starting to understand the fascination with wine; they are starting to drink wine.

Are there many other female black winemakers?

Yes, there's a few of us, like Carmen Stevens at Amani and Nomonde Kubheka at KWV.

Are you the pioneers?

I don't like to say that, but I have been regarded as such. I do get people saying, 'You inspired us.' I also get people saying, 'Well done, we are watching you.' So, no pressure!

At harvest time, who or what do you pray to?

At harvest time, it's only God who knows what's going to happen. We can pray for what we want, but we get what God gives us. We have had a couple of good harvests and this year was one of the best. This winter was fantastic. It was freezing cold, which was not good for me as a human being but it was good for the vines.

What do you most like in a wine?

I like a wine to take me on a journey. It should remind me of something – and how good life is. The Hercules is a blend that we have. It has a rustic character with an earthiness you get when walking through a forest. I smell that wine and it takes me back home. I'm walking through a forest and it's hot but it's just rained and then it dries out. It takes me away.

When I started working, everyone talked about truffles and I had no idea what they were talking about. Finally I tasted truffles and truffle oil, and I said: 'Ah, this is what it is!' It smells like the calabash when it has milk inside. The calabash is a traditional African vegetable, like a pumpkin with pimples on the outside. You eat the fruit inside and when the shell is dry, you use it as a container. That's where you store milk. When that milk is ripe and you empty it, that's the smell of truffles. It's a taste of home.

L-R: Biyela finds inspiration from climbing nearby Helderberg mountain
© Jon Richfield | L-R: Biyela finds inspiration from climbing nearby Helderberg mountain

What do you dislike in a wine?

I don't like wines that have got a lot of tannins or acidity. There should be harmony, not war.

Beyond South Africa, where would you like to make wine?

South Africa is home but I wouldn't mind trying Burgundy. I've done vintages in Bordeaux, Tuscany, California and New Zealand, but I still have Burgundy on my list. I am curious about pinot noir.

What do you think of wine ratings?

They're fine as a guideline, but the best wine is the one you have in your glass at that time.

What do you do when you're not making wine?

I recently started hiking; I've joined a hiking club. I go around Stellenbosch, Helderberg and up Table Mountain. I also enjoy being with my friends, having a glass of wine and cooking.

In the end, what really matters?

The love of the people around me, because that's what makes me who I am. I am a sister, a daughter.

Where would you like to be buried?

Why, are you going to kill me? I've got no idea.

What do you think would make the world a better place?

Love.

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