Ntsiki Biyela had never tasted wine when she was awarded a college scholarship to study winemaking. Now, she’s Africa’s first black female winemaker, at boutique winery Stellekaya in Stellenbosch—where her very first red blend took the gold at the country’s prestigious Michelangelo Awards in 2009.
How did you discover wine?
I grew up northeast of [the wine-growing region] Western Cape, in a village there called Mahlabathini. I grew up and went to high school there. We did not have wine there. When I finished high school, I was recruited to apply for a winemaking scholarship. Winemaking was chosen for me. I had the opportunity to change it a year later, but by then I knew I did not want to. Wine is an ever-changing concept, and that’s what fascinates me about it.
Your tasting notes are famous. How’d you come by them and avoid falling prey to traditional descriptions?
It took me a while to be able to explain certain flavors when I talk to people who are European, to explain in their language. For example, everyone says my wine is beautiful and it tastes like truffles. I said, “What is that?” I did a food pairing with a chef, and I said, “Can you help?” I tasted and said, “Oh! It tastes like the calabash when it has milk.” The beautiful part about wine is people can pick up what they smell, and what they associate. They won’t talk about sugar cane if they’ve never been to a sugar cane region or plantation. People will always talk about what they know.
How does it feel to be the first black woman to make wine in Africa?
In the beginning it was tough. But one thing I’ve learned, having mentors around to support you—whether they are groundbreakers or the first to do certain things or have succeeded in certain things—they haven’t done it all by themselves. There are always people around them. It’s always just a journey. At the end of the day, it’s all about winemaking. It’s all about enjoying. I think the support of the people around is what makes it easier to do things.
I have gotten to where I am with the assistance of other people, so I think it’s always important to look back and extend my hand to do something for others. As a mentor of the Pinotage Youth Development Academy, I work with young people who are disadvantaged and train them for work in the wine
How was your recent collaboration with Napa winemaker Helen Keplinger?
When I got to know Helen, it was like we already knew each other for a long time. First we tasted the Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Merlot and Malbec separately, then we did the blend. A couple of weeks ago, I was in California, and we sat down and did all the blends and finalized. It’s beautiful—an intense, full-bodied wine. It’s like we’re in sync. It’s fun. We play.
What’s one of your favorite moments as a winemaker?
When my grandmother tried my wine, that was my best wine moment ever. When our first wine got the gold, I was so excited. I took the wine to my grandmother. She said it was “nice,” but her facial expression said something else for me. I could see the pride in her. That was my wine moment.