Winemaker Ntsiki Biyela: Like climbing Table Mountain

2018-12-26 17:06

‘I decided to take my wine that won gold home to my grandmother to taste... I poured it into cups and she took a sip. She told me it was nice but her facial expression said the complete opposite’– Ntsiki Biyela

From milking cows in rural KwaZulu-Natal to becoming an award-winning winemaker, Ntsiki Biyela has fought hard to earn her place in the industry.

As a young winemaker, you always have to prove yourself. You have to be on top of your game because each and every year you’re expressing yourself through your wine. It’s never-ending.

If someone had said when I was growing up that I was going to be a winemaker, I wouldn’t have thought anything of it. I had no idea what it was, but growing up I knew that I could be anything. My grandmother, despite her financial struggles, made me believe I could do anything I wanted.

I grew up in a village called KwaNondlovu and moved to KwaVuthela in Mahlabatini in KwaZulu-Natal when I was 15 years old. I lived with my grandmother because my mother was working in Durban as a domestic worker. I only saw my mother once a year. Most of the parents of the kids in the village were in the city working, and we all lived with our grandparents.

My daily routine was to wake up, milk the cows, take the cows to the field and then head for school. When I took the cows to the dip where they got treated for ticks, I was the only girl, and when I arrived with my cows, the leader in the village would say, ‘She’s a girl, let her pass first.’ This made the boys so mad.

I also had to fetch wood and go to the river with the other girls to do the washing.

TASTING HOME The winemaker Ntsiki Biyela created her own wine, Aslina, in 2012 named after her grandmother

The walk to school took about 30 minutes. In the morning we’d walk very fast because we always left home late. But in the afternoon we dawdled and walked slowly, laughing and talking together. Life felt simple.

When I was in Standard 5 my grandfather died. It was a struggle for my grandmother, especially financially. I don’t know how she did it, but she pulled through. She had so many kids to take care of on her tiny pension. She represented love at its best. When she passed away in 2006 I felt like my world had collapsed.

I wasn’t aware of apartheid growing up. We were isolated in our little village. I would hear stories that my grandmother would tell about people being arrested when she visited my grandfather in Durban. Other than that, I had no idea of what was happening on the other side.

But in 1994, when all South Africans voted for the first time, I remember that queue. I used to go with my grandmother to queue to collect her pension but on that day it was the longest queue I’ve ever seen. There were police everywhere. People stood in the sun, patiently, the whole day. Everyone knew it was a life-changing moment for all of us.

I matriculated from Mahlabatini High School in 1996.

I went to Stellenbosch by chance, really. When we were in matric we were given application forms to apply to Stellenbosch to do agriculture. The teacher handing out the forms reminded us that we’d be taught in Afrikaans if we went there. I don’t know if anyone else took a form but I asked my Afrikaans teacher, Mr Ngema, to help me fill it in. At the same time I also applied for an SAA Wine Education Bursary.

A month later I got a call from SAA who offered me a full bursary. I cried. They were going to pay for everything. It was a huge break for me, a life-changing moment. It was only afterwards that I realised that I’d applied to do a BSc in viticulture and oenology, and I had no idea what that was! They were giving me a full scholarship to study something and I didn’t know what it was! I checked on the internet and realised that it had to do with wine: oenology is winemaking and viticulture is grape-growing.

CHANGING LANDSCAPE Ntsiki Biyela grew up in rural KZN and got a bursary to study winemaking at Stellenbosch - she had no idea what a culture shock it would be

When an old man from my village heard I was going to be studying wine, he pulled me aside and said, ‘My child, out of everything, you went and studied agriculture. Couldn’t you just do a secretarial job and be in an office? You’re educated. You must be in an office.’ Agriculture is something we do here [in the village] all the time. There’s nothing glamorous about it.

Some people in the village thought that because I was being sponsored by SAA, I was going to study to be a pilot. When they realised that I was going to study winemaking, they said, ‘Oh no: alcohol. That’s a problem.’ But my grandmother was supportive.

In 1999 I headed off to Stellenbosch University.

Living in Stellenbosch was complicated. Everything was different. I came from rural KwaZulu-Natal where I only saw black people, and Stellenbosch is 99,9% white and Afrikaans-speaking. What made it more difficult was that some students would ask you why you came to an Afrikaans university if you couldn’t speak Afrikaans. I felt like punching someone in the face but I couldn’t. All I could do was sometimes answer them with anger.

On my first day we got into the hall and sat down, and the lecturer started talking in Afrikaans. I didn’t understand a word. When he was done, I saw everyone standing up and leaving, so I realised he must be finished.

In my first year I stayed in Cloetesville, a coloured township outside Stellenbosch, because I was told that accommodation in student residences was full. There were often men standing around where I stayed, making remarks. I felt very uncomfortable there, so I spoke to one of my friends and she said you have to go on campus and ask for accommodation, and if they don’t give it to you, just cry.

I went to the administrator and he said there was only accommodation for people who were 18 or 19 years old; I was 20. I just burst into tears and he said, ‘Okay, I’ll sort something out.’ The following day he called me to say there was accommodation and that I was going to stay at Erica [hostel]. So there was always space. Why did I have to cry to get it?

We were only four black students at Erica. It didn’t take me long to adjust and I eventually made friends. It was the first time that I had made friends with white people.

I went to lots of formal dances where you had to dress up and do this typical Afrikaans dance called sokkie; they call it langarm. We didn’t do that in Mahlabatini. I remember at our final-year party I was dancing with one of my friends, Adriaan, and I told him, ‘If there’s one thing I’ve got out of Stellenbosch – I can sokkie!’

I’m still in contact with some of the people in my class. We’re in the industry together and we cheer on each other’s achievements.

It was tough being taught in Afrikaans but we made a plan. The lecturer would lecture in Afrikaans and I would follow in the English book, looking for similar words. Then I would go back and make my own notes.

I remember my oenology lecturer, Charl Theron. He gave us extra lessons and notes in English to explain difficult concepts. Sometimes he would lecture in English, even if students made a noise and complained.

But I hated physics the most because I failed it several times. I’d done physics in high school and everything looked the same but it was just difficult. In chemistry at school we did experiments but it wasn’t in depth because there was no proper equipment or chemicals to use.

I remember thinking, in my first year, Why do I have to do chemistry and physics? What has it got to do with winemaking? It was only later when I realised that I needed to understand the reactions of certain chemicals I was using when making wine. Gillian Arendse, our physics lecturer, always went the extra mile to assist us with notes and extra lessons.

In December of my first year, I got a job at Delheim in Stellenbosch, and that’s when I fell in love with winemaking. I worked on weekends and during harvest in summertime. On Saturdays, if there were open bottles, they said we could take them, which was so exciting because I was getting good wine for free. I would come back to the hostel and my friends were waiting: ‘What did you bring?’

At Delheim I met Philip Costandius, the winemaker. He was so passionate about making wine. I wanted to be a winemaker like him.

There were many times during my studies that I was convinced I would fail. I would call home and cry, ‘It’s all in Afrikaans and I don’t understand anything.’ When I checked my results at the end and saw that I’d passed, I felt like I’d climbed Table Mountain and was standing at the top.

When I finished varsity, I was still working at Delheim part-time. I applied to a couple of wineries for a job, with no luck. I remember that there was this one company that said they were looking for a guy. I cried. What is it that a guy can do that I can’t?

I called Jabulani Ntshangase and he told me to send my CV to Stellekaya. In my interview, Dave Lello took me to the cellar and I remember thinking, Please hire me. This cellar is so beautiful. A few days later they called me to tell me I had the job. That’s how I started at Stellekaya, where I worked for 13 years.

Working at Stellekaya was an amazing experience. I learned this vast sweep of knowledge – from the vineyard side to the consumer – which winemakers working in big vineyards don’t get.

In the beginning I had difficulties with farmers. I was young and black and they thought, What does she know about wine? But as time went on, things changed. I built strong relationships with farmers and we work well together now.

The first award I got was in 2006 – the Michelangelo International Wine Award for my Cape Cross 2004. The function was white and dominated by men. I remember Tariro Masayiti, a winemaker from Zimbabwe who I’d studied with, was there. We were the only two black people, and when they announced that I’d won, the waiters jumped up and down, and I jumped up and danced with them. Then I returned to my table and we all shook hands.

I decided to take my wine that won gold home to my grandmother to taste. I told her it had won a gold medal and she was happy. I poured it into cups and she took a sip. She told me it was nice but her facial expression said the complete opposite. But I could see the pride and excitement in her. As horrible as this tasted, she was really proud her granddaughter had made this.

In 2012, I started my own wine brand, Aslina, named after my grandmother. She helped me keep my feet on the ground. I hope I can be half as strong as her.

In 2017, I had my first harvest of Chardonnay. On the day of the harvest it was exciting to be with Philip, my mentor and teacher from Delheim, from whom I’d bought the grapes. We harvested five tons and Philip told me it was one of his proudest moments too. ‘I was there in the beginning when you started as a student,’ he said.

  • The Colour of Wine: Tasting Change, by Harriet Perlman, John Platter et al., photographs by Mark Lewis, R450, Orders: Booksite Afrika, email:

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May 19 2019