One of the wine world’s most notable figures remembers hating the taste of her first sip of red wine. “I was 20 years old. It was horrible because I wasn’t used to wines,” admits Ntsiki Biyela, winemaker and director of Aslina Wines. Aslina is named after her grandmother, who raised Biyela. “She was and is our hero. She represented love in its totality and took care of us.” For Biyela, her favorite part about making wine is watching the ones she loves enjoy it. “A glass of wine creates conversations, makes people relax and enjoy what is at that moment,” she says.
Raised in the rural village of Mahlabathini, South Africa, Biyela was a domestic worker before becoming her country’s first Black female winemaker. But it wasn’t a passion for grapes or the KwaZulu-Natal terrier that drove her. After being recruited by her high school, she applied for a winemaking scholarship at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. It was here that she tried wine for the first time. “It wasn’t a decision because it was wine; it was a decision to study, to change my life, it just happened to be wine,” says Biyela. “I am glad it turned out that way.”
After graduation, her role as a junior winemaker at Stellekaya Wines paved the way for her own company, Aslina, to launch over a decade later in 2016. In between, she did a consultation at Château d’Arsac in Bordeaux with the Winemaker’s Collection project. Then, she collaborated with Helen Keplinger of Napa’s Keplinger Wines for a Wine for the World collaboration series named Suo.
Biyela took the knowledge back to South Africa and began producing award-winning wines. Her philosophy is, “Keep it authentic, don’t fiddle too much with what nature gives.” When dealing with a natural product like grapes, every vintage is different, and each year gives Biyela challenges. “When making the wine, I do not engineer them much; I let them represent and show the characters of where they are harvested, represent the vintage itself.”
She also takes her history-making role in the community seriously. “There is the responsibility that comes with it, to be a model for those coming after me. To know that this is not about me, but about those who came before us and will come after us,” she says.
As a member of the board of directors for the Pinotage Youth Development Academy, she helps prepare young South Africans for the wine industry. And this year, she won the Diversity and Transformation Award at the Wine Harvest Commemorative Event for her pioneering winemaking in South Africa. Ntsiki was also voted Woman Winemaker of the Year in 2009 and in 2017, she was listed in the world’s top 10 Most Innovative Women in Food and Drink by Fortune’s Food & Wine. As for her future, she hopes that she and Aslina Wines can help change people’s lives for the better by being a good example.
This content was originally published here.