Like climbing Table Mountain

Ntsiki Biyela grew up in rural KZN and studied at Stellenbosch University.
Ntsiki Biyela grew up in rural KZN and studied at Stellenbosch University.
Image: Supplied

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 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 Mahlabathini 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.

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 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 applied for an SAA wine education bursary.

A month later SAA 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 I'd applied to do a BSc in viticulture and oenology. They were giving me a full scholarship and I didn't know what it was! I checked on the internet and realised it had to do with wine: oenology is winemaking and viticulture is grape growing.

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 all the time. There's nothing glamorous about it."

Some people thought that because I was being sponsored by SAA, I was going to study to be a pilot. When they realised 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. Everything was different. I came from rural KZN where I only saw black people, and Stellenbosch is 99.9% white and Afrikaans-speaking. What made it more difficult was some students would ask why you came to an Afrikaans university if you couldn't speak it. I felt like punching someone in the face but couldn't.

In December of my first year, I got a job at Delheim, 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, 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. When I checked my results at the end and saw I'd passed, I felt like I'd climbed Table Mountain and was standing at the top.

Published by Bookstorm. The Colour of Wine: Tasting Change will be launched on February 7 at Montecasino