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S Mag Women of the Year issue | Ntsiki Biyela - Time for wine!

Iconic winemaker Ntsiki Biyela is our Woman of the Year in business

Londiwe Dlomo Journalist
Renowned winemaker Ntsiki Biyela is our Woman of the Year in business.
Renowned winemaker Ntsiki Biyela is our Woman of the Year in business.
Image: Supplied.

Ntsiki Biyela’s best wine experience was drinking a glass of fermented grapes that she had made with her late grandmother. She had just won a medal for her work with Stellekaya Wines. 

“She was excited for me, and happy — she said she enjoyed the wine, but her facial expression was telling me something else,” Biyela says, breaking into laughter.

In 2016, Biyela started her own wine label, Aslina Wines, a move that would make her South Africa’s first Black woman winemaker, cementing her brand and herself in the history books. It is no secret that South Africa’s wine industry, which produces some of the world’s best wines, was long overdue for such a milestone.

“I knew I was going to start my own company while I was in varsity, I just didn’t know what business it would be… I knew I wanted to build something from scratch and see it grow, especially for legacy purposes.”

This entrepreneurial spirit came from not seeing change in her immediate environment. Biyela is from Kwavuthela in Mahlabathini, KwaZulu-Natal, and Aslina Wines is named after her maternal grandmother.

Image: Supplied.

Biyela, who was raised by her grandmother, describes herself as a granddaughter, daughter, sister, friend and, lastly, a businesswoman. When asked what type of a woman her grandmother was, she replies: “I’m not going to call her a disciplinarian, because everything she did, she did with love. She would discipline you in a way that made you feel you could run back to her. She was a loving person; she taught me everything about life and, most importantly, how to love and care for others.”

One of the biggest lessons that Biyela took from her grandmother was how to make do — her grandmother, though not business minded, was able to use what little she had to raise her grandchildren.

“My grandmother was living on her pension and she still managed to build us a home, a warm home. She was taking care of about eight kids. So, for me, that one lesson is that, no matter what little you have, you can build a mansion. It depends how you utilise [what] you have, how you utilise the space you have,” she says. 

Biyela often goes back to her hometown in Mahlabathini, saying that there is a certain nostalgia in doing so. The village has changed, and she misses how tightknit the community used to be, how the saying that it takes a village to raise a child applied to how she grew up, and how that has changed because of the issues that plague society.

Biyela’s trailblazing journey is an inspirational one. She worked as a domestic worker for a year before being awarded an SAA scholarship to study winemaking in 1999. Her can-do attitude ensured that she didn’t work for long as a domestic worker — she believes that everything is a stepping stone to better things.

Image: Supplied.

“When that opportunity came, I saw it as a stepping stone, even though my grandmother and one of my grandfathers didn’t like it. I had to beg them to do it. Because when you are in a place and you feel it isn’t enough, you need to step and keep walking, you need to change it, as long as you’re going forward.”

She has never looked back, graduating with a BSc in Agriculture (Viticulture and Oenology) at Stellenbosch University in 2003 and joining Stellekaya as a winemaker the following year. She ended up spending 13 years there.  

Biyela has made wine in France and collaborated with Californian winemaker Helen Keplinger. When asked if she will be acquiring a wine farm in the future, she says that all will happen in good time. For now, the business is well positioned as is. “I think Aslina has grown to be a global brand,” she says, and it has.

Over the past three years the brand has won several awards, and the business has grown in both volume and structure. Aslina’s bordeaux blend was awarded a trophy at the Michelangelo International Wine and Spirits Awards.

In addition, Biyela was honoured for bringing diversity and transformation to the wine industry. Aslina has also added new markets in the UK, Botswana, Norway, and Singapore, while locally its customer base has also grown. Its wines can also be found at more retailers and chains, including Norman Goodfellows, One&Only hotels, and Southern Sun hotels. The business now has five employees and is in the process of recruiting a sixth person.

“Currently, I love my chenin blanc — I started making it last year as an experiment. It came out beautifully and sold out before it was even bottled,” she adds.

Guidance and mentorship are paramount in any industry, and this is the case in the wine industry as well. Biyela is a board member and mentor at the Pinotage Youth Development Academy, which offers training to “young, disadvantaged people to prepare them for employment within the wine and fruit industries and related sectors, such as hospitality and tourism”.