Growing up in the village of Mahlabathini in rural KwaZulu Natal, Ntsiki Biyela considered wine to be no more than the name of a beverage. Yet she has gone on to become the first black woman winemaker in SA.
After gaining her matric Biyela had a burning ambition: to become a chemical engineer. But it seemed a forlorn hope, as she had taken employment as a domestic worker to make ends meet.
Then came her big break. In 1999 she received an SA Airways scholarship to study at Stellenbosch University. But the funds were not for chemical engineering. It was to study oenology and viticulture.
"I was to find that winemaking involves a lot of chemistry," says Biyela, "as well as a lot of passion."
On her arrival at university that passion had yet to be born. "I tasted wine for the first time at university and didn’t like it," says Biyela. "My love for wine started to grow when I began working with it and learning about it."
With her BSc secured, Biyela set out in her wine industry career, joining boutique wine producer Stellekaya in the Stellenbosch district as a winemaker in 2004.
Just five years later her 2006 cabernet sauvignon won her the title of SA woman winemaker of the year.
Her stay at Stellekaya was to be a lengthy one. "I was an all-rounder there and had the flexibility to go to France, Italy and the US to gain more experience," she says.
In the US Biyela met Californian winemaker Helen Keplinger. They were to collaborate in creating a series of red wines marketed under the Suo label and distributed in the US by Wine for the World,a company owned by another woman who was making a name for herself in the industry, Mika Bulmash.
It was also time for Biyela to move on from Stellekaya. She took the plunge in 2013, establishing Aslina, her own winery. "I named it after my late grandmother," says Biyela. "She brought me up and was my inspiration. She always seemed able to make something out of nothing."
Aslina began on a very small scale. "I produced only 1,000 bottles of wine in 2013," says Biyela.
She works from a rented cellar in Stellenbosch and buys grapes from local producers. Aslina is a very hands-on affair for her. "My only employee is the person who does my admin," she says.
Aslina now produces four red and white wines and has upped annual production to 12,000 bottles.
But you will have to look hard to find an Aslina wine on retailers’ shelves. Only two local stores are stocking it, both in Cape Town. Biyela’s primary target market is the US, specifically New York and Texas, where her collaboration with Bulmash has proved invaluable.
"With the right distribution partner you are sorted," says Biyela. "I also travel to the US regularly to promote my wines."
She exports to Germany, Taiwan, Denmark and Ghana as well, but is staying clear of the UK.
"UK pricing points for SA wines are far too low," says Biyela.
"In the US my wines retail at US$25-$30 a bottle."