Ntsiki Biyela Set Out to Be an Engineer But Ended Up Becoming South Africa’s Most Notable Black Woman Winemaker

Biyela is recognized as one of the 2023 "Food & Wine" Drinks Innovators of the Year.

Ntsiki Biyela

Robbie Lawrence

Had Ntsiki Biyela been granted the scholarships she applied for in pursuit of her childhood dream, which was to become a chemical or civil engineer, the world would have missed out on not only a talented winemaker, but one who has broken barriers and shattered wine-world stereotypes.

But those scholarships didn’t come through, and Biyela instead applied for a winemaking scholarship as a last-ditch effort to attend college. Once enrolled at Stellenbosch University, about 900 miles and a world away from her village in KwaZulu-Natal, she realized she was where she was destined to be. “The winemaker I worked with as a student was so passionate about what he was doing that at that moment, I said, ‘I want to be like him.’”

Today, there are countless winemakers in Biyela’s native South Africa and beyond who aspire to be like her. Before graduating from Stellenbosch in 2003, she attended a winemaker’s seminar; all of the other participants were white men. She recalls turning to her colleague and saying, “I don’t think I want to be here.” He replied, “If you don’t stay, who do you think is going to change this?”

She stayed.

“I was scared of continuing, but I told myself, better here than going back,” she says. She forged ahead despite her fears, and today, Biyela is widely acknowledged as South Africa’s first Black woman winemaker — no small feat in a country ruled by an oppressive, racist apartheid regime from 1948 to the early 1990s. Biyela acknowledges things have improved in wine here: “There’s more diversity than there used to be, but still a lot to be done.” Biyela also serves on the board of directors of the Pinotage Youth Development Academy, which offers one-year training programs for South Africans aged 18 to 25 from disadvantaged communities, preparing them for careers in the wine industry and related sectors.

As Biyela honed her skills working for other wineries in South Africa, she wondered, “How do I create this space and make it home? How do I make it my own?” In 2016, this soul-searching led her to start Aslina Wines, named after her late grandmother, whose strength remains a source of inspiration to her.

“For me, each wine has its own story, its own character, its own personality. When I look at my wines, I look at them in a human form. It’s not about the scientific stuff — the chemical components, the pH, the acidity. I go beyond that. How does it make you feel? That’s the bottom line. What’s the glass that will make you say, ‘Thank God I’m alive’?”

Bottles to Buy

2021 Aslina Chardonnay ($23)

Ripe, round, and refreshing, this lightly oaked Chardonnay has zesty flavors of lemon and lime, plus a vivacious pop of tropical fruits that melds seamlessly with hints of cream and butter.

2020 Aslina Umsasane ($34)

Biyela describes this Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot as “love in the glass” and a “wine you want to marry.” It’s rich and juicy, with beautifully layered ripe fruit flavors, bright acidity, and a subtle dash of spice. Umsasane was her grandmother’s nickname, and it means “acacia tree” in Zulu.

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