Eighteen years ago, Ntsiki Biyela became the first black woman winemaker in South Africa, working at Stellekaya. A few years back she launched her own brand, her own wines, called Aslina Wines. It is three whites, two reds and one sparkling, all built on truly original South African characteristics. I met her in Stellenbosch to talk talk about the creation of the winery, her wines and the future of the South African wine industry.
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to meet Ntsiki again, after a thirteen years gap; I had met her for the first time on our very first wine tour to South Africa. Now, I was in South Africa judging in the Michelangelo Wine Awards competition and a forward-thinking wine importer had set up a meeting with Ntsiki for me to get an “update”, much overdue. I jumped on the chance to meet her again in Stellenbosch.
Around 2014, Ntsiki happened to meet an American woman named Mika Bulmash. Today, Bulmash runs a wine-importing company in New York (Wine for the World), but at the time, Bulmash was not in the wine industry. But she had an idea for an unusual wine project. She wanted to set up a collaboration between a winemaker in California and a winemaker from South Africa. Ntsiki jumped on the idea and started making wine together with Helen Keplinger in Napa Valley. This was on the side, in parallel with her regular job at Stellekaya. But the project with Keplinger was just a one-off, and she was still working for Stellekaya.
The things developed rapidly. Ntsiki explains, “In 2015, I was invited by the US State Department to an African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program.” On the program, she met women from different African countries involved in varying entrepreneurship projects, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, the Gambia, and Malawi. She was the only one working with wine. The discussions with these other African entrepreneurs make her think about her own situation. When she met these other African women, she told me she remembered thinking, “they are running successful businesses, and then they talk about the struggle they have in their countries, like, for instance, they can’t get a loan from the bank because they are women, or others could not register their company in their own name but had to register it in the name of their husband or their son….” Getting financing is a challenge for any entrepreneur in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and even more so for women entrepreneurs who face a number of additional obstacles. Ntsiki continued on her thoughts at the meeting with these other African women: “So why am I not starting my own company? In South Africa, I can register a company under my own name. I can get a loan from a bank.”
When she came back to South Africa after the conference, she resigned from Stellekaya and launched Aslina Wines, Ntsiki Biyela’s own personal brand of wines.
She got back in touch with her importer in the US, Mika Bulmash. Her first reaction was, “well, Ntsiki, I cannot buy enough wines from you for you to make a living.” A cold shower, perhaps, but Ntsiki did not seem too worried. “Let’s just see how it’s going to go, she said. “Part of me knew it’s going to work. I didn’t have the muscle for it to go fast, but I knew it was going to work.”
How to start a winery
But how do you go about starting from scratch? You don’t have any vineyards, and you don’t have a winery. What do you do? You do what you can; there’s always a market. For her initial wines, Ntsiki bought both grapes that she vinified and also some “bulk” wine from other wineries (including Stellekaya). For space, she rented a small corner at a winery just outside the town of Stellenbosch.
So now Ntsiki had wines, and she needed to sell them. She got back in touch with Mika, her US importer. “Okay, I’ll buy some of your wines, but you’ll have to come to the US so we can sell it,” she responded. “Fine,” Ntsiki responded, “as long as you’ve got a couch for me”. That trip went over expectations and even before her tour of the US was finishes all the bottles that had been shipped had been sold. “It was heart-warming. I was filled with gratitude when I left the US because of the acceptance of the wine. It was like ‘I have arrived.’ That’s how it all started.”
Now she has reached a production of 100,000 bottles with a range that includes three whites and two reds.
Aslina Sauvignon Blanc 2021, ~125 ZAR from the winery
The sauvignon blanc was intended as a once-off. But things didn’t go according to plan. It sold well in the US, so she quickly ran out of stock (perhaps not difficult with 1000 bottles). Mika, her importer in New York, told her, “okay, it’s a once-off, but you need to come here and tell the distributors that it’s a once-off and that they can’t have any more”. What could she do? “Okay… Fine…. I’ll continue with the sauvignon blanc.” It’s become a permanent part of the range.
She wanted her sauvignon blanc to have more than just the aromatic compontent on the nose, also some body and length. Her sauvignon blanc thus became a lees-aged white. She initially kept it ten months on the lees but now she keeps it for five months, which does not have quite as big an impact on the style.
The Aslina Sauvignon Blanc is very herbal, typical sauvignon blanc with a lot of freshness and sprightly acidity, lots of grass and herbs, green vegetation, and nettles, but with an added twist of richness in the body. It’s more of a Sancerre type of sauvignon blanc, rather than a New World version, very aromatic and intense aromas. A typical classic sauvignon blanc. Ntsiki says about it, “every time I drink it, it takes me to a hot summer day when I am sitting under a tree looking at the sea”. Not bad for a wine then.
Aslina Chardonnay 2021, ~150 ZAR from the winery
Ntsiki prefaces this wine with “this is primarily based on what I like myself. I used to taste and judge in competitions and was often impressed by the intense wooded chardonnays. But then when I drank it myself, I was struggling, couldn’t finish the glass. But when I then had an unwooded chardonnay, there was something missing. So I wanted to get something in the middle, blend the two.” She sources grapes from Stellenbosch and Elgin. She has the Stellenbosch in stainless steel and the Elgin wine in barrels. Why so? “Stellenbosch is warmer so that the chardonnay is rich by nature. Elgin is more on the acidity and minerality. With a bit of wood, it will tone down this acidity a bit.”
“In the wine, there’s a bit of wood character, but it’s at the back of it. This is the type of chardonnay I like,” she comments. And indeed, so it is. The wood is very discrete. It does not give the impression of being wooded, more on the exotic fruit side, typical chardonnay character. Elegant with some exotic fruit on the nose, but a bit shy, especially compared to the explosive sauvignon banc. But it has more to give on the palate, good mouthfeel, lots of exotic fruit, some citrus, a very nice freshness, long refreshing finish.
Aslina Chenin Blanc 2021, with skin contact, ~205 ZAR from the winery
This is the new white in the range, introduced in 2021. Ntsiki had for quite a long time wanted to try and see what would happen with a white wine if it was given some skin contact. “When it came out, this is exactly what I imagined,” she comments. It spent seven days macerating on the skins, off the skins even before fermentation was finished. “I made this for myself.”
The Aslina skin contact chenin has a very discrete skin character, something that often shows in a certain astringency (tannins) and distinct dry mouthfeel. Here, the skin is discrete, a bit like the very discrete barrels on the chardonnay. It does bring out a little bit more of the chenin character and gives it a bit extra body with a touch of phenolics, a touch of tannin feeling (sometimes referred to as phenolics). The nose is very clean with fresh citrusy notes that come back on the palate, with carambola and grapefruit. A long finish with elegant and refreshing tannins.
“That tannin feeling is exactly what I wanted in the wine,” says Ntsiki. Her team in the winery tries to make sure she is not left alone too close to the chenin bottles in the cellar. “I tell them I need to taste it again and again since it is a new release. I need to check how it develops. ‘But does it develop every day?’ they ask me.” It is obviously one of her favourites. And mine too, of the whites.
Aslina Cabernet Sauvignon 2020, ~185 ZAR from the winery
It says cabernet sauvignon on the front label, but it actually has a small portion of petit verdot too. Well, small…, 14%. Cabernet is becoming one of the favourite varieties in Stellenbosch. It has adapted very well to the climate. This one has spent 14 months in oak, second and third fill barrels, no new oak. The cabernets come from the Helderberg area.
The Aslina Cabernet Sauvignon is very much in the style of a classic cabernet. It is not obviously barrel-aged, with very much fruit, and very nice ripe tannins, which you need in some of these quite powerful cabernet wines. The nose has an exuberant bouquet of black and red fruits and black currants.
Aslina Umsasane 2020, red blend, ~235 ZAR from the winery
Maybe this is Ntsiki’s most important cuvée, at least emotionally. Umsasane is the Zulu name for the umbrella tree, a type of acacia, a tree that is an African icon (not to be confused with the Australian umbrella tree). But more importantly, it is the nickname of Ntsiki’s grandmother, and her real name was Aslina. The meaning of Aslina is something like “woman of power” or “woman of strength”, which seems appropriate.
Why name the winery, and the wine, after her grandmother? When Ntsiki was young, she grew up in the care of her grandmother in the village where she was born. Her mother was working as a domestic worker for a family in Durban (the big city in KwaZulu Natal with 4 million inhabitants) and was, therefore, rarely at home, only twice a year. So the names are a tribute to the woman who taught her everything about life. “When I look back, I think, how did she do all that she did? Raising so many kids, with a pension of 420 rands a month, grandfather gone… How did she manage? Through all the difficulties, she was always the person everyone came to.”
The Umsasane wine is certainly a magnificent tribute to a remarkable woman.
This is the Bordeaux blend with cabernet sauvignon 70%, cabernet franc 28%, petit verdot 12%. Even though the blend is not very dissimilar from the cabernet sauvignon-wine, the character is very different. It has an intense nose with lots of dark fruit, quite complex with hints of chocolate (no doubt from the barrels). An excellent balance, strong but balanced tannins. The freshness gives it a little hint of cabernet franc character. It has also been aged in barrels, which is a little bit more noticeable here, but very balanced. The ripe fruit and the oak have given it a lovely structure with good ripe tannins in the finish. The grapes come from the Simonsberg area, which probably also contributes to the difference. Calling it powerful is not the right word because it certainly is not a “power” wine. But it has very intense fruit and aromas.
There is also a sixth cuvée in the range, but it is very rare.
Aslina Méthode Cap Classique (MCC) 2016, ~410 ZAR from the winery
This was a project that Ntsiki created to honour and celebrate her mother. She has made only 600 bottles of it, and it is only available directly from the winery. It’s from the 2016 vintage and was bottled in 2017. It spent around four years on the lees and was degorged in 2021.
The wine is available from the winery (and a very tiny quantity will go across the Atlantic to her US importer). But I did not have the opportunity to taste it. All the more reason to come back.
Going forward, for Aslina and for South Africa as a whole
What is then number seven on the list of Ntsiki’s projects? Well, it’s not a wine. Instead, she hopes to be able to find a place to open a tasting room and have her own cellar. Surely there will be a decent size garage available somewhere in Stellenbosch that can house 100,000 bottles and growing.
Ntsiki now has 18 years behind her, making wine in South Africa. What has changed in the South African wine business over these eighteen years?
I’ll let Ntsiki’s words speak for this:
“Winemakers are experimenting more. Winemakers have taken on board constructive criticism and feedback from, e.g., wine competitions. There’s a change in the quality of wine being produced. But outside of that, there is also the social aspect of it. Before, there were very few black people that you would see or meet in the industry, or when you walked into a wine shop that you’d see coming in to taste the wines. That has changed. Now when you go to a tasting room or a wine shop, you can see, “oh, yes, this is South Africa”. You see all the races. There are different initiatives that also help companies, and there’s a more open space to come in and play. But that being said, it doesn’t mean it’s easy.”
So, big changes both in the social aspect and in winemaking.
But not only that, also on the market side. Ntsiki continues, “when I went to the States in 2007 and went to a wine shop and said, ‘I’ve got some South African wines,’ they went, ‘uh’. And when you mentioned the word pinotage, it was like you’ve just insulted them. Fast forward to now, when you say you have South African wine, they say, ‘oh, wow, what do you have?’ We’re now exciting as a wine country.”
Having come so far today, what does the South African wine industry need to do to go even more forward? A difficult question, perhaps, and Ntsiki struggles to find the right words. “We need to work on our confidence as a country. There’s still a lot of self-doubt, and we’re lacking self-esteem for our wines. For example, when we put a bottle of our wine in front of somebody and say, ‘this bottle is gonna cost you X much’. And then someone tells us what it should be (in their opinion), we coil back. We’re still not working hard enough to say, ‘Hey, World, this is what we are worth’.”
For some markets, this becomes a difficult contradiction. “Some markets are saying, ‘you’re not paying your people well enough.’ At the same time, they say, ‘I want the wine for two dollars per litre.’ We need to be able to say to those markets: ‘don’t you understand that you are the cause of that we’re not paying our people well?’”
Ntsiki again, “It is not just for South Africa to find the way forward. It’s for South Africa to call on the world to say, ‘listen, this is what we’d like to pay our people, but can you pay us this for our wines then, so that we can do it?’”
Being an independent winemaker, this becomes very concrete. “For me, as a small producer, I need that bravery to go and say, ‘this is going to cost that much.’ Then when they say ‘no’, finally someone else will say ‘yes’, someone who understands that I still don’t have a cellar, that I need to pay my people, that I need to feed my family.”
I can only agree with Ntsiki; South Africa needs to be proud of what they do and also stop pretending to be cheaper copies of famous wines. MCC is not a cheaper version of champagne, cabernet from Stellenbosch is not a budget bordeaux, Hemel-en-Aarde pinot noir is not make-believe burgundy. It’s true and original South African wines.
That the wines — from Aslina and from many other producers — are of amazing quality will certainly help.
If you can get hold of a few bottles of Aslina wines, you will not be disappointed. And even better, if you have the opportunity to meet Ntsiki, she is not only a very talented winemaker but also a fabulous storyteller.
In the US, the Aslina wines are distributed by Wine for the World and Branwar Wines
— Per Karlsson
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