South Africa sees first black female vinter

Black winemakers have taken to the vine with panache, but have been exclusively male, until now. Raise a toast to South Africa's trailblazing Ms Biyela...

Ntsiki Biyela is talented. In an industry still dominated by whites, this young black woman is an exception.
Only 26 years old, she is the first black wine-maker of Zulu decent in South Africa.

"You are here to see me?" asks Biyela as she enters the tasting room of the Stellakaya winery near the border of Stellenbosch.

Biyela, wearing a black blouse with her hair tied back, looks friendly.

With a soft voice, speaking in perfect English, she tells me how she grew up with her grandmother in Ulundi, a village in KwaZulu-Natal.

Wine was something that was almost non-existent in the Zulu-culture in which Biyela was brought up in.

The most common alcoholic drink was Umgombothi, traditional foamy Zulu-beer.

"After finishing high school in Ulundi my first intention was to study chemical engineering. One of my plans was to work in a beer brewery. However, I didn't have any funding to study," says Biyela.

No longer in contact with her father, neither Biyela's mother nor grandmother had the money to pay for her studies.

But a year later fate turned when Biyela's uncle introduced her to Jabulani Ntshangase, one of the few dark faces in the wine industry in South Africa and the owner of a wine shop in the Arabella Sheraton Hotel in Cape Town.

Ntshangase tries to encourage as many people as possible into the wine industry, especially those from different races and one of the ways he tries to do so is as a recruiter for Stellenbosch University.

"He called me and told me about wine-making. I didn't know anything about wine!" Biyela recalls.

Biyela decided to become a student in agriculture specialising in viticulture and oenology at the University of Stellenbosch.

"At first I didn't get a response to my application," says Biyela. "So I decided to contact Ntshangase to see if he could help. In 1999 I was accepted as a student, after he had put in a good word for me.

"In October I got a call saying that I had obtained a bursary from South African Airways. They paid for my tuition fees, my books, everything."

For a Zulu girl from a dusty village in KwaZulu-Natal, it was a big step to move to the city of Stellenbosch, close to Capetown.

"My grandmother was very worried. The first time I met Ntshangase, my uncle was with me. That made everything a lot easier."

After a short stay at Ntshangase's house, Biyela found herself a place to live in Stellenbosch.

It was not only wine and wine making that was new for Biyela, but equally the surroundings, the people and the Afrikaans language.

"Where I come from you normally don't see that many white people. In Stellenbosch, a place with lots of old colonial Dutch architecture and a big Afrikaner University, it was all of a sudden totally different," says Biyela.

In her first year, Biyela had classes in forestry that were given in English, but in her second year classes were all in Afrikaans, a language she barley spoke.

She succeeded regardless, using notes taken in English by a student who had already done the courses and by investing lots of extra time.

Except for her studies she also had a job at the Delheim winery, a well-known name in Stellenbosch.

From both her work at the winery and her studies, Biyela's love for wine slowly grew.

"I still remember the first time I drank some wine and I thought: 'My God what am I drinking!' It was horrible, " she says.

Step-by-step she started to recognise and appreciate a wide pallet of tastes. In her third year she even began buying the odd bottle for her own consumption.

In the winery of Delheim, Biyela not only worked in the cellars and wine ranks, but also in the tasting room.

"We had to start every day by tasting the left-over open bottles to find out if they were still good enough for the customer tasting sessions," she says.

After Biyela's graduation in 2003, she applied for jobs at different wineries - but without success.

Ntshangase advised her to apply for a job at Stellekaya, a small local supplier of quality red wines.

"'Stellekaya' means 'house of the stars,'" she explains.

The owners, Dave Lello, who made his fortune in the IT sector and his wife Jane, opened Stellekaya in 1999, together with wine-maker Peet le Roux.

In 2002, the company moved to a wine cellar converted from an old brandy cellar on the border of Stellenbosch.

"Dave showed me around the cellars in December 2003. This was exactly the thing I wanted, a small winery where you can be involved in every aspect of making wine. In a small winery you learn much more than in big winery, where you are only busy with one aspect of the process, the bottling for example," explains Biyela.

A formal job interview with Dave's wife Jane followed.

"During that interview I was constantly thinking: 'Please, please hire me.'"

In January 2004, Biyela got a phone call with the good news that she had been hired as a junior wine-maker.

She can still ask wine-maker Peet le Roux for advice and support as and when she needs to.

"Do you know what Peet le Roux did just after I arrived here?" she asks excitedly.

"He left me with some notes and told me to get on with the blending myself. I did it, but with the help of the cellar supervisor," she adds.

At a small winery like Stellekaya, the wine-maker is responsible for everything in the wine-making process.

Biyela would not want to have it any other way.

The first wine that will really show Biyela's talent is still aging in the cellars of Stellekaya.

"This is the vintage 2004 which won't be released until 2006," she smiles.

Stellekaya currently produces Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon en Pinotage as well a wines based on a mixture of these grapes.

All the grapes are handpicked and the wines age for a minimum of 18 years in oak barrels.

Biyela who has already appeared numerous times in the South African media is modest about all the attention.

"I want people to remember my wine and not me as a person," she says.

But she doesn't mind she's sometimes seen as a role model, because she thinks it's important more black people become involved in the wine industry.

"Wine is not only for the whites. I want to help to make wine also part of our culture."

For the time being Biyela feels at home in Stellekaya.

"As a wine-maker I am still a baby that has to grow," she says.

But one day she hopes to own her own estate, where she will make her own wine with her own grapes.