Our chat with Ntsiki very nearly didn’t happen as at the last minute, South Africa buyer Jo Locke MW and I received a message to say that the power was off at her home due to ‘load shedding’, where the system just can’t cope with the demands made on it. Yet another challenge that producers in South Africa have to deal with, alongside the many drastic covid measures still in force, not to mention the serious droughts of recent years.
But South Africa’s first female black winemaker is not one to be daunted. If she were, she wouldn’t have got where she is, as you’ll know if you read our brief article on her published earlier in the year. Not only has she become an award-winning winemaker and business woman against the odds, but she has also received awards for the work she does for PYDA, a charity dedicated to honing the skills of young South Africans for nationally important industries such as tourism, fruit, and of course wine, already inspiring the next generation.
I confess to being slightly nervous about our live chat over Zoom, thinking that Ntsiki might be a little intimidating. I couldn’t have been more wrong. She’s warm and engaging with an endearing and infectious giggle! She also has that indefinable quality that I’ve seen in other brilliant winemakers I’ve had the privilege to meet: a certain twinkle in the eye – discernible even via a screen.
Ntisiki didn’t set out to be a winemaker. She really wanted to be a chemical engineer and had never even tasted wine until she found herself the recipient of a scholarship to study viticulture and oenology at Stellenbosch University. Nor could she speak Afrikaans, the language in which lessons were delivered. Lecturers were pilloried if they made exceptions for the few English speakers in the class, who had to depend on language tutors to help get them through. It sounds as though Ntisiki made some good friends too in the wine and restaurant world, just as well, as her fellow students were unaccepting until the final year, she says.
Jo and I were curious about Ntsiki’s first taste of wine. Unimpressed at first, she recalls that the first wine she remembers liking was a shiraz, ‘I was surprised’, she said, ‘I thought it would be sweet wine that I would like.’ The descriptors used in class to identify flavours were also a bit confounding. She confesses to picking up apples in the supermarket to see what they smelled like and when people talked of truffles, she immediately thought of chocolates! She asked a restaurant friend what truffles were and he gave her truffle oil and raw and cooked truffles to demonstrate. It immediately made her think of her childhood and the fermented milk product, amasi. She said it made her realise she had to find associations that she could relate to in order to remember flavours and aromas, just the kind of experience she is now passing on. Sangiovese reminds her of the sun on tomato leaves or, ‘that smell you get in the forest when it’s been hot and there’s a light sprinkling of rain.’
There were other differences that one would not even have imagined being an issue. Ntsiki told us that in her culture it is extremely rude to sniff food, let alone wine! ‘My mother told me it was disgusting when she first caught me doing that, and as for spitting wine out, you can imagine how that went down?’
When Ntsiki starts talking about wine it is hard to imagine that she could have been anything but a winemaker. She doesn’t own any vineyards yet, though she’d love to at some point and rents cellar space at Delheim, where she’d worked as a student. Having subsequently made wine in several different places, she bumped into Delheim’s Nora Sperling-Thiel at an awards ceremony. Nora said, ‘you need to come back home’.
Most of the grapes for the Aslina wines also come from Delheim vineyards though Ntsiki buys in parcels from elsewhere too. Jo (Locke) asked whether it was challenging getting hold of grapes of the right quality and how the 2021 vintage was looking. ‘2021 is looking pretty good. Yes there can be issues when everyone is after the same high-quality grapes – chardonnay is a bit of a problem this year but cabernets are fine.’
It sounds as though Ntsiki and Nora at Delheim have a great relationship that works for them both. In the long term, though, Ntsiki would like to have a home for Aslina, so the focus is to build volume in order to realise the next step – a production facility and cellar.
Cabernets and Bordeaux-style wines are what Ntsiki loves to make, as well as chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. Like all gifted winemakers, she also loves to experiment. She’s trialling blending tempranillo and cabernet. Why? ‘Because it’s fun to play around with different grapes.’ She had also always thought about making a skin-contact chenin blanc and couldn’t believe it when she discovered, on a trip to the States, that a style of wine that had ‘been in her head’, already existed and was called ‘orange wine’. She’s had a go herself now and is pleased with how the wine is coming along, but thinks it needs some oxygen and is going to experiment with concrete eggs or a little oak.
But it’s a Bordeaux-style red that won Ntsiki a place on our Wine Champion’s podium this year. Jo Locke confided that she thought the wine so good she’d held off releasing it sooner so that it could be included in our blind tasting competition. She was duly thrilled when her colleagues agreed and it was unveiled as a winner in what was a really strong line up this year, including from Ntsiki’s South African peers.
Equally delighted by the win, Ntsiki, told us a bit more about the wine. Aslina by Ntsiki Biyela 'Umsasane', Western Cape 2017 is named after her grandmother, Aslina, whose family nickname is Umsasane, meaning acacia. ‘In Africa this tree is iconic. Animals seek shelter beneath its branches from the rain or sun, it’s a protector. When we were growing up my grandmother was the anchor of the family, despite being a real disciplinarian. All the children would flock to her; me and my siblings, my cousins and nephew and nieces, we all wanted to be close to her, even though she was really strict!’
As for the 2017 vintage, Ntsiki admitted it had caused her a few sleepness nights. She was really pleased with the blend but said it had gone through a stage of extreme bottle shock. ‘I was really panicking – orders were coming in for the wine but I felt it wasn’t ready to be shipped. I didn’t know what to do. People advised ‘the wine will be ready on the water’ and once it arrived in the States I was receiving feedback that it was fantastic – I couldn’t believe we were tasting the same wine!’ She puts this down to an important lesson of nature, that wine after all is a natural product, ‘it’s going to do what it wants to do, you can’t control that.’ Perhaps it’s a good thing we held on a little longer before releasing the wine!
Talking of lessons from nature, we reflected on what we’d all learnt from the pandemic and of course it’s been particularly hard-felt in the Cape. On a practical level, it forced Ntsiki’s hand to start up her own Wine Club, something she had planned to do for a while. It also made her realise just how important face-to-face events with consumers are, particularly when it comes to getting more black people into wine culture and breaking down barriers. She’s found that when she is out and about, talking about and presenting her wines, people gradually start to feel more confident and that there’s a safe place to ask questions. They feel more comfortable about approaching her and, most importantly, can relate to her. She’s passionate about spreading the message that you shouldn’t be intimidated by wine, when to drink it and what to serve with it. ‘It should just be about enjoyment. Don’t worry about finding the right food – just look and see what’s in the fridge, experiment, have some fun and enjoy it!’
Ntsiki was told, for example, that no red wines go well with spicy food. In a vibrant food culture where spices figure prominently, and for someone who loves her reds, this seemed like a far too dogmatic generalisation. Indeed, she now thinks it’s nonsense. ‘Merlot is beautiful with chicken curry,’ she tells us, going on to talk about a trip to Japan where she discovered her reds went really well with the spicy noodles being served. ‘Don’t overcomplicate it, just enjoy your food and enjoy your glass of wine,’ she sagely advises.
With that, and the power back on, Ntsiki heads off to get her dinner out of the oven and we all look forward to when we can meet in person and clink glasses, and enjoy wine together again.
Find Ntsiki’s Champion-winning wine here