In and out the box

There are various reasons why there are so very few black winemakers – and winemaking students – in South Africa even now, 16 years after we had our first black president. Few of the reasons are much of a credit to the wine industry, and most fit into the general pattern of a largely unchanged winemaking culture. All the more reason to be relieved that we have Ntsiki Biyela – she could so easily have become a mechanical engineer! Instead there she is at Stellekaya, making pretty impressive wines for this smallish winery started just over a decade ago by IT man Dave Lello.

What’s more, when I ask her if she wouldn’t have been richer as a mechanical engineer (what she vaguely thought of studying for when she finished school), her immediate response was: “Maybe. But would I have been happier? I love my job.” It was clear, in fact, that she did. She was even savouring the prospect of a marketing trip to the United States (where she is right now, in fact),  a duty many winemakers dislike. But Ntsiki (her name is short for Nontsikilelo) likes to be involved in all stages of wine production, “from roots to glass”.

As this implies, she’s also involved with viticulture. Stellekaya has been buying in grapes to vinify in the winery at Bosman’s Crossing, the refurbished KWV brandy cellar on the outskirts of Stellenbosch, but 2009 saw the first harvest of cabernet from the 2005 plantings in the Blaauwklippen valle, and there’ll soon be some merlot and malbec too.

But I keep coming back to her entry into the winemaking business, when she was plucked from rural KwaZulu-Natal with the aid of a scholarship to Stellenbosch University. Her family was poor, a scholarship was vital, and this one was offered and accepted – though she’d never drunk a glass of wine in her life. That problem was to disappear soon enough – although her first taste of wine was, she says, “horrible”. But “I got hooked in my first year”.

It’s difficult to conceive, however, of the courage and determination it took to continue attending classes largely filled with Afrikaans-speaking males, most of whom who’d been immersed in the Western Cape’s wine culture all their lives. “You feel like you’ve invaded their space!” From the second year especially, just about everything was done in Afrikaans, which Ntsiki couldn’t understand, and she was able to get virtually nothing from lectures. There was little overt hostility, but little support, and she was at first “terrified”. She really only started getting on easily with her fellow-students in their final year.

One wonders how much the culture has changed, and how surprised we should be that more black students with the necessary qualifications don’t choose to learn about winemaking.

For Ntsiki, the saving grace was, clearly, working over weekends in the cellar and tasting-room at Delheim estate, earning some pocket money but, more importantly, learning about wine in the best way – helping at the most basic level to make it, and, above all, learning to love it.

She was luckier than many graduates when she found work at Stellekaya in 2004, which rapidly turned into a full winemaker’s job. She was relieved, however, to have Mark Carmichael Green as a consultant to whom she could turn for help (above all, she says, “Mark taught me how to make decisions”) in her early years. But it was also good that the winery itself was pretty new – “we were like two kids growing up together”.

Being a young black woman winemaker in a conservative culture is clearly not always easy, and Ntsiki has some poignant stories of everyday unthinking racism that she brushes up against – though not so much, she says, from colleagues in the wine industry as from visitors to the winery. (And from a wine journalist who asked her to explain how wine made by a black person tastes different from wine made by a white person….)

But she seems to have, perhaps derived from the difficulties she has overcome already, a rare, calm and likeable maturity in dealing with this sort of thing, and in dealing with getting, inevitably, “boxed”. (She also gets put in the “woman winemaker” box, of course – but as she was content to offer herself as such last year for the Woman Winemaker of the Year Award, which she won – she can’t object  too much when others also put her in that box).

As for the race thing: “I can’t fight – if I did, I’d be fighting every day. I can’t run away and pretend – that’s how it is. But we need to get past colour.” And she smiles.

And as for the wines: Ntsiki has a clear idea of her own wine aesthetic (it’s hard to believe she had her first sip only a decade ago!), and strives to make full, ripe and roundly soft wines. She’s unperturbed by high alcohols (many of hers approach 15%) as long as they’re in balance – she did successfully experiment with alcohol remove in one wine, the Shiraz 2005, but hasn’t felt the need to do so again.

When I tasted the wines for the Platter Guide last year I was particularly taken by the Merlot 2006, with its lovely pure sweet fruit. There’s also a good straight Cabernet and a few other wines in the top ranges (as well as a more modest red blend called Boschetto, which is excellent value – it’s recently been joined by a Chenin Blanc). The flagship, though is a Bordeaux-style blend called Orion, which fits into Ntsiki’s vision particularly well: a rich, showy and smoothly modern wine. The 2006 seemed a bit oaky and tannic when I tasted it last year, but it has settled down beautifully – though it has a good few years to go still.

Chemical engineering’s loss is our gain.

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