Thursday, February 3, 2011

Meeting Ntsiki Biyela at Stellekaya in Stellenbosch – South Africa’s Only Female and Black Winemaker with International Recognition

Pictures: Christian G.E.Schiller with Ntsiki Biyela at Stellekaya in Stellenbosch

I had a chance to spend a couple of hours with a very special person - Ntsiki Biyela, winemaker at Stellekaya Winery in Stellenbosch. Ntsiki is a South African, a winemaker, a woman and a Zulu – in the South African wine industry, which is dominated by white males.

South Africa Yesterday and Today

When traveling in South Africa today, it quickly becomes evident that apartheid is resting in the dustbin of history. South Africa’s current President is the Zulu Jakob Zuma, who is mired in personal and political controversy. The Txosa Nelson Mandela, who had spent more than 25 years in prison during apartheid, was President in the 1990s and is now a revered elder called "Madiba" ("Papa"). South Africa successfully hosted the Soccer World Cup. The Soccer World Cup was hoped to provide a boost to the tourism industry; but indications are that the expected boost did not materialize, at least not fully. The gap between the haves and have-nots continues to be wide, but is narrowing and a black middle class is emerging. This, however, is not so much evident in the wine region, which continues to be dominated by the whites; Cape Town even has a white mayor. 99% of the vineyard area is in the hands of whites. The AIDS pandemic is taking a huge toll with the HIV infection rate at about 20 percent.

Over the course of the years, I have detected an increasing openness, pride and camaraderie among all the South Africans – white, colored or black, Boers or Brits; Indians, Jews, Zulus, Txosas or Vendas, I met. Nevertheless, this rainbow society with a share of 75% of blacks, has huge challenges to cope with.

The Stellekaya Winery

The Stellekaya Winery is located in Stellenbosch’s historical brandy manufacturing precinct. Stellekaya means home of the stars, a combination of the Italian word for stars, Stella and Kaya, an African word for skies. That’s how owner Dave Lello sees his winery - an African winery that makes wines in the European tradition. Dave is a keen follower of the stars and an amateur astronomer, hence the stars theme at the winery.

Pictures: Christian G.E.Schiller at Stellekaya with wine maker Ntsiki Biyela

The project started in 1999; after 2 experimental seasons, a decision was made to establish a commercial winery in the center of Stellenbosch. The first crush in the new winery was in 2003. Stellekaya has been buying in grapes, but 2009 saw the first harvest of own grapes from Stellekaya’s 24 hectares site along Blaauwklippen Road in Stellenbosch.

The winery is designed to produce about 120,000 bottles of wine. Production is planned not to exceed 20,000 bottles per wine in any one vintage. 40 percent of production is currently exported, but the export share is planned to eventually increase to 60%.

Winemaking Philosophy

Stellekaya produces mainly premium quality red wines, but it has just started to also make a Chenin Blanc. Stellekaya allows its grapes time to cool after harvest and then lets them go through a cold maceration for 3 to 4 days. The grapes go into open fermenters and the cap is punched down in a traditional method. Stellekaya uses a wooden basket press and matures its wines in French oak barriques. Most of the wines are matured for 12 to 22 months and then spend an extra few months in the bottle before being released into the market. The winery has been designed in a way that no little or no mechanical pumping is necessary, and that the maximum fruit and flavour are extracted early in the fermentation process. The process is labor intensive but this ensures the quality. It also helps in terms of involving local labor.

The Wine Maker: Ntsiki Biyela’s Story

I was very thrilled to meet Ntsiki Biyela in person. I had heard so much about here and had seen the video clip on CNN. She was crowned South African Woman Winemaker of the Year 2009.

Nontsikelelo, or Ntsiki as she is fondly known, told me during the course of our tasting that she was born and raised in the rural village of Ulundi in Zululand. Her village got electricity only in 2004. She matriculated from Mahlabathini High School in 1996 where she excelled in science. Ntsiki had high hopes to study engineering, but did not have the funding for full-time study. Luckily, her uncle introduced her to winemaker Jabulani Ntshangase, who assisted Ntsiki in applying for an SAA scholarship. Ntsiki was chosen as one of ten black students to pursue a bursary program to study winemaking at Stellenbosch.

In 2003 Ntsiki graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture, specialising in Viticulture and Oenology, at the University of Stellenbosch. She found work at Stellekaya in 2004, which rapidly turned into a full winemaker's job. Initially, Ntsiki was assisted by Peet Le Roux. Since 2005 she has been making the wines on her own; at times she works with consultant Michael Carmichael Green. Her 2004 Cape Cross won a Gold medal at the Michelangelo Awards. It was the first gold medal won by a black winemaker in South Africa and it was her first vintage.

Pictures: Ntsiki in fron of Nelson Mandela pictures and behind Stellekaya wine bottles

It was great fun to spend a couple of hours with Ntsiki, a fascinating black, female winemaker. “When I was given a scholarship by South African airlines in Stellenbosch, I moved 1000 miles away from home, from my grandmother who raised me as if I was her daughter and from everything I knew. I had never drunk a glass of wine in my life” Ntsiki said.

One can imagine, what courage and determination it took to attend classes largely filled with Afrikaans-speaking white males. "You feel like you have invaded their space" said Ntsiki. And just about everything was done in Afrikaans, which Ntsiki did not understand when she arrived in Stellenbosch. “There was little overt hostility” Ntsiki said, “but little support, and I was very scared at first. I really only started getting on easily with my fellow-students in the last year. There have been many changes in Stellenbosch over the last years, however. Many more black people now attend the University.”

Ntsiki has a clear idea of her own wine preferences. “I like full and ripe wines” Ntsiki said. She is unperturbed by high alcohols as long as they are in balance.

The Stellekaya Wine Portfolio

Stellekaya is a small wine producer – they call themselves boutique wine producer. Currently they make about 10,000 cases a year from these red grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Shiraz, Pinotage and Sangiovese. In addition, Stellekaya just started to produce a Chenin Blanc. The exchange rates at the time of drafting this posting were: 1BP = 10 Rand and 1$ = 7 Rand and 1Euro = 9 Rand.

2004 Brochetto

The entry level cuvee with fresh fruits and a touch of minerality. Medium bodied wine with a juicy soft character. A slight spiciness on the palate to start with and long savory finish. Rand 40.

40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 10% Shiraz, 10% Sangiovese

Alc: 13.50%, Ph: 3.71, Rs: 1.8g/l, TA: 5.30 g/l, TSO² 85mg/l

2009 Broschetto White

Chrisp and refreshing Chenin Blanc. Aromas of pineapple and guava complement the rounded palate of tropical fruits and wild honey. Rand 32.

2006 Cabernet Sauvignon

An elegant full bodied Cabernet with ripe silky soft tannins. Hints of cassis and abundant fruit flavors with smooth finish. Rand 90.

Alc: 14.5%, Ph: 3.75, TA: 5.9 g/l, Rs: 2.4 g/l

2007 Merlot

A dark red full bodied wine with plums and blackcurrants. Sweet fruits balance the acidity, with soft hints of mulberry notes and well integrated tannins giving the wine a round finish. Rand 80.

Soil Type: Tukulu (Decomposed Granite), Irrigation: Dry land, Climate: Cool False Bay evening breezes, Harvest: Grapes are hand picked in the second half of March.

Maceration: Cold soaked for 2 days, Fermentation: Open micro fermenters, Pressing: Basket press, Malolactic fermentation: In the barrel, Maturation: 22 months in French oak, 25% new.

PH: 3.48, Alc: 14.5%, Rs: 3.4 g/l, TA: 6.2 g/l

2006 Shiraz

A full bodied wine with a deep red color. A typical Cape styled Shiraz, with lovely spicy overtones and fresh clean fruits. Rand 90.

Alc: 14.00 Rs: 3.6 Ph: 3.92 TA: 5.6 VA: 0.78 SO2: 85 FSO2: 19

2005 Cape Cross

A trendy Cape Cuvee that blends Pinotage with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. A full bodied wine with succulent flavors and ripe chewy tannins. Raspberries, mint appeal and sweet plum fruits give a good balance of the wine and wood characters.

Maceration: Cold soaked for 3 days, Fermentation: Open micro fermenters, Pressing: Basket pressed, Maturation: 20 months in French oak

2007 Hercules

An elegant and complex wine and yet easy-to-drink with a lot of freshness that styles itself after the “Super Tuscan” way of blending Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. A medium- bodied wine with some rustic character of a true Sangiovese. Plums and dry red fruits giving complexity and complementing the wine’s natural acidity. Rand 80.

50% Sangiovese, 40% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon

Soil Type: Tukulu (Decomposed Granite), Age of Vines: 8 Years, Irrigation: Drip irrigation, Climate: Cool climate.

Maceration: Cold soaked for 3 days, Fermentation: Open micro fermenters, Pressing: Basket press, Malolactic fermentation: In the barrel, Maturation: 10 months in French oak, Production: 9 000 litres

Alc: 13.5 % vol, Rs: 2.4 g/l, TA: 5.9 g/l, Ph: 3.48

2005 Orion

The Stellekaya flagship wine. A full rich velvety Bordeaux styled blend with layers of black currants and balanced structure of tannins. The tannins balance well with the fruit to enhance this elegant wine giving a lingering finish. Rand 160.

64% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot & 9% Cabernet Franc

Soil Type: Tukulu (Decomposed Granite), Age of Vines: 8 Years, Irrigation: Drip Irrigation

Maceration: Cold soaked for 3 days, Fermentation: Open micro fermenters, Pressing: Basket press, Malolactic fermentation: In the barrel, Maturation: 22 months in 100% new French oak, Production: 2000 liters.

Alc: 15%, Rs: 2.2 g/l, Ph: 3.78, TA: 5.8 g/l

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  1. Hi Christain

    Thank you very much for the posting. I like it a lot.

    I will be harvesting soon.

    Best Regards

    Ntsiki Biyela

  2. Great article, Dr. Schiller! I lived in Stellenbosch for a year during my studies in 2009. They have a great wine culture there and it definitely sparked my interest. I'll have to visit Stellekaya when I return (hopefully in the near future)!


  3. How can I get one of your bottles of wine here in the USA?

  4. I am the determined French lady who wants to visit Stellekaya and meet Ntsiki .
    i love wine.
    I just did a marvellous progrsm in my restsurant with German pinot Noir >It was incredible with venison !!
    How can i reach this smart young lady to talk about wine ?
    Michele haines

  5. Michele, send me an e-mail at and I will forward it to Ntsiki. Where are you based? Cheers. Christian