WHAT: Life is all about taking advantage of the opportunities presented to you. Ntsiki Biyela, winemaker at Stellekaya, appears to welcome her opportunities as challenges to be conquered.
Though she had never even tasted wine before winning a scholarship to study wine at the University of Stellenbosch, she became South Africa’s first black female winemaker and later woman winemaker of the year.
“I was never interested in wine,” she said during a Skype interview. “But I thought this was an opportunity to make something happen.”
Everything happened fast, getting a job with Stellekaya right out of school in 2004 and earning a gold medal for the first red blend she made that year.
This cabernet sauvignon is another beauty, an intense, full-bodied wine. Several layers of dark fruit such as black currents and plums come through with each sip. There is a good balance between fruit and acidity, with a lingering finish.
The grapes are hand harvested from a cool-climate, granite-rich region of Stellenbosch, the center of the South African wine industry. When they get to the winery the grapes are cooled and cold macerated to capture fruit flavors prior to fermentation. The grapes are fermented in open bins using a traditional punch down method.
The wine is then aged 24 months in French oak (40 percent new) and bottle aged for a year before release. The wine can be cellared for eight to 10 years.
Biyela said she is comfortable making wines now, but starting out there was some pressure, in a good way.
“The first harvest, the first bottling, it is scary,” said Ntsiki, who moved 1,000 miles from her home to Stellenbosch. “What you are taught in the books and reality are different. I’m overjoyed to have the great wines that we’ve had.
“The wine gets made in the vineyard. When you have good fruit you will be able to make a good wine. I believe in going more natural. I don’t engineer the wine.”
Though she might have felt pressure as a ground-breaking winemaker, Biyela clearly is comfortable in her role now, speaking with grace and humor about her career.
“The first blend I did in 2004 won a gold medal,” she said. “I took it to my grandmother who had never tasted wine before. You could see in her face she didn’t like it, but you could also see the pride that she was drinking something her granddaughter had made.”
She has some advice for young people who think they might want to enter the wine industry.
“If you want fast results, the wine industry is not for you,” she said. “You need patience. You should enjoy what your are doing.”
I asked her why people in the wine business always seem happy. “We drink what we make,” she said. “We always laugh about it when we get to wine shows.”
She also is pleased people around the world take her wines seriously. “When you take a sip of my wine it will take you on a journey.” she said. “That wine had a journey to get into that glass. That journey continues with the person drinking it.”
Ntsiki also has collaborated with Napa Valley winemaker Helen Keplinger on a wine called Keplinger/Biyela Red Collection No. 1, a full-bodied blend of cab and sangiovese grown in Stellenbosch. It is bottled by Wine for the World.
WINERY: Stellekaya is a boutique winery in Stellenbosch, the heart of the Cape Winelands. The winery specializes in red varieties, and all grapes are sourced from growers in the appellation.
It is owned by Dave Lello and his wife, Jane, who produced their first vintage in 1999. The name comes from the Italian word for starts, stella, and an African word for skies, kaya. Lello sees Stellekaya as an African winery that makes European style wines.
Though they make about 10,000 cases a year, the cellar has been renovated and has a capacity for 20,000 cases. The cellar is located in an old brandy cellar, near the town center of Stellenbosch.
The winery works primarily with cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, shiraz, pinotage and sangiovese. They believe in minimal intervention and sparing use of pesticides.
Most of the Stellekaya wines have a label inspired by a constellation. The cab features Scorpius, and the brightest star in the constellation, Antares, a red giant that forms the heart of the scorpion.
Orion is an elegant French-style Bordeaux blend; Hercules is a sangiovese blend; the merlot is inspired by Aldebaran, a red giant known as the eye of the bull in the constellation Taurus; Cape Cross. inspired by the brightest star in the constellation Crux, is a blend of merlot, pinotage and cabernet sauvignon; shiraz is inspired by Capricorn.
There also are two Boschetto wines, a red blend and a white blend, that honor the Italian roots of the winery. The wines are for easy drinking and relaxed dining.
GOES WITH: We had this wine with burgers on the grill and fried potato wedges. The burgers are full of flavor so they need a powerful wine for pairing. The Stellekaya was perfect.
The muscular fruit of the wine easily stood up to the charred burgers and crunchy potatoes. The wine and the food were equal partners in the meal.
The burgers are easy to make. I take about a pound of ground chuck, add about two thirds of a diced sweet onion and one egg. I add seasonings, usually Morton’s Nature Seasons, salt, pepper, and sometimes other things that appeal to me from the spice cabinet. This time I added some pink Himalayan salt crystals.
I mix that all up and form patties. The egg helps hold everything together. I cook them on a medium-high grill that has been oiled. They cook about 5-10 minutes per side. I like the burgers pink on the inside, so I often shorten the cooking time a little. They come out juicy and dripping with flavor. Sometimes I add a slice of American cheese for the last two minutes.
The potato wedges also are easy to make. First bake a Russet potato. Let it cool and then cut into 4-6 wedges. Heat less than an inch of vegetable oil in a frying pan to medium high. Carefully add the wedges and cook 2-3 minutes on each side, until the potato gets browned. You end up with lots of potato flavor and crisp edges, a perfect combination.
You could serve this wine with rich foods, such as portobello mushrooms, pot roasts, a tomato-based pasta sauce, or even sipping with friends after dinner.