The fresh new face of SA wine

Hats off to SA supermarkets for breaking the boring old mode of rip-off wine shows and entrenched wine entitlement beneficiaries. Checkers will stage the first appellation-specific festival with their Battle of die Berge next month while Spar unveiled six Fundis last week who taste wines blind (now there’s a novel idea) and advise shoppers. The Spar initiative has nothing to do with the ill-fated WOSA Fundi disaster to train 2010 sommeliers in time for the Fifa World Cup that ended up as yet another soap box for Wosa management and party opportunities galore for Wosa werkers. Where are the 2010 sommeliers, Su? Was this the biggest waste of producer marketing money, ever?

“Fundi” is up there with “bru” and “bunny chow” as being KZN contributions to Seffican so its totally appropriate that Ntsiki Biyela (below, photographed by Tinus van Niekerk) is one. I wrote about her in the Sunday Times Food Weekly yesterday.

Nt page 0 249x300 The fresh new face of SA wine

From Ulundi to Margaux

“When I opened the email, I thought it was a scam” says Ntsiki Biyela who will be the first Zulu to make wine in Bordeaux later this year. But far from being yet another financial proposal from the widow of Nigerian strong man Sani Abacha, this invitation from Philippe Raoux, owner of Château d’Arsac in the Médoc, was the real deal.

Back in 2005 Philippe came up with a new idea: The Winemakers’ Collection. Every year he invites a well-known winemaker to select 10 ha of vines from the 110 ha which comprise his property and to oversee their farming until harvest. The grapes of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot will then be picked under Ntsiki’s direction in September and vinified into wine. After being aged, first in barrels and then in bottles, they will be sold with her name on the label as genuine Margaux in 2015.

This of course assumes the Gods of Weather will smile sweetly on her corner of the Médoc as earlier this month, a 10-minute hailstorm affected around 20,000 ha of grapes in Bordeaux, an area roughly 20% the size of the national vineyard in SA. As global climate change increasingly becomes an issue, growing grapes has become an extreme occupation.

Ntsiki currently makes her own Bordeaux blend called Orion at Stellekaya, high up in the mountains above Stellenbosch, where baboons rather than hail are the problem. “They have built a foefie-slide over the electric fence” reports Ntsiki “and when they get into the vineyard, they eat most of the crop. They strip the berries and leave the bare bunches hanging on the vine.” This year the yield from one hectare of Cabernet Franc was 700Kg which could have been bought far cheaper at Checkers, whose MD Whitey Basson, lives in the valley below.

After a trip to France earlier this year, Ntsiki will visit the property between six and eight times, confirming the project as a great opportunity for cultural exchange. For local inspiration, Ntsiki looks to Vilafonté whose award-winning Bordeaux blends are made by California Zelma Long. Which is quite fortunate, as Zelma is a previous alumnus at the Winemakers’ Collection.

The first was Michel Rolland, who consulted on several vintages at Rupert & Rothschild in Paarl and at Remhoogte in Stellenbosch. The guru of Sauvignon Blanc Denis Dubourdieu, who also makes a wine called G. in Stellenbosch, has had a turn as have winemakers from Italy and Argentina. A real United Nations of Wine.

Ntsiki is also a big fan of High Road Directors’ Reserve and De Toren Fusion V, a Stellennbosch Bordeaux blend inspired by Château la Tour. No wonder a chapter of the Commanderie de Bordeaux – an association of wine lovers dedicated to advancing the intellectual style red blends of the region – was founded in SA in 2011 with the most recent meeting held on Kanonkop on the Simonsberg. The previous one was at Vergelegen, one of the big guns of the Helderberg.

While Bordeaux appellations are classified into left and right banks, in Stellenbosch terroir is defined mountains. So it comes as no surprise to see Checkers get behind a blind tasting of rival wines from the two largest: the Simonsberg and Helderberg in a Battle of die Berge next month. With her allegiance temporarily assigned to Margaux, Ntsiki would have been be a fair judge of the competing merits of the mountains – especially as Stellekaya owes allegiance to neither and wines will be assessed blind. But alas, she will be in the USA when the wines are judged blind on Friday 13th September.

Born in Ulundi and trained in Stellenbosch, Ntsiki is living proof to the international sisterhood of the vine.