Ntsiki full force

© Cape Times Friday 20th September 2013

Everyone’s got a dream of something they would like to achieve before they die. It could be the holiday of a lifetime, somewhere we really want to visit or an amazing band we want to see live. Perhaps it’s a bottle of wine we want to taste or some restaurant we really want to eat at – those things would definitely be high on my list. And I guess if you’re a winemaker, particularly if you’re a winemaker who specialises in Bordeaux varieties, you’d want to visit Bordeaux, taste a few wines, soak up the atmosphere – that kind of thing. As for actually making wine there? Well, that’s surely beyond anyone’s bucket list dreams and right up there with meeting George Clooney and winning the Lotto.

Welcome to Dream World Ntsiki Biyela! The winemaker from Stellekaya Winery in Stellenbosch has just been catapulted into the world of unreality and will be heading to France later this month for the chance of a lifetime, making wine in Bordeaux with her name on the label and a free hand as to what goes inside the bottle. Every year Château d’Arsac in the Médoc invites a guest winemaker to join them for the vintage. The château has earmarked a particular vineyard, which is the same one every year, and each guest winemaker then gets to decide when it should be picked, how it should be picked, methods of sorting, maceration, winemaking and maturation to create a wine which will bear their name as part of The Winemakers’ Collection.

This is actually a surprisingly humble and forward-thinking initiative on the part of Philippe Raoux, owner of Château d’Arsac. Whilst many French wine folk still seem to be resting on their laurels and relying on tradition, snobbishness and the French mystique to sell their wines, he realised that the New Worlds of Australasia, South America and South Africa are posing very real threats which cannot be ignored. So he’s chosen to embrace this challenge by introducing the Winemakers Collection and bringing it down to what each winemaker does that makes them different from the rest. Letting the wine be represented by the name of the winemaker as opposed to the chateau or region it’s grown in, is a very radical idea for Bordeaux, but luckily for M. Raoux, he has managed to entice some pretty big names over the past few years.

So Ntsiki will be following the likes of Bordeaux gurus Michel Rolland, Denis Dubourdieu and Eric Boissenot as well as a name not unfamiliar to South Africans – Vilafonte’s Zelma Long – all of whom have put their signature on a previous vintage. She says she would like to bring a South African influence to bear on the final product, but at the end of the day, “I’m just going to make the wine the way I know how, back to basics and not too much fiddling around.” Her task is already looking even more challenging as the Merlot has been adversely-affected by bad weather and they are expecting a much reduced crop this year. In addition, any plans to learn to speak French before heading north have gone sadly awry “I know food and wine words so hopefully I won’t starve, but that’s about it!” she confesses with a grin. But Ntsiki isn’t at all deterred by these obstacles, merely reiterating that the challenge, the knowledge and the friendships she is sure she will make are what this adventure is all about – “I’m going to experience everything full force!” she promises. And this is from one of the most energetic winemakers around who has never let any kind of challenge or difficulty get her down or get the best of her. Bordeaux had better watch out for itself, is all I can say!