A pioneer in South Africa, Ntsiki Biyela is making wines of distinction. (photos courtesy of Aslina)

Chardonnay can be divisive. Some people love it; some people don’t. For a long time, I fell into the latter camp. After years of drinking heavy Napa-style Chardonnays at cocktail parties and wedding receptions, I suddenly found the oak overpowering and the floral notes cloying.

But then I decided to give it another try—if I liked it once, I could like it again, right? So, in the spirit of Women’s History Month this past March, I picked up a bottle of 2021 Aslina Chardonnay ($24), produced by Ntsiki Biyela, the first Black woman winemaker in South Africa. The label gets its name from Biyela’s grandmother, her inspiration since founding the brand in 2016 in the Cape Winelands. I was excited to reopen my eyes to Chardonnay through the creations of a boundary-pushing winemaker.

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Biyela grew up in a rural village in KwaZulu-Natal and graduated from high school in 1996. Three years later, she was awarded a scholarship to study winemaking at Stellenbosch University. She earned her bachelor’s in agriculture (viticulture and oenology) in 2003 then joined red-wine-focused Stellekaya as their winemaker the following year.

She wasn’t satisfied, however, with working under another label—she wanted to create her own wines, under her own brand. And that passion ultimately led her to open Aslina in Stellenbosch, on the Western Cape. Her first vintage was a 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, which was released two years later.

Today, her work and wines have impressed many, landing her international awards and recognition for her work and earning praise from oenophiles the world over. A friend of mine recently went to a tasting and shared that she’d loved a Sauvignon Blanc by Aslina—before I’d even mentioned that I was in the middle of writing a tasting note.

While I have yet to sample that wine, I did find much to enjoy about the 2021 Chardonnay. Made from 100 percent Chardonnay grapes from the Stellenbosch and Elgin vineyards—the former is a warmer climate and the latter is cooler—the wine was aged in both barrels and stainless steel tanks, the latter of which tames some of the fuller notes of the varietal.

The wine opens with a gentle nose of vanilla, flower petals, and toasted bread, perhaps even some citrus. There is a hint of honeysuckle but not in the way I typically experience the pungent scent of a chardonnay. On the palate, it is not overly oaky; the stainless steel tanks sharpen the flavors, brightening fruit-forward notes of nectarine and peach, and tempering the more typical round, full butteriness. There’s even some tanginess, a dash of lime and lemon rind, and a lovely acidity present throughout each sip. It makes for an interesting glass and can easily be enjoyed sans food—though I did pair it with a honey-berry compote that further elevated the flavors. I could also see this being savored with grilled lemon-rosemary chicken over fresh-made pasta.

It was all enough to pique my curiosity and give me enough palatable pleasure to re-enter the world of Chardonnay. Otherwise? It’s time to try the rest of Biyela’s wines—from the Umsasane Cabernet Sauvignon blend to the Chenin Blanc.