Ken Forrester, Maestro of Chenin

Some will raise an eyebrow at the title of this article, for surely the Loire Valley and appellations like Vouvray and Savennières are the spiritual home of wines made from Chenin Blanc?  That of course is true, but South Africa’s history and expertise with Chenin undoubtedly places it alongside. Around one fifth of all vineyards are given over to the variety – that’s more than double the Cape’s plantings of Chardonnay.

Ken ForresterBelieved to be among the first vine cuttings that arrived in South Africa in 1655 (when it was known as ‘Steen’), quantity alone would not be enough to put Cape Chenin on the map. Indeed, a few decades ago it had a fairly ignoble existence, being distilled for brandy production or blended into cheap jug wines. But along with so much in the Cape’s wine industry, all that changed with the post-apartheid opening-up of South Africa. As viticulture and winemaking rapidly improved in general, a few producers saw the potential to take Chenin much more seriously. With an eye on the Loire Valley of course, things began to change, and leading that charge, was Ken Forrester (pictured above, on the right).

I’ve met up with Ken many times over the 20 years since my first tour of the Cape’s vineyards, and it is always a pleasure to taste through his terrific range of wines, his story told with such enthusiasm and expert knowledge (as those attending my Festivals of Wine in 2019 will discover: Ken has a stand at each, and will present a Chenin masterclass in Glasgow on 29th June). In February I took half a day out from holiday to have some lunch with Ken and fellow winemaker Richard Hilton, and visit his Scholtzenhof estate in Stellenbosch. This is one of the oldest wine farms in the Cape, originally granted in 1689. By the time the Forrester family bought it in 1993, it had fallen into some disrepair. In 1994 the first wines appeared under the Ken Forrester label.

Ken Forrester vineyardsSoils here at the base of the Helderberg mountain are sandy and loamy, and biodiversity is encouraged, with two hectares of marshland conserved to help create a thriving eco-system. Ken is photographed here explaining the soils in a Grenache plot, trained on trellis, but some of his oldest Chenin vineyards are planted as bush vines and irrigation is rarely required.

Grenache and several other varieties are grown and bottled, all high quality wines, but Chenin dominates the vineyards and the range, and it is for very good reason that he is widely known as ‘Mr Chenin’. A tireless advocate for the variety, he travels the world to promote not just his wines, but Chenin in general, often including top Loire wines in his tastings for comparison.

FMC+DLSBack in 1993, Ken moved to Stellenbosch from Johannesburg, where he owned and ran restaurants, immediately seeking the help of good friend and top winemaker Martin Meinert to advise, the pair enjoying a close working relationship to this day. Spending time in Ken’s company, it is not hard for his passion to rub off. He thinks back to his time as a restaurateur “I have a fascination with food, he says. “Look what can you do with a egg, from macaroons to an omelette.”

That sensibility extends to his wines, where it seems he constantly tinkers and experiments. Wines like his Sparklehorse, a traditional method sparkling Chenin, or ‘Dirty Little Secret’, Ken’s interpretation of Chenin as ‘Natural Wine’, have joined the mainstream examples, though arguably it is ‘FMC’, his top Chenin Blanc, that continues to set the pace as an icon of the variety and the country’s white wines.

In 2016, French wine group Advini purchased a majority share in Ken Forrester Wines, bringing investment I would guess, but also a powerful, global distribution network. Ken continues as Chief Executive, managing the business, and to all intents and purposes nothing seems to have changed: he and his family still live on the property, he has considerable autonomy in all aspects of the business, and just as he always did, he lives and breathes Ken Forrester Wines. I asked about the deal and Ken’s answer was that with none of his children inclined to take the business on, it secured the future of his brand and his business, with a sympathetic partner who also control l’Avenir and Bonheur estates in South Africa.

Ken Forrester Wines is one of those model brands, where a scrupulous approach to farming, winemaking and business, ensures that everything in the portfolio, from the inexpensive ‘Petit’ range, to the top ‘Icon’ wines, is imbued with quality.

The Wines

Ken Forrester Wines are imported into the UK by Enotria.

(2019) A traditional method fizz with secondary fermentation in individual bottles, and made from 100% Chenin Blanc. Ken explains the technicalities of this wine, or rather the vineyards, which ripen three weeks later than other Chenin plots, so perfect for picking with lower potential alcohol as sparkling base wine. It spends 27 months on lees and in bottle before release. Fine mousse, delicious fruit, long, and though there is a creaminess here it has real crunch and absolute freshness.
(2019) Lovely glimpse of flintiness to the pure apple and pear fruit, very pure and delightfully fresh, this entry level Chenin shows the attention to detail and precision given throughout the Forrester range. It's all about the fruit in this wine, made in stainless steel, and with a sense of limpid purity.
(2019) Half of this Reserve Chenin Blanc from a 38-year-old vineyard is barrel fermented, spending nine months French oak, 20% new. What a lovely nose, creamy and ripe, almondy and with just a sheen of oatmeally oak. Great freshness on the palate of apples and lemons, but the barrel maturation in-filling with that creaminess and density. Great value, and will undoubtedly age.
(2019) Ken's Dirty Little Secret is his playful dig at the trendy 'dirty' winemaking of naturalista winemakers: dirty in terms of juice being fermented with skins and sometimes stems, and the wine bottled unflitered or fined, so it may show a little cloudiness. Ken has interpreted that with this wine from an ancient 1958 Chenin Blanc vineyard, dry farmed and planted in sand, the wine naturally fermented with wild yeasts. It's a dry, savoury wine expressing lots of minerality, dry and orange zest touches, saltiness, an umami meatiness but great surge of lemon freshness in the finish. A really good wine flirting with that 'natural' style, though not currently showing as available in the UK. Only seven barrels were made.
(2019) This seemingly immortal wine was tasting fabulous at 19 years of age, and is a wine I have tasted a few times since a first tasting at Ken's winery in 2002. Then I noted "Nutty, roasted, espresso aromas," and while that lovely toast is still present, like the pungent green bean and nettle character of the young wine, it is now more subtle while the fruit is showing more peachy and ripe in a complex wine of great length and balance. If the current releases of the Reserve Chenin (effectively this wine's succesor) has the same longevity, it's a definite candidate for the cellar. This wine is not currently for sale in the UK.
(2019) A wine I have admired for many, many years, FMC is Chenin at its most opulent. From low yielding bush vines planted in 1974, it is harvested at full maturity and fermented with wild yeasts in new 400-litre French oak barrels. Some botrytis is always part of the harvest here, though the 9g/l of residual sugar is easily absorbed by the acidity and structure. Honeyed, nutty and ripe, there's a quince and fig touch to this, before a luxurious palate, rich with honey and nectarine, sheer acidity will ensure longevity too. Price and stockist quoted at time of review are for the latest vintage.
(2019) A Rhône blend of 49% Syrah, 45% Grenache and 6% Mourvèdre, the Syrah for The Gypsy comes gravel soils over clay, the Grenache from decomposed granite at 450m altitude. It spent two years in French oak, all new. A sonorous, deep nose melds cocoa and cedar with lots of plum and brighter cherry fruit. On the palate it's a wine that beautifully marries that richness and depth with an agility through a certain peppery spice, taut tannins and a very good acid framework.  Yes it has a chewy character, but fruit and freshness too.
(2019) Love the name of this, the 'Three Halves' being Mourvèdre with 'a splash' of Shiraz and Grenache, "the total being greater than the sum of the parts."  A cellar-door release, so not available in the UK currently, this was also the first vintage which Ken kindly opened for me. Aged in second fill French oak barrels for 18 months, it begins to show some lovely tertiary development, a bit of bloodiness and meatiness, pepper and smokiness, a dense and chewy suggestion to the fruit, though through to the palate the fruit has a hint of cranberry and dry redcurrant that gives the wine a fresh edge, good acids and fairly gentle tannins that give this great drinkability.

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