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.
Believed 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.
Soils 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.
Back 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.