The Ken Forrester Enigma

The vibrant energy of the lush cover-cops lining these gnarled Chenin Blanc vines is only surpassed by the imposing figure sitting next to me. “How’s that for some serious cover-crop?” says Ken Forrester in that familiar tone of voice which always seems to sound one-part question, one-part wonder and two-parts enthusiasm.

He commands disembarkation from his vehicle to inspect the dense, knee-high growth of grass and grain. This forms a living natural cluster between the vineyard rows, rejuvenating the soil with carbon and earth-worms, as well as attracting critters to rather inhabit this plush growth than to chomp on the vines.

Ken stomps across the crops covering his land, stooping to pluck white carrot-shaped roots from the damp earth. “Chinese radishes,” he exclaims, “great for a vineyard cover-crop as well as making one hell of a tasty salad.”

Ken Forrester

With bunches of Chinese radishes in the hands and muddy boots on the feet, we get back into the vehicle, heading to other parts of his Scholtzenhof farm. This is the spread next to the R44 between Stellenbosch and Somerset-West he bought back in 1993. Today some of the top grapes are grown here for use in the range of wines named after a man whose formidable personality is possibly only just clipped by the quality of his wines. Of which there are many. But when Ken walks into a room, you are thinking Chenin Blanc. And Rhône-style reds. Although such is his presence and power of persuasion, Ken can make sherry from Shiraz, and still have you believe it’s the greatest thing around.

“Just came down from Johannesburg for a wedding, and ended-up buying this farm, would you believe,” Ken says as he drives past the beautifully restored manor house with its characteristic wolf’s nose Dutch gable. “Of course, the place did not look like this then, and there was a lot of lending of money and cleaning-up and vineyard-planting. But now, 27 years later, it’s all turned out pretty okay.”

Of course, when Ken and his wife Teresa arrived from the Big Smoke to take-up residence in the Cape winelands, ambitions were needed as they were still in their thirties. And Ken’s goal was quite simple: “I wanted to make the best wine in the world.”

Well why the hell not, hey? Great soils on the lower slopes of the Helderberg, one of Stellenbosch’s two best wine addresses and a piece of land planted with some fine old vineyards. Thing is, Ken had never made wine. Loved it, deeply. A graduate of the Johannesburg Hotel School, Ken got to drink and know wine through various adventures in the kitchens of hotels and restaurants. From the culinary mosh-pit of the Sun City Kitchen in the 1980s, to a tad of cooking and serving more refined table-offerings at his Gatriles Restaurant in Johannesburg, the love of wine grew into more than an obsession through discovering and drinking. He had to get his hands onto the making of it.

FMC vineyard as the sun sets.

I asked him about the wines that inspired him. Those elixirs that broke the heart, stirred the soul and made this imposing figure go weak at the knees.

“White Burgundy,” he says without hesitation, “and especially Chablis. Moving in the hospitality circles in Johannesburg I was fortunate to gain access to great wine collections from people I befriended. The Chardonnay from Burgundy made me realise how great white wine can be. And on the red side, well, myself and my partner at the restaurant each year bought a case of Mouton-Rothschild instead of paying ourselves a bonus. But the Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Papes made magic for me. Particularly Château de Saint Cosme.” He pauses after mentioning that wine.

The main part of our drive around Domain Forrester lies ahead of us, back in the direction of Stellenbosch. Namely the FMC vineyard, a Chenin Blanc block planted in 1970 and used in the wine that launched South Africa’s foray into premium Chenin Blanc since Ken’s maiden FMC Chenin Blanc was released from the 2000 vintage.

The guy’s been talking Burgundy and Rhône, and other parts France. How did the thing with Chenin Blanc come along? And, more specifically, the decision to use this traditional work-horse, ubiquitous Cape cultivar to realise that ambition, you remember, the one about making the best wine in the world?

The answer comes along with an open smile beneath bright eyes. “Well, when I arrived in the winelands the position of Chenin Blanc acolyte was pretty vacant, wasn’t it?” Absolutely. Chenin Blanc, known as Steen for a long part of the Cape wine history, is still the most planted variety in the Cape and for decades formed the backbone of the entry-level, mass-volume wine offering, as well as a base for distilling wine on which the reputation for South African brandy was built. For decades, this appeared to be Chenin Blanc’s lot in life.

In the late 1990s, however, I remember rumours doing the rounds of a Stellenbosch wine-farmer espousing the merits of Chenin Blanc as a premier variety, capable of making the best wines in the country. Not only that – the guy doing the talking was English-speaking, and from Johannesburg. Even had a car number-plate that read “Chenin”.

Two decades later, Chenin Blanc is recognised by international critics, wine writers and buyers as South Africa’s finest white wine offering, as well as the fact of the Cape making the best Chenin Blanc in the world. The Loire Valley in central France, Chenin’s traditional home, has been de-throned. And Ken’s been the main toppler of that crown.

“Sure, I’ve done a lot of the talking and marketing, and it’s been fun,” says Ken. Yes, but the talk has been backed-up by great wines, introducing consumers not only to Chenin Blanc itself, but the diversity in styles it is capable of offering. Other producers followed, with there today being a swarm of Chenin prophets, preachers and imbongis to inspire and encourage South Africa and the world to #DrinkChenin.

Ken reminds me that cowboys don’t ride alone. “It all begins with the vine, and look at this,” he says pointing to the FMC Chenin vineyard. The 50 year-old vines are neat stumps, gnarled and pruned into what can ironically be described as rugged uniformity. “And this is what I got to work with – fantastic vines and terrific fruit. Then there is Martin Meinert, my winemaking partner on this path – Martin is arguably one of the most unsung heroes of South African wine. No, FMC is not standing for “Fucking Marvellous Chenin”, but Forrester Meinert Chenin! What the name Ken Forrester has achieved, well, Meinert’s been a major part of it.”

Later, during an extensive tasting, there is Pinotage and Grenache, Pinot Noir and Mourvèdre and red blends. Plus line-ups of FMC and other Chenin Blancs with spectacular light and power, breeze and song. Flavours abound, white fruit and citrus; spice and rock; sea-air and the shells of fleshy molluscs. Here, it is Chenin Blanc second, first being just superbly brilliant white wines that could, yes, be some of the best in the world.

The late Anton Rupert said that wine depends on only three things: Image, Image and Image. As I give the opinions on the wines, for as a guest it would be rude not to, he nods sagely. Yes, wine is all about three particulars, he says: “Balance, balance, and balance.”

This fine wine is what he strived for since beginning as a winefarmer. “I had no formal training in the field, which perhaps was a blessing as I had no preconceived ideas of what this or that has to smell or taste like, and under what conventions something had to be made,” he says. “There was nothing to confine me. Sure, you make mistakes along the way – a lot of them – but there is nothing like making a mistake to force you to learn. Quickly.”

He will know what they’ve been, but Ken Forrester’s done right, and done good. During his tenure as chairman of the Stellenbosch Wine Routes he used his broad connections in business, tourism and hospitality to put Stellenbosch on the top of the heap in terms of wineland tourism. Today’s young wine guns, who have the international spotlight on South African Chenin Blanc to thank for a large amount of their success, will know that it all began back in Stellenbosch when Ken jetted in for good to apply his mind to that singular vision and ambition.

Because while the cover-crops may abound, be sure that if there is one guy under whose feet grass is not growing, ever, it is Ken.

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