Ken Forrester

Saturday, 1 June, 2013
Christian Eedes
Could Ken Forrester have known what he was getting himself into when he gave up a successful career in the hospitality industry to acquire Stellenbosch property Scholtzenhof in 1993 and begin wine farming?
ANC leader Nelson Mandela had been released from prison in 1990 and South Africa’s first free and fair elections would take place in 1994 – the roller-coaster ride that has been the modern era of South African wine industry was just beginning.

Forrester, now 55 years old, can certainly count himself as one of the key figures in the Chenin Blanc renaissance. The FMC (current release 2010 selling for R325 a bottle from the tasting room) is arguably one of South Africa’s most famed bottlings at the top end of the market today but he provides versions of the grape which represent great quality relative to price at all market levels.

His next challenge he’s set himself is to gain the sort of public acceptance for his Rhône-style reds that his examples of Chenin have earned. “The greatest single problem we face in South Africa is that we harvest in the peak of summer whereas the rest of the world harvests in autumn,” he says. “We are undoubtedly a Mediterranean climate and hence we should be using Mediterranean varieties such as Grenache and Mourvèdre – they’re late ripening and with the aid of little irrigation can survive our harsh summers.”

He’s been at Rhône-style reds since 1996: “We had some Shiraz on our property and I discovered some old block Grenache in Devon Valley. I combined the two but initially it sold like pork sandwiches in a synagogue. People had no sense of what the wine was.”

Forrester persevered, a pivotal moment being when he gained access to a block of Grenache sited in Piekenierskloof and planted in 1959. “All of a sudden, we had much better fruit quality and it showed in the wines.”

Today, Forrester makes three different Rhône-style reds: Renegade, the 2008 consisting of 38% Grenache and 31% each of Mourvèdre and Syrah (R95 a bottle), the Three Halves, the 2007 consisting of 50% Mourvèdre and 25% each of Grenache and Syrah (R220 a bottle) and The Gypsy, the 2009 consisting of 51% Grenache and 49% Syrah (R325 a bottle).

He’s starting to get something right as The Gypsy was rated 5 Stars in Platter’s 2013. Part of what he thinks sets Rhône varieties apart from Bordeaux varieties is their tannic structure. “It’s like the difference between the teeth of a hack saw and a wood saw. On a hack saw, there are more teeth per centimetre of blade and they’re finer. Those tannins are a product of having to wait longer for ripeness.”

For all the progress Forrester might be making in his own right, he thinks it’s a weakness of the South African wine industry that producers and public alike are still locked into the Big Five – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. “On the one hand, we’ve failed to educate consumers as to all what’s possible but on the other, a huge opportunity still exists to draw in more of the population. We finally have a black middle class that’s a big as the white middle class and yet they haven’t really begun to engage with wine.”

Essentially, he’s confident that the idea will take hold that the local winelands are more Mediterranean than anything else, but he cautions that political issues must also be addressed. “We need to embark on a programme of replanting but nobody’s going to do that if they are uncertain about the future. Europe has security of tenure that we simply don’t have. The lack of government acceptance, let alone support, for this industry is a huge threat. This lack of recognition translates into farmer insecurity and bearing in mind that it takes 30 years for a vineyard to mature, this insecurity will be our undoing.” speaks to Ken on his favourite wine memories and how he's a classic car man all the way