The South Africa Diary: Ken Forrester

An afternoon tasting Cape Chenin Blancs and Rhône-style reds with the charming, bow-tied Ken Forrester
Feb 1, 2013

Ken Forrester is known for several things: bow ties, Chenin Blanc and a youthful passion for living hedonistically. Forrester, 55, is as affable as they come, and nothing gets his hearty laugh going going like a good bottle of wine, a good cigar and a few good jokes. The former restaurateur still has his hospitality skills from his early days, but he has added winemaking to his repertoire. His tireless work in the U.S. has been responsible for him building a 54,000-case operation, of which half goes to the U.S. market. And he seems to relish being one of the flag bearers for his country's still-developing wine industry. For more on Forrester, reference my March 2007 blog.

Forrester, who handles most of the winemaking now at his namesake winery has been joined by viticulturist Peter Rossouw since the 2008 vintage. Forrester's vineyards have been farmed organically since 2002, a year that turned wet and cost him half his crop due to downy mildew.

"But I'd spent four years converting to organics and, besides, why wouldn't you want to be organic?" he asked. "It's the healthier, more sensible way to do things. So no, a little rainy vintage wasn't going to change my mind."

The home estate, located on the border of Stellenbosch and Somerset West, totals 123 acres, with 72 acres under vine. Forrester and Rossouw also have an additional 74 acres of vines under long-term contract, controlling the viticulture, while buying in a little bit of fruit to finish off the production. Everything is done by hand in the vineyards.

"Pruning, tipping, weeding. Everything," emphasized Forrester. "We do it by hand to create jobs. Organics also means growing the community organically. We have a responsibility to do that."

Though the home estate is just 3 miles from the coast, the flat vineyard of weathered sandstone over gravel and clay is a sunny but lightly breezy spot. The old-vine Chenin Blanc on the property, planted in 1970, is what drew Forrester in when he bought it in 1993.

"Everyone said rip out the Chenin and plant Pinotage and Chardonnay. Since everyone told me to rip it out, I figured I had to keep it," he said, with his wide, engaging grin.

Over time he's learned to manage the site for what Forrester calls "cool sunshine," to produce richly styled wines that still maintain freshness. The vineyard rows run north-south so they get both morning and afternoon sun. Therefore there is no aggressive leaf pulling here as I saw at the much windier and cooler vineyards of de Morgenzon earlier in my trip. Forrester needs to shade his fruit a bit for protection. Some of the bush vines have since been retrained onto a trellis, while others have been left as is.

New VLOG size for 2013

For Forrester's top bottling, called The FMC, Forrester uses the 10-acre bush-vine parcel, first moving through and picking the most sun-exposed bunches first, and then progressively picking the vineyard in multiple passes, sometimes up to five, to get lots with differing acidity levels and ripeness.

"The FMC is a big wine, but for it to work, it needs restraint, natural acidity," explained Forrester. "The earlier fruit has acidity but not the phenolic ripeness, as it doesn't get the hang time, and then the later pickings have more of that fruit profile that we're looking for."

The 2011 Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch The FMC shows a beautiful core of freshly churned butter, heather, almond and creamed pear notes, but there's still a chalky tension buried on the finish, with an echo of apple blossom. The 2010 Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch The FMC is showier in style, with bolder apricot, orange blossom and clementine notes, giving way to a flash of marmalade on the finish. Forrester prefers the fresher-styled 2011, while he said he can't keep the 2010 in stock.

"The Dolly Parton wine, the '10, really wows a lot of people. But that was an unrepentantly warm year. The '11 is what I would prefer, with that minerality still showing in the wine. But it goes to show that not all vintages in South Africa are the same. We really do have vintage variation here," he said.

Because of the heady profile of the 2010 vintage, Forrester also made a small batch, just two barrels, of the 2010 Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch The FMC Première Selection Moelleux, in hommage to his love of Loire Valley Chenin. The wine carries 3 percent residual sugar and was made form mostly shriveled grapes which stopped their ferment short of dry. The wine is creamy and lush, with Jonagold apple, pear and piecrust notes but enough floral notes to keep the finish defined and alluring.

And to show how the wine ages, Forrester opens a bottle of the 2003 Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch The FMC, which is showing white Northern Rhône characteristics of white truffle, white chocolate and creamed pear fruit, along with an echo of dried apricot on the finish. It's creamy but very well-defined and very long.

"I want acidity as a spine, not as a frame," said Forrester of his approach. "You can't just take underripe fruit and ripe fruit and average it out for balance. We're always looking for acidity in the fruit to begin with. You have to pick ripe fruit, not fruit with just acidity combined with fruit for just ripe fruit's sake."

There are values here in Chenin too, including the 2012 Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch Old Vines Reserve which, at $15, is a great buy, delivering tasty peach, heather, honeysuckle and fig notes with a lightly crunchy texture and good energy. The 2012 Chenin Blanc Western Cape Petit, at $10, shows light-bodied kafir lime, pear peel and green almond notes in an unassuming, refreshing style.

In addition to Chenin, Forrester has a love of Rhône varieties as well, and he continues to tinker with his red lineup, introducing the 2007 Renegade Western Cape, a 52/48 blend of Grenache and Syrah that displays a decidedly Rhône profile of pepper, wood smoke, tobacco and mulled cherry fruit with a dusty edge on the finish. The 2010 The Gypsy Western Cape blends Grenache from a vineyard in the Tierkloof, planted in 1959 that might be the oldest Grenache vines in the country, along with Syrah from around the estate in Stellenbosch. It delivers dusty plum, bitter cherry and red currant fruit spiked with white pepper, tobacco and singed wood notes, while keeping nice tension on the fleshy, full-bodied finish. It's a wine that always seems to put on weight as it airs in the glass too, showing more pure fruit as it opens up.

And showing an old dog can learn a few new tricks, Forrester has an experimental lot of Durif and Mourvèdre in the works. The 50/50 blend from the 2010 vintage is as yet unnamed, but its dense and chewy feel, with lots of cherry paste, blackberry confiture and anise flavors, sports ample power, while the smoky finish belies the fact that there is no new oak at all on the wine. It's a very intriguing wine in the making.

"That's the future direction for South Africa, I think," said Forrester. "More Mediterranean varieties to match with the sunny, windy conditions here."

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