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south african wine, part 1
Ken Forrester

I'm beginning this new series on South African wine with a visit to one of the leading proponents of Chenin Blanc, Ken Forrester. It's sort of appropriate: it's South Africa's most widely planted grape, and along with Pinotage it's a point of difference from other new world wine producing countries. I'll discuss more about the South African wine industry in later parts of this series, but I thought it would be good to get stuck straight into the wines.  

As you might expect of a restaurateur, Ken Forrester (pictured above) has a relaxed, easy feel about him. We met early evening at his property in Stellenbosch. He has a beautiful house in the middle of vineyards. A winegrower’s lot can be a tough one, but it has its perks, sometimes.

Forrester began making wine just over a decade ago. In 10 years, production has zoomed from an initial level of 400 cases to some 85 000; now he’s known the world over as Mr Chenin Blanc, because it’s his work with South Africa’s oft-despised most widely planted variety, that has raised his profile as a winegrower.

One of his skills is evidently his keen sense of timing. Eleven years ago he purchased a derelict wine farm, which hadn’t been lived on for some six years (you can see on the right what this looks like now). This was when the industry was in the doldrums, and like a skilled surfer he caught the South African wine industry’s wave of expansion almost perfectly.

Forrester’s range has three tiers. At the entry level he buys in grapes, but beyond that it’s mostly estate wine from his 38 hectares of vineyards. We began a quick vineyard tour by looking at a young Cabernet Franc vineyard, which was planted recently for blending with Merlot. ‘Where does 100% Merlot work fantastically?’, he asked me. He’s currently buying in Cabernet Franc to blend in at 8% with his Merlot, hence the decision to plant his own. It gives pepper and depth to the wines; another facet.

‘South African winemakers were mainly trained at Geisenheim [in Germany] in the past’, points out Forrester. ‘So the vineyards here were planted to middle European varieties, when we actually have more of a Mediterranean climate’. The more recent plantings are focusing on Mediterranean varieties, and Forrester now has some 5 year old Mourvedre to work with.

In 1999 he decided to begin conversion to organics under the guidance of Dr Hoffman in Germany, and by 2002 he was ready to sign on with the certifying body Ecocert. Difficult conditions (840 infections within a 3 month period) meant he lost his whole crop. He’s still working more-or-less organically, but has decided not to go for certification, which costs money in terms of a sign-on fee and an annual audit.

Forrester’s prize vineyard is his 38 year old block of bush vine Chenin at the front of his property (left). ‘Managing it carefully is the key to quality’, he says. Yields are kept at 4 tons/hectare and each bunch is left with 16–18 leaves for ripening. 6 km from the ocean, the property enjoys climate moderation from a cool patch of air that hangs around: he harvests his Sauvignon three weeks later than some other parts of Stellenbosch.

The wines

Forrester Sauvignon Blanc 2005 Stellenbosch
Nice balance here. Quite aromatic but not aggressively grassy. Nice weight on the palate which shows rounded fruit with a good acid core. A nice fruity style. Very good+ 87/100

Forrester Petit Chenin 2004
Lovely nose: a bit of straw, some herbs, some honey, and good fruit. The palate has lovely weight with nice acidity, and baked apple and herb notes. Delicious. Very good+ 87/100

Forrester Chenin Blanc 2005
Ken decided to make this to get people to take notice of Chenin Blanc. All the consultants told him to rip Chenin out because there was no market for it. He’s proved them wrong. This wine shows great longevity, and Ken has examples tasting well going back to 1995, which was the first vintage. It’s barrel-fermented with natural yeasts in 400 litre barrels. He doesn’t start picking until 23 or 24 baume because he is happy to have some botrytis in there. The juice isn’t clarified completely; Ken is happy to have some solids in there. Smooth honeyed nose. The palate is quite smooth with honey and herb-tinged fruit. Quite sophisticated while still showing some personality. Very good+ 89/100 (UK availability: Waitrose)

FMC Chenin Blanc 2003
‘I wanted to produce a world class white wine, using Chenin unblended, but which could stand up against anything else’, explains Ken. ‘Unlike the Loire, we can get 7 good and 3 unbelievable vintages each decade: perhaps one in 10 will be difficult’. Off the record, Ken didn’t deny that the initials FMC stood for F*****g Magic Chenin, although the official line is that they refer to Forrester and Martin Meinert, the winemaker involved in this project with Ken. ‘We decided to use wood’, he reports, ‘and in 1997, 1998 and 1999 we got nowhere making batches of wine from the best vineyard’. In 2000, however, they got it right, and FMC was born. The first commercial release was 2001. It’s wonderful stuff. There’s lots of complexity: toast, herbs, straw, spice and meal. The palate is rich, smooth and spicy with nice weight and texture. It carries the 12 g/l residual sugar well. Very good/excellent 93/100 (UK avialability: Waitrose, around £15)

Forrester Merlot 2003
Lots of varietal character here. Lovely minerally black fruits with a subtle, chalky, herby edge. The palate is nicely savoury with good minerality and a nice spiciness. Good fruit. Very good+ 88/100

Forrester Shiraz Grenache 2003
Really nice expressive spicy wine with a slightly reductive spicy, smoky nose. This leads to a palate that is expressive, spicy and tannic with a lovely savouriness. There’s nice Grenache pepperiness. Very good+ 89/100  

Forrester Gypsy Red 2003
This was bottled the previous day. It's a blend of the best Grenache and Shiraz, kept in barrel for 24 months (400 litre new oak barrels). This is the third release. It has a smooth, dark, supple fruity nose. Quite elegant. There's some new oak apparent, but it has good integration. The palate shows smooth, spicy, elegant red and black fruits with lots of structure. Complex and elegant, and possibly worthy of a higher rating with age. Very good/excellent 93/100

Forrester ‘T’ Noble Late Harvest 2003
Viscous, smooth and sweet, this is a nice botrytised wine, with the usual flavours of honey, marmalade and apricot. Very good+ 89/100

Wines tasted 12/05
Find these wines with wine-searcher.com

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