{"api":{"host":"https:\/\/pinot.decanter.com","authorization":"Bearer ZjRkMTFjNjEzMThmOGM5ZDNlMDBiNDQ0NTZmYjNmYTk1MzZhOTNkZGZjYTJhMzRkYjRkMWRmYjA5MDE3OGNhNg","version":"2.0"},"piano":{"sandbox":"false","aid":"6qv8OniKQO","rid":"RJXC8OC","offerId":"OFPHMJWYB8UK","offerTemplateId":"OFPHMJWYB8UK","wcTemplateId":"OTOW5EUWVZ4B"}}


A drink with… Ken Forrester

South Africa’s ‘Mr Chenin’ is a flagbearer for a grape once seen as a mere workhorse in the Cape. He talks to Tina Gellie about old vines, pét-nat and focusing on the sprinkles.

Today Cape Chenin Blanc stands proudly alongside the world’s best, with Ken Forrester wines regularly at the forefront. His 2021 Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc won a Best in Show (97pts) at this year’s DWWA. 

‘Everyone likes a bargain. I want people to see my wine and say: I’m happy to pay for that again and again. And for that I have to overdeliver. So to have not only one of my Chenins, but a Chenin from 35-year-old vines, that costs around £15, to be recognised as the world’s best Chenin Blanc – well, that’s what it’s all about!’

‘I’m not competing with other producers in Stellenbosch or South Africa, I am competing with the world – the Chilean Sauvignon Blancs, the Argentinian Torrontes, the Picpoul de Pinets… All those whites that are people’s go-tos on shelves – my Chenins need to overdeliver against those.’

‘We have this amazing Chenin Blanc vineyard in Helderberg, planted in 1975 and part of the Old Vine Project. Because of the vines’ age, there was a bit of leafroll, which affects ripening. So what to do? If you can’t get it ripe, make it sparkling! And that’s how my first fizz, Sparklehorse, was born.’

‘If you follow Champagne too closely, all you get is a great view of its backside. So when I first made it 10 years ago, I was determined to be different. Today it stands proud as a Chenin Blanc Cap Classique: eight months on lees and 28 months in bottle.’

‘In 2012 I was in London and wandering around the South Bank and I saw this carousel. It was beautiful. I took a photo of one of the horses and sent it to an artist friend and said: copy it! It’s the perfect representation of Sparklehorse: the workhorse grape of Chenin, now bright and bubbly.’

‘If you want to play jazz, you need to learn the classics. It’s only when you have a classical background that you can start being experimental. So we had Sparklehorse, now it was time to try a pét-nat. Stained Glass is from Grenache, aged 18 months on lees. The label was another photo I took on my travels and told the artist to copy. It’s the ultimate Wimbledon fizz – bone dry but tasting like fizzy strawberries and cream.’

‘I have a protégé working for me – Shawn Mathyse; super smart, so switched on. Born on a wine farm and one of five kids – his mum was the housekeeper for a friend. He studied agriculture at Elsenburg in Stellenbosch and when he finished I said I’d take him on if he was willing. He’s got a passion for Chenin and you just know he’s going to be his own winemaker one day.’

‘We practise organic farming so we harvest by hand. It’s more effort but we’re also able to help more that way. We now employ 140 people, and many of the pickers are part of the same family which, when you have a family of six or eight people, that money can really make a difference.’

‘Picking by hand you’re only getting the good stuff. And you can guarantee it’s vegan. Try telling a vegan that there might be a birds nest or hairy spiders mulched in with their machine-picked wine!’

‘Pruning is the architecture of the vine. The moment you prune a vine is the moment you decide what kind of wine you’re going to get off it.’

‘We have 4,000ha of Grenache planted now in South Africa. We have the perfect Mediterranean climate to grow Rhône varieties and, in blends like our Renegade – which I think was the country’s first Shiraz-Grenache-Mourvèdre in 1996 – it is always the Grenache that dominates in flavour, even if not in percentage.’

‘Grenache is the cherry fruit bomb and Syrah is the peppery cinnamon spice while Mourvèdre is the base – the boombox of resonance and weight.’

‘Focus on the sprinkles. There’s a reason lots of people don’t make a 100% Mourvèdre or Petit Verdot or even Merlot. They’re not great on their own but, in tiny amounts, they enhance a wine. It’s like the bit of pepper on your steak or some sea salt in your chocolate – it makes them taste better! It doesn’t mean you want to eat a pile of pepper or salt.’

Bordeaux and Burgundy tannins are like the teeth on a saw: Bordeaux has jagged hooks and Burgundy has fine blades. New oak helps to tame the tannins in Bordeaux, whereas time is all you need for Burgundy.’

Related articles

A drink with… Sam Linter

A drink with… Jonatan García

A drink with… Susana Balbo

Latest Wine News