Ken Forrester and the Chenin Gamble


Ken Forrester has eight rescue dogs. Eight.

Granted, that alone doesn’t make him a gent, but it's a good start. Also if I'm spending an afternoon with a stranger, I want someone who cried at the end of Marley and Me.

Ken Forrester produces almost a million bottles of wine every year, and if you’ve ever had to carry a case of 12, you’ll know that that’s a lot. 600,000 of these are the wildly popular Petit Chenin, which Ken describes as their 100-point wine. And he’s right of course, recognizing that fine wine ratings is a subjective game enjoyed by a select few, and that most wine drinkers play a different numbers game, called Is it worth my cash?

“At R60, our Petit Chenin is a delicious and predictable bottle of wine that exceeds value expectations every time. 100 points.”

He's not wrong. It scores well over 100% on the cost / quality continuum. It's fresh and fruity and appley and citrussy and made for smashing in your face. Which is all very well now that Chenin Blanc is de rigeur, but we’re interested in why he went all in on the grape when he got into wine some 25 years ago. Did he know that South Africa would one day proudly embrace its vinous heritage?

“Miniskirts go up and come down. Boots become sandals and sandals become boots. It’s fashion. When we bought the farm in 1993, Chenin was so far out of fashion that had to be the next big thing. It’s a cycle and we got it at the bottom.”

Delivered like he’d been rehearsing it for years, he’s clearly been rehearsing it for years. Ken is known as “Mr. Chenin” and seems as comfortable with that tag as he is with just about everything else. Not only could he talk his way out of any speeding ticket, he’d probably get an apology from the traffic cop. It strikes me that he’s one of the few wine producers who might be as comfortable in a boardroom as he would at a hipster coffee convention.

But the implications of producing so much of a quality entry-level wine must come with complications. And pressures. And issues. With margins. And long, hard looks in the mirror. The casual wine drinker (basically everyone) wants cheaper wine, but it’s already far cheaper than it should be. For everyone involved to get what they deserve from each sale, wines like Forrester’s Petit Chenin should be more expensive. And for someone who brings in a lot of grapes, nobody understands that better than him:

“90% of the grape growers are not being recompensed sufficiently for their crop. And they’re stuck on a hook. The crop is in the ground, but there’s not enough money to replant”.

Ken explains that South Africa’s grape farmers in a classic catch 22. They can’t afford to sell their grapes at the market price, but can even less afford not to sell them. Of all the stakeholders in the wine game, the growers are last in line and most likely to get kicked in the teeth.

They've been kicked in the teeth a lot.

The good news is that in the last 18 months, prices have gone up appreciably. And they’ll continue to rise for the foreseeable future. Which is great as long as wine drinkers recognize that, until now, their outrageously good value wines have only been possible because somebody is getting the short end of the stick. All of South Africa's privileged wine drinkers have had it too good for too long, and while it might impact their wallet a little in the short term, the time has come to right the wrongs of the past. Ultimately this increase in price is good news for everyone. South Africans should understand this by now.

Back to the dogs:

Ken has seen this day coming for a long time and is excited about it, having cultivated good relationships with farmers and paid them properly for their grapes. Some of the bigger wine brands however, are losing out, as smaller boutique producers are prepared to pay handsomely for quality. Yet another example of how David is toying with Goliath, and SA wine is slowly changing for the better.

Forrester’s finest grapes arguably come from his own property. Specifically those from the ragged, 47-year old bush vines that are responsible for his FMC. We took a romantic stroll through them. They're spectacular enough if you haven't tasted the end product. If you have, it's like walking up the steps at Lords after scoring a century.

FMC stands for Something Marvelous Chenin. I won’t say what something is, but it rhymes with ducking. Also, the wine is fucking marvelous. But even at R450 a bottle, it’s not their most expensive offering. Not even close. Because being a provocateur at heart, Ken has produced his Dirty Little Secret. A tongue-in-cheek reference to the winemaking style adopted by many of the young winemakers. It’s the whole unfiltered, unfined, spontaneous malolactic fermentation, old oak, on the lees, batonnage amphora maceration what?

Translation: it’s the non-interventionist, natural style that the wine geeks lose their mind over. However when it costs R950 a bottle, their faces melt and they don't know what to make of it.

But it really is brilliant. They both are. Where the FMC is gorgeous, delicate and understated, Dirty Little Secret is a big, bombastic show off. Undeniably outstanding, it’s what you might call a statement wine. On the way home we were arguing about which is better. Sof backed the FMC, while I was making a case for the Dirty Little Secret. I think it's probably fair to say that Chenin Blanc was the real winner (and Sofi).

Focusing entirely on their Chenin would be doing Ken Forrester a disservice. Thankfully, i'm ok with that. They do produce a number of other delicious wines, including the Sparklehorse MCC, an entire Petit range that you probably know about (value city), and a number of smashtastic rhone style red blends. My suggestion is to start with the Renegade, hit up the Three Halves and keep going from there. Also, please drink responsibly.

Note: I never asked Ken if he cried at the end of Marley & Me. But i'll put a bottle of FMC on yes.

You've obviously read these, right?