Talking Chenin Blanc with Ken Forrester of South Africa

Ken Forrester likes Chenin Blanc. Just don’t call it Steen.

His Stellenbosch vineyards, four miles from the ocean, are planted 50% to Chenin Blanc, also known as Steen locally to people other than Ken (he finds the local name too confusing.) In his opinion, the best Chenin needs cool and sunshine, which may sound like a paradox. But Ken says that’s what happens in the best years in the Loire, which is often cool, and in South Africa, which has abundant sunshine and a few cooler vineyard sites.

When I saw him at a Wines of South Africa tasting in New York City on Wednesday, I asked him if Chenin blanc was a difficult grape. He said that it is like a cat: when you call it cat, it looks at you quizzically, then an hour later he’s there rubbing your leg with a look saying, “you called”? Same with Chenin: you put it in barrel and taste it and it doesn’t taste like much right away. But when you come back in six months, it has transformed, leaving you wondering, “Gee, where did that come from?”

I tasted his 2000 Chenin Blanc, a $14 wine with ten years age on it. The primary fruit had fallen away, leaving an interesting, if somewhat linear, wine dominated by an a stony version of unsweetened honey.

The FMC 2008 (about $65), comes from unirrigated, low-yield, 42-year-old bush vines, grown organically (but uncertified since 2002 because of onerous fees, Ken says). Fermentation uses native yeasts and the wine is aged in 400-liter barrels. It’s a big version of chenin, rich but stylish, silk-pillowy, with honey drizzled on top. (For the tech specs, it has 14% alc, Tartaric Acidity 6.8 g/l, and 12 g/l residual sugar.)

Here are the top four thing Ken would do if he were “boss of the world”!

1. Prohibit corks.
2. Prohibit that hard plastic wrap on consumer goods that you need a pocket knife to remove.
3. Prohibit mechanical harvesting in South Africa. The machines are imported from France and Italy, and catch lots of bugs, chamelons and spiders as well as grapes. Morever, the country is in desperate need of employment and the workers do a much better job.
4. Have gradations for Pinotage akin to Rioja (crianza, reserva, gran reserva) to indicate at a glance the degree of seriousness of the wine.

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10 Responses to “Talking Chenin Blanc with Ken Forrester of South Africa”

  1. NIce talk Ken! Thanks for the thoughts. I disagree on the corks, but I’m really into Chenin right now. Keep up the good work!

  2. Sometimes I think the vignerons of Vouvray should have a statue of Ken in the village square. Many, many of our customers have learned to love chenin blanc via Ken’s wines. He also makes “Petit Pinotage,” which is that miraculous thing, an inexpensive pinotage that is actually good to drink.

  3. I love Vouvray, it would be my go to wine in a lot of cases.
    Haven’t been exposed to much SA Chenin. But I have seen Ken Forrester’s Chenin’s around so will check it out.

  4. Are his vineyards in Saumur? I can’t wrap my mind around what unsweetened honey would taste like.

  5. Of course he’s in South Africa and not in France so cross out my preceding comment.

  6. I look forward to tasting Ken’s wines, particularly the Chenin since I am a big fan of what South Africa is doing with the grape. He certainly has my vote for ‘boss of the world’ with the plastic packaging thing. If he makes a Pinotage that I actually enjoy drinking…well, then, consider me your ‘boss of the world’ campaign manager!

  7. Dr. Vino – great to see you had a chance to catch up with Ken, he is a blast and what a treat his wines are. I always try to expose people to great Chenin from South Africa and Ken makes that an easy job.

  8. Great to see you featuring South African wines…about time 🙂 Ken Forrester, albeit great is just one of the Chenin legends we have at home. Honestly, Chenin is so versatile (wooded, unwooded, sweet) I hope the world catches on.

    Always read your blog. Please bring in more South African features…really want the world to hear about our wines.

    Kind Regards

  9. I love South African Chenins and hate that they are soooo difficult to obtain in the US. I think South African Chenins should be in the category of great upcoming in popularity wines to look toward. Please import more!

  10. […] Vino recently interviewed South African winemaker Ken Forrester, Talking Chenin Blanc with Ken Forrester of South Africa, 29 October 2010. The article caught my attention, because Forrester has made chenin blanc a […]


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