Ken Forrester Wines

by artfuldiner on August 25, 2021

in Artful Diner Mini Review, Opinion, Wine, Wining and Dining

South Africa grows more Chenin Blanc than the rest of the world combined. It is the country’s most populous grape, accounting for 18.5% of the national vineyard that totals just over 92,000 hectares (227,336.95 acres).

Ken ForresterThe best South African wines are produced in the Stellenbosch region, just 25 miles east of Cape Town… And, located on the slopes of the scenic Helderberg Mountains, the vineyards of Ken Forrester Wines are considered by locals and wine lovers as the home of Chenin Blanc. The man himself, affectionately known as “Mr. Chenin Blanc,” who has become the ambassador for South Africa’s most widely planted varietal, seems a little bit larger than life and somehow just as dynamic as the grape he so fervently champions. No wonder his wines were chosen to be served at Nelson Mandela’s 85th birthday party.

Born in Zambia, the son of a copper mining engineer of Scottish descent, the family moved to South Africa when Forrester was 10. He was immediately enrolled in boarding school in Krugersdrop, a mining town near Johannesburg. This was followed by a three-year course in Hotel Management at the Johannesburg Hotel School and his first big career break, employment with the Southern Sun hotel chain.

After a brief stint in the army, he went straight into the restaurant trade… and within two years had purchased Gatriles in the center of Johannesburg, followed by several other eateries. However, a trip to Cape Town in the early ‘90s offered him the possibility of a career in wine. In 1993, he purchased the derelict Scholtzenhof Farm in Stellenbosch, which dated from 1694. Following several false starts in the vineyard, he and winemaker & friend Martin Meinert finally found what they were striving for with the 2000 vintage in a bottle simply labelled “The Chenin Project.” The wine became a Cape icon known as the FMC, an acronym for “Forrester Meinert Chenin.”

Ken Forrester - Tasting RoomToday, Ken Forrester Wines is a million-bottle business producing five different levels of chenin: from the entry level Petit range to the luxury chenins, as well as a sparkling and Noble Late Harvest. In addition to Chenin Blanc, the estate also produces wines from other varietals, including: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Mourvedre, Pinotage, Roussanne, Viognier, Shiraz, and Sauvignon Blanc. These wines are classified into four types… Petite Range – Everyday wines that are made from grapes cultivated in contracted vineyards… Ken Forrester Range – Exclusive wines made from grapes grown in the family-owned estate in Stellenbosch… Icon Range – Highly individualistic wines that are made from grapes sourced from single vineyards only. Hard-picking, harvesting, fermenting, and bottling of these grapes go through strict quality control to ensure only the best grapes are utilized… Cellar Exclusives Range Wines that are only available in the cellars of Ken Forrester.

With one exception, I have specifically chosen wines from the Petite Range for several reasons. First of all, the price is right. Given their overall quality, they are remarkably inexpensive. Secondly, they are (with one exception) readily available through Pennsylvania State Stores. Finally, I have tasted all of these wines myself and can vouch for their character… To quote Indiana Jones: “Trust me”! 😊

Ken Forrester - Petit2019 Ken Forrester Petit Chenin Blanc: The Petit is the wine name that means this is a “young” wine that receives little or no aging. As a young wine, this chenin is bright, crispy, and alive with citrus fruit. It’s as light as a feather on the palate with a slight salty sensation and hint of tart grapefruit. A young wine it may be… but it still has great personality and is loaded with flavor. This is a wine, as one writer put it, “where you need to buy twice as many bottles as you originally planned, as there won’t be any leftovers.”

And speaking of buying… $12.99 in PA State Stores. The lowest price I’ve seen online is $9.49 from Marketview Liquors in Rochester, NY. Just don’t forget that you will also have to pay for shipping.

2018 Ken Forrester Petit Chardonnay: Although South Africa’s most popular white wine grape is Chenin Blanc, their Chardonnays are also quite excellent. The Chardonnays from South Africa range from slightly on the “steely” side to heavily oaked vintages with rich, buttery consistency. As a general rule, the wines are less complex than French Chardonnays and lighter and more tropical than California varieties.

This is certainly true of Ken Forrester’s 2018 Petit. A lovely golden hue in the glass, aromatically there are distinct touches of tropical fruit. On the palate, the texture is quite creamy – with just the subtlest hint of oak – complemented by a crisp acidity at the finish. Very nice, indeed.

There is absolutely no question that South Africa is capable of producing world-class Chardonnays… Hamilton Russell, for example, is the name that comes immediately to mind. I have personally visited Hamilton Russell Vineyards in Hermanus, South Africa, and tasted many of their wines over the years… And they are spectacular, to say the very least. Just keep in mind that a bottle of Hamilton Russell Chardonnay will put a $35.00 – $40.00 dent in your wallet.

By way of contrast, the 2018 Petit will set you back a measly $9.59 in a PA State Store. I’m not for a moment suggesting that the Petit is in the same league with Hamilton Russell Chardonnay. However, what I am suggesting is that, in its own way – and at its own particular price point – it is a very enjoyable wine. Extremely light on its feet, it is the perfect everyday pour for devoted lovers of Chardonnay.

Ken Forrester - Pinotage2018 Ken Forrester Petit Pinotage: The name Pinotage is somewhat misleading. Because it sounds so much like Pinot Noir, people naturally tend to assume that Pinot Noir and Pinotage taste alike – which they categorically do not. This dark-skinned grape looks and tastes more like Shiraz, even though it is technically related to Pinot Noir.

Pinotage is a grape crossing of Cinsaut and Pinot Noir. This crossing first took place in South Africa in 1925 in the gardens of scientist Abraham Perold. Acutely aware that Pinot Noir struggled in South Africa’s climate, he decided to cross it with Cinsaut (called Hermitage), a very productive species. His goal was to create a wine that was as delicious as Pinot Noir but that grew as well as Cinsaut. The results, however, were somewhat unexpected. The Pinotage grape was extremely dark in color and the wine it created quite bold in character. High in tannin and anthocyanin (a red flavonoid pigment), it was nothing like its progenitors. Despite the difference in flavor, however, it eventually became the second most-planted grape in South Africa.

Almost from the very beginning, however, Pinotage has been burdened with a bad reputation… Since it was so prolific, producers often used it to make very low-quality commercial wine. And since it was also extremely inky in character, this made it possible for wineries to stretch their wine as thin as possible. What winemakers didn’t realize in the 1980s and ‘90s was that while Pinotage is a very easy wine to make, it is a very difficult wine to make well. Fortunately, in the last 15 years, things have begun to change, with producers focusing on reducing crop yields and using careful winemaking techniques to manage this unique grape.

The 2018 Ken Forrester Petit is quintessential well-made Pinotage. It is decidedly fruit-forward but with an intriguing, earthy quality. And, despite the fact that Pinotage gone awry can be overly tannic and ponderous on the palate, this version is marvelously fresh and light-bodied with excellent acidity. As Forbes food/wine writer, John Mariani, noted: “A very good price for a splendid ‘little’ Pinotage whose elements are impeccably blended in an unoaked version of the varietal.”

I must confess that I have never been terribly fond of Pinotage, but the 2018 Petit has forever made me a fan. And speaking of price… a mere $11.99 at your local PA State Store.

Ken Forrester Reserve Chenin Blanc 2018The one wine not included in the Petit category, the 2018 Ken Forrester “Old Vine Reserve” Chenin Blanc, deserves special mention. My dining partner and I first sampled this stunning reserve over dinner at Helena’s Restaurant in the Coopmanhuijs Boutique Hotel & Spa, Stellenbosch, during our trip to South Africa. The grapes for 2018 are sourced from 40-year-old vines picked by hand. The wine is barrel- and tank-fermented and left on the lees for nine months, employing 20% new French oak.

This is a very attractive wine, youthful and delicately textured, displaying a beautiful harmonious balance between fruit and subtle oak/vanilla flavors. Full-bodied and complex, but not overpowering, it has a very satisfying mouthfeel and a soft lingering finish. Critics concurred: 91 points from both Decanter and Vinous.

… And, given its outstanding quality, this wine is also quite reasonably priced, retailing around the $15.00 mark. It is available through PA State Stores via special order only for $15.29. The lowest price I have seen online is $12.99 from Joe’s Canal in the Mercer Mall, Lawrenceville, New Jersey.

On the other hand, if you’d like to step up to the Icon Range (see description above), you might give the 2018 Ken Forrester The FMC Chenin Blanc a try. (As noted above, this is an acronym for “Forrester Meinert Chenin.”)  This wine comes highly recommended by Christian Eedes, editor of, a digital newsletter reviewing fine wines from South Africa, who recently bestowed 95 points (100-point scale) on the Forrester flagship.

The review, I think, speaks for itself: “The current-release The FMC 2018 from Ken Forrester Wines works particularly well. The cuvée has always had a reputation for being a big and bold rendition of Chenin Blanc but what’s striking about this vintage is more the balance and intricacy… The nose shows a hint of reduction before pear, lemon, peach and apricot while a note of honeysuckle reveals itself with time in the glass. The palate has a lovely fruit purity and freshness, the finish long and pithy.”

The 2018 FMC is available online from Solano Cellars in California and is priced at $67.50 per bottle. The 2017 and 2019 vintages are available through PA State Stores by special order (I’m not sure about the 2018) at $58.59 per bottle.

One final word… Wine critic Neal Martin of Vinous had some very insightful and valuable thoughts about Ken Forrester’s Petit line of wines, which, I believe, deserve quotation in full…

“Ken Forrester is one of the most familiar faces in the South Africa scene, an important figure whose portfolio strands both high-end boutique bottlings from old vines to bottles that populate supermarket shelves. These cheaper, high-volume wines are just as much ambassadors for a wine region or country. South Africa’s weakness has been at this end with too much substandard fodder bought doubtlessly for potential profit margins that supermarkets or high-volume distributors crave. Yet, I have always a good word for Forrester’s “Petit” range that cost just a handful of dollars. They might not attract the highest scores, but that is not their intention. They are clean, well made, and respectful of their varietal and demonstrate that in the right hands, cheap South African wine can be perfectly fine.”

I’ll drink to that… Cheers!

Be Safe & Stay Well


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