Ken Forrester: Chenin Blanc champion

The story of Ken Forrester Vineyards illustrates how the coming together of vision and dedication may just make the world stop and pay attention.

Ken Forrester standing next to the Chenin Blanc vineyard planted in 1975.

Originally granted in 1689, the vineyards bought by Ken Forrester had a long history before he acquired them at an auction in 1993, when South Africa was on the cusp of historical change.

A restaurateur at the time with a career in hotel management, Ken took a leap of faith when he purchased 50ha of Stellenbosch vineyards, which he lovingly recalls as the “the biggest piece of land we couldn’t afford”.

Herlderberg mountain over the Chenin Blanc vineyard.

The picturesque farm is cooled by breezes from the Atlantic, just 5km away, and stoically watched over by the Helderberg mountain, creating a unique terroir within Stellenbosch.
Ken’s vision was to become a champion for a long-overlooked cultivar and a workhorse in the South African wine and brandy industry: Chenin Blanc. At the time, the global wine market was besotted with its infamous French cousins and demand for Chenin tumbled, causing even Loire producers to fold at an alarming rate.

Back home, Chenin plantings outnumbered those of any rival nation as the variety remained at the core of South Africa’s brandy production, with small parcels of ancient vines producing fruit with intense purity to match the world’s best. Ken saw the opportunity lying in wait.

The stage was set for the young Forrester family. The farmhouse was lovingly restored as the family home and the vineyards, including Chenin bush vines planted in 1974, received long-deserved care and attention. Key upgrades and replanting were undertaken, laying the foundation for the future of Ken Forrester Vineyards.

The 1994 vintage was the first release and soon Ken Forrester Vineyards was at the forefront of the Chenin Blanc revival. This long-serving workhorse of the wine industry had been liberated, becoming the belle of the ball across the globe. Old World producers were emboldened to put ‘Chenin Blanc’ on their labels for the first time.

The first chapter of the story was done and the job at hand was to find a second to keep the market enraptured. Ken saw the opportunity to further broaden the landscape and bring one of the first red Rhône blends, appropriately named the Renegade, to the South African market. Featuring the best of Stellenbosch Shiraz, Mourvèdre and Grenache, it was a classic southern Rhône blend that combined Old World elegance and New World fruit purity. This maverick wine was the vanguard of the iconic Gypsy, a wild character led by Grenache, supported by Syrah and another confirmation of the unparalleled terroir.

The most recent chapter to this story is the humble Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc 2021, which achieved Best in Show at the Decanter World Wine Awards 2022.

Sparklehorse Cap Classique liberated from bottle to glass.

“This pale gold, pure, fine-fruited wine hints at honey, spring flowers, pear and quince in its focused, almost lacy aromas, while the palate is graceful and shapely too, deftly balanced, and with a stony residuum that suggests deep-rooted old vines. An outstanding Chenin, in sum, perfectly pitched both as a varietal and as a Stellenbosch classic.” – Decanter WWA 2022

This is a moment in the global limelight for all to recognise as testament to the long journey of Ken Forrester Vineyards, South African Chenin Blanc and South African wine as a whole.

The wine lounge at Ken Forrester Vineyards offers the ideal location to appreciate this long journey, sipping on a glass of wine, taking in the vista of vines and looking up to the Helderberg peaks.