Ken Forrester, erstwhile Johannesburg restaurateur and Cape wine farmer for the past two decades, has long been associated with Chenin Blanc. This is hardly surprising. He was one of the first of a new breed of producers to recognise the potential of a variety which had suffered endless abuse from the previous generation of co-op winemakers. The fact that his Scholtzenhof farm had extensive chenin plantings undoubtedly contributed to that decision. However, having made a virtue of necessity Forrester both caught the wave of the chenin renaissance and then propelled it forward. His chenin selection includes everything from the super-premium FMC through to a “Petit Chenin” which, as the name suggests, is all about value and drinkability, rather than complexity and age-worthiness.
Prescient as he was about chenin, Forrester was equally visionary when it comes to Rhone varieties. When he started working with shiraz the cultivar represented around 1% on the national plantings: it is now at about 10% – an indication of the fashion which has brought it onto the dinner tables of most of the country’s wine-drinking households. Pretty much simultaneously he focused his attention on Grenache, once the most planted red cultivar in the world. South Africa never really embraced its easy drinkability (we had cinsaut instead) and by the time Forrester set out to find the traditional blending partners for shiraz there were only a countable number of old grenache vineyards around.
The success of his FMC was clearly what drove him to seek out a stand-alone super-premium red. There are two shiraz-based red blends in his range, the Renegade and the Gypsy. Of these, the latter is priced as the red wine companion to the FMC and marries more or less equal quantities of shiraz and old vine grenache with (lately) a small amount of mourvedre. The Gypsy has been around for roughly a decade. A recent tasting of most of the vintages ever made revealed a consistency which defines it and reflects its integrity.
It’s never big and showy, despite the 14.5% that has carried it since the 2001 vintage. There is a savoury elegance, a sweetness of fruit, a real detail on the palate. Over the years the shiraz and grenache components have been the heart of the blend: mourvedre only crept in recently and provides aromatic complexity rather than a significant textural dimension. There’s nothing rustic about it – or the other Rhone-style wines in Ken Forrester’s range (The Renegade, Three Halves and a couple of cuvees prepared specially for Woolworths).
For wine producers in control of their fruit sources, earthiness – or its absence – is largely a matter of intention. As it happens, shortly after tasting Ken Forrester’s wines I met up with Lourens van der Westhuizen who has been making a completely different kind of wine mainly from Arendsig estate fruit harvested in the Robertson area, (but also from some quite individual locations within a short distance of his family property). Van der Westhuizen is a great believer in minimal intervention wine making. His latest releases all have the intensity that comes from getting everything possible from the grapes – presumably in the hope that this way the site, rather than the fruit, will be the dominant expression.
The results are mixed, with varietal character usually submerged beneath the texture and structure that is an intrinsic part of his winemaking message. The two cabernets – 2012 and 2014 – probably work best with the 2012 my favourite wine of the tasting (and a steal at around R125). The whites are delicious, though only the sauvignon blanc is readily identifiable for what it is. The viognier is striking, with lemon peel rather than peach notes and lovely savoury length. Just to become themselves they need time in the bottle (and since rustic is sometimes a euphemism for rough, they will need to gain a little polish along the way). At prices ranging from R80 to R140, they’re worth the gamble.