Ken Forrester ‘Mr Chenin’ is honoured on the 364th anniversary of the South African wine industry
Ken Forrester of the eponymous Stellenbosch estate receives the 1659 Visionary Leadership Award at the Wine Harvest Commemorative Event 2 February, 2023
“However I got here, it wasn’t alone. I am here tonight because so many other people made it possible,” says Ken Forrester accepting the 1659 Visionary Leadership Award. The gala event took place at the oldest estate in South Africa, Groot Constantia on the anniversary of the South African wine industry’s birthdate, the only region in the world to have such a record. 
Established in 1685 Groot Constantia’s graceful Cape Dutch buildings and sprawling vine-covered slopes have seen much of last few centuries of winemaking. Tonight it marks yet another historic moment. Mr Chenin kitted out in a traditional Scottish tartan with a matching bowtie looks out at the assembled crowd. Dressed in their finest is cognoscenti of the wine industry he serves. Everyone in this room – and beyond – he presses the point has in someway made this moment possible. 
“My English teacher, my Afrikaans teacher, my rugby coach. People that stood out for me in my life in various ways. My grandmother, my parents, wife, kids, friends… Even those who have passed me by. I’m a product of all of those things. I’m here because I was in the right place at the right time. 
“Chenin blanc needed a jockey, and I got on that horse and rode it. Luckily just enough people backed the gamble.” 
Held annually on 2 February to coincide with the birthday of the South African wine industry, the Wine Harvest Commemorative Event honours exceptional individuals for their outstanding contributions to advancing the South African wine industry. 
Established in 1994 Ken Forrester Wines is no stranger to accolades, regularly raking in both local and international awards. There is no doubt Forrester has had a profound impact on the South African wine industry: as a flag-bearer for chenin as a whole as well as his own successful portfolio of chenins, which showcase the versatility of the grape. He has also played an instrumental role in the upliftment of farm workers and their families. 
The bespoke hand-blown glass trophy handed to Forrester tonight is in honour of this enduring legacy, one that has spread the gospel of South African wine across the globe.
Dial back 364 years ago to 2 February 1659. On this day Jan van Riebeeck scribbled in his diary: “Today, praise be to God, wine was made for the first time from Cape grapes.” 
The industry has come a long way since. In more recent history chenin was known as a workhorse grape for its load-bearing capacity in the vineyards. It was used for everything from table whites to sweet wines, brandy as well as for the biggest, most popular branded white wines in country. Not that the grape, nor the farmer got any recognition for the latter. It has only been in the last few decades that South African chenin blanc is being seen as a fine wine that can contend with the best in the world. 
Forrester can be largely credited for this fine wine revolution, and the inexorable demand for high quality chenin shows no signs of diminishing. 
Currently there are 16 827 hectares of chenin planted in the national vineyard. Astonishingly, just over half of this is old vine. Not only is it the most planted grape in the country, but South Africa also boasts the most chenin on the planet.
He may be wearing tartan tonight, but Forrester was born in Africa. Raised by a mining family of Scottish descent his Zambian childhood was one of open skies and bushveld. He came to South Africa when he was ten, finishing his schooling in Krugersdorp.  
He followed this with a three-year course in Hotel Management at the Johannesburg Hotel School. He got his first big career break 1977 with a job at the Southern Sun. Many high-pressured years followed working with the legendary Sol Kerzner. Among countless high profile hotel and restaurant openings, he also opened South Africa’s first casino in Mafeking. 
As fulfilling as those years in hospitality were, something was niggling at him. You see, the winebug had bit when he first came to the Cape winelands in the ‘90s, on a charity ride from Johannesburg to Durban to Cape Town. He knew then what his future held. He wanted to live the farm life and make wine.
In November 1993, a year before the first democratic elections, he leapt at the chance to buy an abandoned, run down property on 50-hectares in Stellenbosch. The derelict farm had pedigree though, it was originally planted to vines in 1689 and its manor house was built in 1694. The property in-hand his moved down to the Cape with his wife Teresa and their two daughters. 
The house was soon restored to its former Cape Dutch glory, and with the family happily settled it was time to tackle the vineyards.
His first wine was a sauvignon blanc made with the assistance of the legendary Mike Dobrovich of Mulderbosch. Soon his attention turned to an old bushvine chenin block. He was advised to pull it out and rather plant something more profitable, like pinotage or chardonnay. Something stopped him. “I wanted to give it a chance.”
This is where the long-time collaboration and friendship began with winemaker, Martin Meinert. “Everything I know about wine I know from him,” Forrester says simply when talking about his old friend.
The pair decided that with this old block they ‘…wanted to make the best white wine in the world.’
“We did everything we thought would enhance it, but when we tasted the wine it was quite awful,” says Forrester laughing. “We were pushing too hard, trying to force something.”
So in 1998 they started again. And tried again in 1999. But it was the 2000 vintage that they finally found what they were looking for. In a bottle simply labelled ‘the chenin project’ it caught the attention of a wine critic at a London trade show, whose enthusiastic approval saw it garnering international attention. This wine became the Cape icon that’s known as the FMC, an acronym for ‘Forrester Meinart Chenin’ or as Forrester likes to tell it: F****** Magnificent Chenin.
During this time he co-founded the Chenin Blanc Association in 1998, which now has 140 members on its roster. 
The most active wine association in the country, the annual calendar has a full programme of events, headed by the indefatigable Ina Smith, Forrester’s right-hand women.  
The apex of which is the Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Top Ten Challenge, which debuted in 2014.  The driving statement is ‘to identify and reward top Chenin winemaking in the country’. Every year a cash prize goes to each of the ten winning producers for projects to uplift or upskill farm workers, their families and their communities.
“You’ve got to back yourself, he says confidently when asked about the numerous leaps of faith that characterise his life. “And if you see something great, just know you can do it, that you can figure it out.”
Inspired by a Mario Batali event in his restaurant days he says he learnt something invaluable from the great chef: “Take the known and turn it on its head, give it an angle that people don't recognise, something that confuses, puzzles and excites them. Life is all about taking the known and creating something new.”
He certainly has done that with the Cape’s great grape: transforming the so-called workhorse into pure thoroughbred.
Wine Harvest Commemorative Event 2 February, 2023: Winners
Wendy Jonker: Wine Advancement Category
Rydal Jeftha: Growing Inclusivity Category
Dr Erna Blancquaert  Category: Viticulture and Wine Creation Category