We’ve lucked out with our New World tastings of late. You’d have to regard it as good fortune when you get an email inviting you to lunch in Edinburgh with Ken Forrester, doyen of Stellenbosch, he of the FMC (if these initials mean nothing to you, you should definitely read on).
We accepted the invitation.
Ken (and the team from his UK importers) hosted lunch at the thoroughly-excellent Wedgwood restaurant on the lower section of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. If you’ve not visited – we hadn’t – we can’t recommend it enough. Great location, ambience, great service… and they laid on a series of dishes true to Ken’s Stellenbosch roots which matched the wines to perfection.
Turning to those, here’s what we had.
For starters – literally – we launched with the Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc 2016. Those that know of Ken Forrester probably know of him under the epithet of “King of Chenin”, based largely on the stellar reputation of the FMC (stick with us: we’re getting there). This, the Old Vine Reserve, is not the Forrester entry-level Chenin – that lies at around £8 in his Petit range – but it retails at less than half the cost of the FMC. Ken made great verbal play of what his – and South African – Chenin does so well: optimum ripeness, even in bad years. Loire Valley Chenin, he acknowledged, can be – and often is – wonderful stuff, but is always up against its cool climate. That ripeness here comes across wonderfully in the Old Vine Reserve. For a ~£10 wine, you get a whole lot in your glass: barrel fermentation, 9 months in French oak barrique (20% new) and the impact of a wine twice its value: big apricot, honey and caramel flavours, great acidity and great richness. With a glass thrust into my hand within 15 seconds of arrival at Wedgwood, I didn’t look to see what this wine was before trying it … and was properly fooled into thinking it was a far better number in the line-up, to the delight of one grinning South African. Stunning value, I concluded.
<deep breath> Then came the FMC Chenin 2015. Of course, I knew of it. If there is an icon New World Chenin, this is undoubtedly it. I’d just never got around to trying it (there are many wines that fit this category). Forrester Meinert Chenin may be the official title, but its name stems from its days as a prototype wine when wine critic Matthew Jukes first told Ken what a (Very) Magnificent Chenin it was. The name stuck and the reputation built: what awards this wine hasn’t won are probably not worth winning. It clocked 95 points in Decanter in their most recent SA Chenin review. It’s the product of Ken’s top Chenin single vineyard and its low-yielding, 40+-year old vines. And meticulous winemaking: wild yeast fermentation in new French oak and a year’s maturation in French oak barriques (40% new). It tastes quite incredible: depth and intensity are the watchwords here. The rich oaking gives it a curiously Burgundian feel, yet the acidity is all about Chenin. Ken points out that a touch of botrytis affects every FMC; certainly there’s richness from its effect, and there isn’t absolutely the driest Chenin you will ever find. It’s alive with apricot, vanilla and honey and is wonderfully complex. Drink it now, or wait 10 years: it’s up to you. I’ve had some great whites this year, but this is right - right - up with them: I totally understand all the fuss now. Wonderful.
Then we went red with a Merlot and two red Rhone blends:
The Merlot Reserve Pat’s Garden 2015 (named after Ken’s mother-in-law, who has said Merlot in her garden) was extremely likeable, especially for much-maligned Merlot in a 100% form. It’s not a true trailblazer of the Forrester fleet but it is an excellent, very rich and ripe (heaps of black fruits, damsons, ripe plums, blackberries) New World Merlot. At a tenner, I’d be hard pressed to think of anything quite so easily drinkable, especially as just a glass on its own – it’ll work with food (indeed, it did), but it definitely doesn’t need it.
Importer, chef, wine producer
The Rhone blends definitely benefit from food pairing. Comparing them was fascinating. The Renegade Shiraz Grenache 2013 (60% Shiraz, with a 10% touch of sneaky Mourvèdre) sits at the same (~£10) price point as the Merlot and the Reserve Chenin. The Gypsy 2013, on the other hand, sits at the same level as the FMC. It’s a boutique wine I knew far less of, but which is much revered in restaurant and sommelier circles. On trying the pair without food, I couldn’t see the point of the fuss about the Gypsy: the Renegade was deep, approachable, packed with flavour and body and, good as it was, I saw nothing much more in the Gypsy, a wine two-and-a-half times as pricey. But then came a few mouthfuls of Wedgwood’s venison and biltong. Oof! What opened out in the Gypsy was a whole lot more depth/concentration/intensity, complexity and a wonderfully big, long finish, all redolent of the best of Chateauneufs in a big year. I can see it matching brilliantly with so many meats: the 65% Grenache matching it to lighter meats, the 35% Shiraz allying it with the heavier dishes out there. The time in oak – two years in all-new barrels – really comes through. Ken phrases it perfectly thus: “the character is somewhat 'wild', a little brambly with hints of nutmeg, cinnamon, dark spices, with vanilla scents and a distinct, concentrated red-fruit focus”. It is, quite simply, a red FMC.
Let this take nothing away from the Renegade (oaked 18 for months in second- and third-fill barrels), which, again, at a tenner, represents a brilliant glass. It’s horses and (starter/main) courses with these two.
We rounded the day out with two of Ken’s boutique rarities (NB: we can get these, but it’s not easy and you’ll need to move fast). The Dirty Little Secret Chenin 2015 had come to my attention a few days beforehand by featuring as one of Steven Spurrier’s (rather extravagant) choices in the current Decanter. At ~£60 a bottle, I wasn’t expecting to try it. But we did. It’s an example of ‘extreme naptural’ winemaking, the details of which I will spare you but which appear here. The name? Dirty because it’s unfiltered and unfined (Ken siphons the useable wine from its delicate lees), secret because he won’t tell us how he makes it and little because there are but a few barrels of it, 2015 being its first year on release. For me, it was the FMC with a little more restraint and elegance: less immediately oaky and vanilla-packed, but still with huge body and density. It’s a very fine Chenin indeed, and perhaps a little more Loire-esque. Not many will get to try it.
My personal highlight? The last glass of all. See, I go potty for even middling dessert wines. Outstanding ones make my head spin and my fingers twitch. And the T Noble Late Harvest Chenin 2013 comfortably fits the category of The Very Best Dessert Wines I Have Yet Encountered. It’s that perfect match of acidity and sugar (nominally 145g/litre RS) with a stunning intensity and finish: it’s a week from the tasting and I can still feel the latter now. It’s fully botrytised as well as late-harvested (as late as May) with multiple pickings (4 or 5 times), which yields a wine of exceptional finesse and balance.
Super-deep gold (see photo), it just bursts with all of: sumptuous peach, dried apricots, tropical melon, baked apples, honey (lots), spice and pineapple (double lots). There’s hardly any of this about – move quickly and we can just about get you some.
In short, the Ken Forrester wines are quite superb. From the super-affordable to the rarities, these are wines you should try. And you can’t find them anywhere cheaper in the UK than at Exel Wines.
We hope to hear from you soon…