After a century of winemaking in McLaren Vale, the family-owned producer d'Arenberg offers some of the best value in Australia. And it’s all done with guts and gusto, backed by tenacity and talent. Tim Atkin MW meets the Osborns...
d’Arenberg at a glance:
Location: McLaren Vale, South Australia
Ownership: The Osborn family
Annual production: 4,500 tons
Vineyard area: 200ha, plus purchased grapes from an additional 700ha farmed by 120 local growers
Grape varieties: 30
Labels: more than 60
Annual turnover: A$25m (£16.6m)
There can’t be many world-famous wineries founded by teetotalers, but d’Arenberg in McLaren Vale is one of them. Despite working in the industry as company secretary at Thomas Hardy & Sons for 30 years, Joseph Osborn hadn’t touched a drop of booze when he purchased an established South Australian vineyard in 1912. Even with access to his own wine, his abstinence didn’t waver.
The irony isn’t lost on Joseph’s grandson and great grandson, d’Arry and Chester Osborn, both of whom enjoy a drink as well as a joke. The more recent generations sure know how to have fun. Every year they throw a huge party for their growers, which is widely touted as one of the best nights in the local calendar. The one they held to celebrate their 100th anniversary was even more extravagant: it continued until 8am, fuelled by famous bottles from Chester’s cellar.
Father & son
Chester and d’Arry are a winning duo. There are plenty of combustible father/son relationships in the wine trade, primed by jealousy and rivalry, but theirs is different. The two genuinely seem to enjoy working together, combining their contrasting personalities: Chester a showman with a love of art and an aversion to detail, d’Arry more laconic, canny and business-minded.
Watching them together is like observing a rock star and his exasperated, yet ultimately indulgent manager. ‘We don’t really fall out,’ says d’Arry, ‘although we might disagree a bit. I’m a fairly easy going sort of guy, and so is Chester.’
Together, the two men have made d’Arenberg one of the leading family-owned wineries in Australia, a company that is innovative, creative and (that word again) a lot of fun. It’s not just the names of their wines: The Bamboo Scrub, The Fruit Bat, The Shipster’s Rapture, The Malaysian Swinger, The Feral Fox and so on.
Nor is it just Chester’s clamorous shirts, unruly tresses and bag full of props. It’s an ethos that seems to permeate everything they do. ‘My wines are quite loud,’ says Chester, ‘with plenty of character. And I love drinking all of them.’ So, it should be said, do other people. At every level, d’Arenberg’s wines offer some of the best value from Australia.
d’Arenberg owns 200ha of vineyards
Change in direction
To a casual observer d’Arenberg’s success might seem fortuitous, but it’s based on tenacity and hard graft. d’Arry joined the business in his mid-teens, taking over from father, Frank, who had never recovered from the trauma of World War I. By the time Frank Osborn died in 1957, the company was ‘struggling to make a crust’.
Yet d’Arry turned the winery around, changing its name from Bundarra Vineyards to d’Arenberg (his mother’s maiden name) and bottling his own wines, rather than selling them off in ‘stone jars, kegs and barrels’.
It was d’Arry who created his legendary ‘Burgundy’ (subsequently renamed d’Arry’s Original, but still a blend of Grenache and Shiraz) and came up with the red stripe that brands the company’s multiple McLaren Vale labels to this day. He learned how to run a business as well as make wines, working long days to achieve his goals. Even today, at 86, he describes himself as ‘only semiretired’ and still controls d’Arenberg’s finances. ‘I work six days a week now,’ he laughs.
Like many fledgling Aussie winemakers at the time, d’Arry had no formal training. ‘I was selling some of my wines to Hardys and Angove and they used to analyse them for me, even the ones they didn’t buy. And they would say: “Do this or that.” Otherwise, I just got on with it.’ The combination of empiricism and advice paid dividends. d’Arry’s wines were popular and won awards.
And yet the wines had begun to seem a little earthy, feral and old-fashioned by the early 1980s, just as Australians began to turn to more vibrant, fruit-forward styles. d’Arry had no hesitation in handing over the winemaking to Chester, who had studied at Roseworthy, Australia’s leading wine school. ‘It was crazy,’ says Chester of his father. ‘He did everything by the seat of his pants. There was no lab in 1984. The old guys measured temperature and sugar levels and that was it.’
Keeping it traditional
Chester installed refrigeration, gentler crushers and a lab, but the change of style was not as radical as some people claimed at the time. ‘We’re still making wine exactly the same way Dad did: same vineyards, no fertilisers, no cultivation,’ Chester told Australia’s Wine Business Magazine in 2009. ‘We’re still using the open fermenters that were built in 1927; we still use foot treading, and most reds are not racked, with no fining or filtering; and we still basket-press every grape.’
d’Arenberg has 60-plus wines in its portfolio
A big personality
For all that, the wines are much better and more reliable these days, partly because Chester is a trained winemaker, but also because he has an innate flair for the job. He loves everything about it, from tasting the grapes in the vineyard to blending the finished wines, endlessly trying out new fractions and combinations.
‘When you taste the grapes, you’re looking for minerals, for acidity, for life and tannin structure, as much as sugar and fruit. You can see exactly what the wine is going to taste like. Wineries need personalities, but they also need good vineyards.’
Chester’s other great skill is marketing. He’s chatty, friendly and never short of a good sound bite. Under him d’Arenberg has become a global brand, respected and talked about from Adelaide to Arizona. Yet one persistent criticism is that he makes too many wines, putting his own amusement before the good of the company. Chester admits he’d be bored if he produced only 20 instead of 60 or more. To him, more is more, not less. ‘The more flexibility I have. More wines means more opportunities to make something great.’
Has he achieved greatness? Tasting through the range, you’re impressed by the number of hits, despite the odd miss. Chester is best known for his reds, particularly The Dead Arm Shiraz and The Ironstone Pressings GSM blend, but he’s pretty adept with Chardonnay, Riesling and white Rhône blends, too.
And yet there’s a sense that his and d’Arenberg’s best wines are still to come, quite possibly from the multiple, sub-regional Grenache parcels he is working with. One thing is for certain, though, when Chester Osborn makes something that he and d’Arry both adore, they’ll drink it. More to the point, they’ll share it, too.