The Australian wine industry has never lacked for larger-than-life characters, I have been lucky enough to meet a few of the more colourful ones. Recently, I attended a virtual tasting with yet another Australian force of nature, the iconic winemaker Chester Osborn of d’Arenberg. Chester is one of South Australia’s best known wine-makers but more than that he is also a renaissance man with a remarkable story to tell. Even though this tasting did not take place in person, the impact I can assure you, was memorable.
Before tasting, Chester told us the story of his family who have been making wine in McLaren Vale for 140 years. In 1912 his great-grandfather Joseph Osborn, who had been a director of Thomas Hardy and Sons since 19887 purchased the well-established Milton Vineyards, in the hills, just north of the townships of Gloucester and Bellevue, now known as McLaren Vale. His grandfather Frank Osborn subsequently left medical school, choosing to forsake the scalpel for pruning shears. Fruit from the 78 hectares of vineyards was sold to local wineries until the cellars were complete in 1927. Dry red table and fortified wines were then produced in ever increasing quantities to supply the expanding markets for Australian wine. Then in 1943 Frank’s son Francis d’Arenberg, (universally known as ‘d’Arry’) left school, at the age of 16 to help his ill father run the business. In 1957 d’Arry eventually assumed full control of the management of d’Arenberg and bottled the first of the famous diagonal labelled wines two years later.
During the 1960’s d’Arenberg’s wines gained in status with both the wine consumer and wine judges. Their Cabernet Sauvignon won a Jimmy Watson Trophy at the 1969 Royal Melbourne Wine Show and another Grenache based wine was awarded 7 trophies and 29 gold medals by Australian capital city wine shows. Because of this, by the 1970’s d’Arenberg Wines had become very fashionable and had gained significant national and international recognition.
Many years ago, I heard another story relating to Chester’s family tree. The original d’Arenberg was a Belgian who was an officer in Napoleon’s army. He took a fancy to a lady, but a higher-ranking officer was also interested and challenged d’Arenberg to duel. At that time the etiquette was to let the senior officer win, which meant you died or were seriously injured. However, d’Arenberg wasn’t having any of that, so he defeated and killed him and went on the run, the duel and his subsequent flight was widely reported at the time in the news.
D’Arenberg ended up in Ireland where he changed his name to Alberthauser and married into well know legal family from Cork. His son studied at Trinity College, Dublin and became a professor of German and French and eventually Provost of the College. Eventually the son of Mr Alberhauser/d’Arenberg had a daughter who grew up and moved to London. In 1900 she emigrated to Australia where she changed her name back to d’Arenberg before marrying Francis Osborn, their son d’Arry is Chester’s dad and according to Chester is still going strong at the ripe old age of 94.
Like his dad, Chester started working in the winery when he was very young, he completed his degree in winemaking in 1983 and worked for Chateau Reynella in the Hunter Valley that year. He made his first d’Arenberg vintage in 1984.
In the last year while we all busied ourselves making sour dough and watching Netflix, Chester was selling wine. He has presented over 100 webinars and virtual tastings. He told us his usual modus operendi is to travel the world for three months giving tastings and selling his wine. Thanks to lockdown in 2020/21 this was not possible. So, he used the time instead to design a new building, along the lines of the D’Arenberg Cube (of which more anon), produce a number of sculptures made from junk art for the Cube’s exhibition area, make wine and write a science fiction novel called The Unbelievable Grenache!
When we got to the tasting the featured wines included d’Arry’s Original Shiraz Grenache 2015; The Hermit Crab Viognier Marsanne 2018; The Coppermine Road Cabernet Sauvignon 2017; The Laughing Magpie Shiraz Viognier 2016; Lucky Lizard Chardonnay 2018 and The Dead Arm Shiraz 2017. All were outstanding and highly recommended, especially for customers who enjoy premium Australian wines, a growing number as you will see.
Australia has been the number one country of origin in the UK off-trade market for over twenty years, a position it has retained since records began in the 1990’s. Australia currently has a 22% market share by value, of the total U.K. market, ahead of Italy and the United States who each hold 12% of the market. 2020 was a very strong year for Australian wine with volume exports showing an increase of +19% to 267 million litres (29.6 million 9-litre case equivalents). The UK is Australia’s most important market by volume. The value of exports to the UK also increased in 2020 by +29% to $456 million, making the UK the second biggest market globally by value for Australian wine.
Wine Australia’s Regional General Manager UK/EMEA, Laura Jewell MW, said, ‘Despite the ongoing restrictions in the UK due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Australian wine has been able to build on its success in the off-trade as consumers stuck to the tried and trusted brands that they recognize’. ‘Several of the larger brands have seen new styles and formats listed in the last 12 months in the multiple retailers. While the hospitality industry continues to face an uncertain future, with no roadmap for reopening post the current lockdown, the independent retailers who have moved into or developed their online and home delivery services have seen significant growth in more premium wine sales. While the UK is a mature market, this last year has shown that it is still open for business for Australian wine.’
Wineries and innovative architecture are nothing new, throughout the wine world you will find incredible buildings designed by “starchitects”. In McClaren Vale the Cube concept was developed by Chester who thought to himself, wine is such a puzzle, lets create a cube shaped building along the lines of a Rubik Cube, which he did. The building spans five levels and includes a restaurant, tasting room, as well as an exhibition of 25 sculptures by Salvador Dali; and a few made by Chester himself. When I said renaissance man, I meant it! A clever and astute character, he downplays it all with great humour. Who else who name his wines, Garden of Extraordinary Delights, or The Fruit Bat, or the Funky Farting Feral Fox, among many other outlandish names, 76 in all and counting?
The future for the d’Arenberg family is secure and the family traits of innovation, art and derring do continue to the next generation. Chester has three daughters, all of whom are studying wine, in Alicia, Ruby and Mia Osborn the future awaits.
Let’s take a look at three of his wines now:
The Hermit Crab Viognier Marsanne 2018
Chester had his “Rhône Moment” visiting the USA in the 1990’s. He decided to plant Viognier and now has 140 ha of it planted. He also decided to plant some Marsanne, a low vigour variety and one of the main white grapes found in the Rhône region. He now has approximately 40ha of that. For the Viognier he decided to source a rare clone from Chateau Grillet as he liked the ginger and white peach character it achieved. 8% of the Viognier is fermented in 20-year-old French Oak barrels, and this gives complexity and a nutmeg character to the wine. The wine is a blend of 62% Viognier and 38% Marsanne and the name is a play on Hermitage, the granite hill at the heart of wine making in the Northern Rhône Hermitage, the home of the Hermit, Hermit Crab, gettit? Well, you’ll certainly get this wine, one of d’Arenberg’s biggest selling white wines it has lots of orange rind and ginger aromas, with Acacia blossom notes. Stone fruit shine through on the palate and that weighty almost oily sweetness backed by green apple flavour adds to the appeal.
Lucky Lizard Chardonnay 2017
The fruit for this wine is sourced I the Adelaide Hills a cool climate region. With the hills to the east and the sea to the west, the large diurnal variation means fresher wines. Chester uses full barrel fermentation using low toast oak. He is very particular about the low levels in the barrels because he wants the wine to be fresh. He also leaves the pulp in with the yeast for seven months as it gives the wine a better texture, freshness and complexity. He likes the passion fruit textures his Chardonnay gets. The Adelaide Hills is such a cool climate region that the resulting Chardonnay is very fresh with lots of Granny Smith apple flavours. This was quite restrained on the nose, tropical fruit with hints of pineapple. It was stunning on the palate; the fruit and wood were well integrated. 2017 was a cooler vintage and the wine is a little bit tighter as a result. This will evolve and develop beautifully. They are currently selling the 2018 vintage which Chester told us had more apple and grapefruit character.
The Dead Arm Shiraz 2017
If 2020 was the year to forget, for Chester Osborn it wasn’t. His wines achieve remarkable success and d’Arenberg were crowned winery of the year at the London International Wine Competition. The Dead Arm Shiraz 2017 was named International Wine of the Year, scoring a phenomenal 97 points and beating every other wine in contention. Last year this wine also achieved 92+ Parker Points and 90 Halliday Points among many other accolades.
It is made from old bush vine Shiraz grown in McLaren Vale. In 1985 the Australian Government paid growers to up-root the traditional vines. Thankfully many, including Chester, did not and today many of those old vines are still productive. Around that time Chester decided not to fertilize, irrigate or use nitrates in his vineyards and that made a huge difference. Today those low yielding vineyards are producing incredible fruit. He also pointed out that the average temperature in McLaren Vale is 1 degree colder that the corresponding vineyards in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
The wine takes its name from a vine disease called Dead Arm, which is caused by Eutypa Lata, a fungus that causes one half, or an ‘arm’ of the vine to become reduced to dead wood. That side may be lifeless and brittle, but the grapes on the other side, while low yielding, display amazing intensity. This wine is also made using a traditional basket press that dates back to the 1880’s and was purchased from Yalumba in 1963 by d’Arry Osborn. This is a foot trodden, basked pressed, small batch wine, fermented in a mix of new and used French Oak barriques, so to all intents and purposes a garagistes wine. 15% is made from 25-year-old vines, 50% comes from 50–60-year-old vines and 35% of the vines are aged between 100 and 120 years old. All the grapes are sourced from single vineyards and in 2017 he used 12 different vineyards to compose the blend. 2017 was a very cool vintage and Chester reckons this is the most elegant Dead Arm he has ever made. He describes it as feral and spicy.
Well, I concur, there is an enormous amount of black fruit thought the wine is still far too young. It has an enormous structure and with a 40-year lifespan expected, it will live a lot longer than I will. There was a huge belt of fine tannin showing through, but they layer of underlying fruit and that indefinable balance indicate the mark of greatness. Definitely a wine for the collectors that will embellish a good cellar or wine list somewhere in the future.
If you would like to learn more about Australian Wine Wine Australia have just launched Australian Wine Connect which is now live. Running for twelve months, it will be the largest Australian wine promotion that they have ever held globally.
Australian Wine Connect will allow international trade to network and meet producers, discover new wines, link up with distributors and enable sales conversations. It also offers ongoing live thought leadership sessions, tastings, and variety and regional explorations to showcase the people, places and processes that make Australian wine unique.
The interactive platform is a go-to resource for Australian wine. Featuring wineries from across 65 regions; connecting winemakers, buyers, importers, distributors, media, educators and more; and offering a diverse program of engaging events and experiences. Australian wineries and exporters are now invited to register for virtual expo space on the platform. Importers and distributors based in the UK and Europe, are asked to ensure that their Australian wineries are aware of Australian Wine Connect and encourage them to sign up. For more information https://wineaustralia.com/