Quality runs in the family

Four generations of winemakers have created a legacy at a South Australian winery.

D'Arenberg winery in McLaren Vale marks a significant milestone this year, as it turns 100. Earlier this month, a large gathering of the area's winemakers, family, friends, press and distribution agents, local and international, filled a marquee at the winery for a celebratory dinner.

The fourth-generation winemaker at the family-owned business, Chester Osborn, had his foot in a moon boot, thanks to a damaged Achilles tendon. Rather than use crutches, he was getting about on a four-wheeled motorbike. The usual array of colourful shirts were worn, however, and another dozen or so bizarrely-named wines made their debut to the press. ''The Vociferate Dipsomaniac'', ''The Malaysian Swinger'' and ''The Garden of Unearthly Delights'' etc, follow in the footsteps of last year's new sweet wine ''The Noble Botryotinia Fuckeliana''.

Chester and his father, d'Arry, took turns at the dinner to free-associate about their life and times. D'Arry started drily with: ''It's a pity I have a cripple for a son.'' At the age of 85 he might have to pull on the gumboots and return to winery work. This was followed by a tale of how Chester goes missing in the vineyard for five hours at a stretch ''tasting grapes'' while everyone is slaving in the winery. And so it went on. Yet it would be dangerously easy to underestimate Chester.

It is in the vineyard critical decisions are made that determine wine quality. A mini-masterclass before lunch, with Chester astride the four-wheeler, was the most revealing part of the weekend. Those who have known Chester for years and believe underneath the eccentric behaviour he is quite brilliant, weren't too surprised when d'Arry revealed his son was dyslexic. A lot of very bright and original people are.

Chester says he's given up cultivating and fertilising his vineyards 16 years ago, because ploughing cuts the small outlying roots of the vine and prevents the root system expanding.

''Cultivation was chopping off the roots and restricting their spread,'' he says. ''You have to let the roots explore the soil properly.''

He's also stopped irrigating some vineyards but finds the yields - always small - have actually increased because the vines were able to nourish themselves better, thanks to a more extensive root system. ''Minerality and the expression of terroir is what we want and minerality comes from not irrigating and not fertilising,'' he says. The average yield across all the vineyards is 4.2 tonnes a hectare, which is low. No one could accuse d'Arenberg of over-production.

D'Arenberg vineyards are mostly organic. ''If you're organic, it means you aren't killing the soil,'' Chester says. ''The soil is sterilised by irrigation and cultivation.''

Chester is also convinced the bacteria on the roots play a role in the water retention of the soil. This leads to better turgor in the grapes - they're less prone to shrivelling, which produces porty and dead-fruit characters in the wine. Even d'Arenberg's most powerful, concentrated and ripest wines such as The Dead Arm Shiraz and The Coppermine Road Cabernet Sauvignon don't stray into overripe fruit or excessive alcohol. Indeed, the 2008 vintages of these two $65 bottlings were highlights of an exhaustive, 70-wine tasting during the centenary day.

Both are staggeringly powerful wines and immensely complex but in no way over the top or unbalanced.

Grenache is a special passion for Chester. No winery in Australia has so much invested in grenache. More than half the bottles d'Arenberg produces have grenache in them - in 12 labels.

Even before Chester started The Derelict Vineyard grenache, they made a lot of it, and one of d'Arenberg's most successful show wines, the 1967 d'Arenberg Burgundy, was mostly grenache.

At a time when grenache was even less fashionable than today, Chester decided to hunt for more old-vine McLaren Vale grenache vineyards. He placed an advertisement in the Grapegrower and Winemaker magazine, offering $1000 a tonne. People got upset: no doubt they were fellow winemakers who weren't paying their growers anywhere near that price. He got many replies and as a result discovered a number of old vineyards in various states of disrepair with poorly maintained trellises. Many were overgrown with native grasses or bracken and weren't being pruned or harvested. One was even used to graze horses.

''Restoring these vineyards has been a time-consuming labour of love … but they are back producing very low yields of exceptional fruit,'' Chester says. The Derelict Vineyard Grenache ($30) is the result of the quest and of his passion for the variety.

Chester tells of how Len Evans, a friend of his father's, sat him on his knee as a child and asked: ''What sort of wine are you going to make?'', not if he wanted to be a winemaker. He'll be a hard act to follow for the fifth generation.


A century of growth

D'Arenberg is an amazing winery. Since 1983, during Chester's tenure, it has grown in every way and now has an international profile second to few other Australian wineries. Its 66 SKUs (stock-keeping units, jargon for individual labels) would give any corporate wine marketer nightmares.

Chester juggles 4800 tonnes of grapes at harvest, covering 33 grape varieties, sourced from estate vines as well as 116 grapegrowers, processed as 428 separate vineyard parcels, and resulting in 356,000 cases of wine, two-thirds of it red. Seventy per cent of the wine is exported, to 80 countries.

The 66 SKUs include 12 new shirazes and three grenaches from the superb 2010 vintage, to be released on May 1 as the Amazing Sites series - each with a different esoteric name and its own story. They will be $99 each at the cellar door.



It's a big week for anniversaries at Penfolds, with its former wine chemist Ray Beckwith celebrating his 100th birthday with a low-key event at Penfolds on Friday and the company also celebrating 50 years since what many regard as Australia's greatest-ever wine was made. The 1962 Penfolds Bin 60A Coonawarra Cabernet Kalimna Shiraz was one of many experimental red wines made by Max Schubert during his highly creative era which spawned Grange, Bin 707 Cabernet, Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz and many other respected wines. This year is also the 50th vintage of Bin 389. Beckwith, who still lives in Nuriootpa and was still driving his car until very recently, was Max Schubert's chemist whose pioneering work with pH led to many breakthroughs and helped put Penfolds at the forefront of winemaking. He has since received an Order of Australia, a Maurice O'Shea Award and an honorary doctorate from the University of Adelaide.


Wineries wanting to export will no longer have to submit all wines to a mandatory tasting panel. The body that controls export licensing and compliance, Wine Australia, appears to have bowed to pressure in doing away with its controversial tasting process, which resulted in some excellent but adventurous wines being rejected for some minor perceived fault. Those who are trying to create innovative wine styles will cheer, while others will rue the move as opening the floodgates for dumping our rubbish overseas. Winemakers have been heard to predict that poor-quality wines from the wet 2011 vintage will be dumped in China and Australia's reputation for quality will suffer. The latest example I've seen of a very good wine refused export approval was the 2002 Frankland Estate Isolation Ridge Riesling (pictured), banned as being ''un-wine-like'' according to Hunter Smith, a member of the family that owns the winery. This confession provoked laughter at the recent Frankland Estate International Riesling Tasting, where the '02 was served. My own view is that the tasting panel has outlived its usefulness. In the past it probably helped safeguard quality but these days quality is harder to define. When many innovative winemakers are tolerating minor flaws in their wines in a quest for greater character and complexity, absurdities like the above can happen, resulting in wines being unfairly banned.


With China becoming an increasingly important market for Australian wine, Jeremy Oliver has seized the initiative, releasing his 2012 Australian Wine Annual as a Chinese translation. For the first time, Chinese wine drinkers will have a guide to Australian wine in their own language. The English language 2012 edition was released in October at $29.95.


Ernie Loosen, of the Dr Loosen Mosel Valley wine estate in Germany, has picked his latest-ever grapes from the 2011 European harvest. In Australia in recently for the Frankland Estate International Riesling Tasting and other events, Loosen (pictured) received a call on February 2 while he was in McLaren Vale attending the d'Arenberg centenary, telling him the overnight temperature had finally fallen low enough (it was minus 13 degrees) to pick frozen riesling grapes for Eiswein. It will of course be labelled 2011 vintage because the grapes grew during the 2011 season. D'Arenberg began harvesting its 2012 McLaren Vale riesling the very same day.

This article Quality runs in the family was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.