The Wild Pixie Celebrates d’Arenberg’s 100 Years

Chester Osborn had his foot in a moon-boot, thanks to a damaged Achilles tendon, and 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 were debuted to the press. ‘The Vociferate Dipsomaniac’. ‘The Malaysian Swinger.’ ‘The Garden of Unearthly Delights’, etc.

Last year’s new sweet wine ‘The Botryotinia Fuckeliana’ is already old news, and the ‘Wild Pixie’ has become Chester’s sobriquet.

It would be dangerously easy to under-estimate Chester Osborn, fourth generation winemaker of the family whose d’Arenberg (tastings) winery is celebrating its centenary this year. Eccentric? Yes. A fool? Certainly not. More likely a genius.

A large gathering of fellow McLaren Vale winemakers, family, friends, press, and distribution agents both local and international, filled a marquee at the winery for a celebratory dinner on February 2.

Chester and his father d’Arry took it in turns to sit on d’Arry’s antique office chair on a dais, and free-associate about their life and times. D’Arry started drily with “It’s a pity I have a cripple for a son,” — and at the age of 85, 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 else is slaving in the winery, and it just went upwards from there.

But indeed, it is in the vineyard where the critical decisions are made that determine wine quality, and a mini-masterclass before lunch, with Chester astride the four-wheeler, was the most revealing part of the weekend.

A lot of us who’ve known Chester Osborn for many years and believe that underneath the bizarre behaviour he is quite brilliant, weren’t too surprised when his dad revealed that Chester is dyslexic. A lot of very bright and original people are.

Chester said that he’d 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. You have to let the roots explore the soil properly.” He’d also stopped irrigating some vineyards but found the yields – always small – had 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 per hectare, which is low. No-one could accuse d’Arenberg of over-production.

The d’Arenberg vineyards are mostly organic: “If you’re organic, it means you aren’t killing the soil,” he says. “The soil is sterilised by irrigation and cultivation”.

He’s also convinced that 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, and the resultant porty or dead-fruit characters in the wine. Even d’Arenberg’s most powerful, concentrated and ripest wines such as The Dead Arm Shiraz (tastings) and The Coppermine Road Cabernet Sauvignon (tastings) don’t stray into overripe fruit or excessive alcohol. Indeed, the 2008 vintages of these two $65 bottlings were highlights in 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.

d’Arenberg is an amazing winery. During Chester’s tenure (since 1983) 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 4,800 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.

“By the year’s end we’ll have 66 SKUs. Dad stopped telling me to stop adding new wines 15 years ago.” The 66 will include 12 new shirazes and 3 grenaches from the superb 2010 vintage, to be released as the Amazing Sites series – each one with a different esoteric name and its own story.

Grenache is a special passion for Chester. There is no winery in Australia with so much invested in grenache. Over half the bottles d’Arenberg produces have grenache in them – in 12 labels. Even before Chester started The Derelict Vineyard grenache (tastings), they made a lot of it, and one of d’Arenberg’s most successful show wines of the past, the 1967 d’Arenberg Burgundy, was mostly grenache.

The story goes that, at a time when grenache was even less fashionable than it is today, Chester decided to hunt for more old-vine McLaren Vale grenache vineyards. He placed an advertisement in the Grapegrower & Winemaker magazine, offering $1,000 a tonne. People got upset: mostly 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.” The Derelict Vineyard Grenache ($30 tastings) is the direct result of the quest, and of Chester’s passion for the variety.

It’s said that Chester has an artistic personality. Chester said when he went to study winemaking at Roseworthy he found it was like an art school. The lecturers might have commanded him: “Paint me a great painting!” He told 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 “Are you going to be a winemaker?” but “What sort of wine?” It was a foregone conclusion.

Well, Chester has painted many great pictures and each has a title and a story. He’ll be a hard act for the fifth generation to follow.

*The Amazing Sites shirazes and grenaches will be on sale at the d’Arenberg cellar door from May 1 for $99 a bottle.

Northern and Southern Hemisphere Riesling Picked on Same Day

Ernie Loosen, of the Dr Loosen Mosel Valley wine estate, has picked his latest-ever grapes from the 2011 European harvest. In Australia recently for the Frankland Estate International Riesling Tasting and other events, Loosen 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. Ironically, d’Arenberg began harvesting its 2012 McLaren Vale riesling the very same day.

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 14 February 2012.

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