I can’t remember when, exactly, I had my first Australian wine, but there’s a good chance that it was made by D’Arenberg. Most certainly I first learned to recognize the distinct area of McLaren Vale courtesy of a bottle with a characteristic red slash through the label.
I’ve drunk D’Arenberg wines for years, always appreciating their value for the money, and often recommending them to friends who are looking for crowd-pleasing wines that are relatively easy to find.
So when I found myself in McLaren Vale a few weeks ago, I made sure to stop by the winery, have a look around, and taste through their current releases.
D’Arenberg was founded in 1912, when Joseph Osborn purchased about 60 acres in the hills of a region that was not even yet known as McLaren Vale. For the next 40 years, the winery made mostly the fortified wines that were in fashion at the time, as well as some dry red table wine, all of which was shipped in bulk to Europe. Three generations later, a precocious Francis d’Arenberg Osborn, known to all as d’Arry (pronounced like “dairy”), returned home from school to help his ailing father run the family winery. After 14 years, at the age of 30, d’Arry took over the business and two years later, launched the first vintage of wine that still bears his middle name today.
D’Arry just celebrated his 67th consecutive harvest in McLaren Vale and the 51st vintage with his name on the bottle. But d’Arry hasn’t been making the wine for some time, thanks to his talented son Chester Osborn, who took over the responsibilities of Chief Winemaker in 1984, after completing his enology studies and spending time working at wineries around the world. D’Arry’s name is on the bottle, but it is Chester, whose wild-child-surf-bum-meets-absent-minded-professor persona has turned d’Arenberg into the massively successful global brand it is today.
Chester Osborn is the kind of bloke that my British friends would describe as “completely mad” with a twinkle in their eye. It’s a term of equal parts endearment and exasperation for the kind of person that always has and always will step to the beat of their own private drummer. Chester’s rhythm section seems to be one part jazz and one part heavy metal. Take a look at his working uniform of bermuda shorts and Hawaiian shirts; or a glance at his office desk, piled literally three to four feet high with stacks of paper and back issues of wine magazines; or listen to him talk about the new glass cube of an office building he’s designed with “cones of silence” that can be lowered over each desk in the open seating plan, and you might think he’s just riding high on his family’s legacy.
But when it comes to both making and selling wine, Osborn has proved beyond a doubt that he’s anything but a freewheeling dilettante. For more than 25 years he has maintained a fierce regimen of quality-focused traditions in the cellar that many wineries his size gave up long ago. The grapes for every single wine, from the cheapest bottles to the most expensive, are all basket pressed, and every red wine is fermented in traditional cement vats lined with wax, using the fussy, labor intensive method of submerged-cap fermentation and foot treading. This technique, involving a mesh screen that holds the skins and stems of the grapes in the middle of the tank while the juice flows above and below, is one of the more gentle ways of extracting color and flavor from the grapes, and tends to be used by much higher-end wineries.
Osborn has made a few concessions to modernity, such as the huge new crusher I saw under construction on my visit, as well as mechanically harvesting most of the newly planted vineyards, but all of the heritage Shiraz, Mourvedre, and Grenache, some of which are more than 100 years old, are still picked painstakingly by hand.
Over the past 25 years the d’Arenberg portfolio has grown in breadth, adding many more wines, each as distinctly, if not cleverly, named as the last. Many of the wines are small projects that strike Osborn’s fancy, or that have sprouted opportunistically from the chance to get his hands on a particularly nice source of fruit. I spent nearly an hour and a half tasting through the portfolio, and still didn’t taste all the wines, a good portion of which never find their way outside of Australia.
Here’s what I got to, and what I thought about them.
2008 D’Arenberg “Dry Dam” Riesling, McLaren Vale
Near colorless in the glass with a hint of greenness, this wine has a nose of lychee and ripe pear aromas. In the mouth it is bright, with lime juice and green apple flavors. A wonderful lemonade character lingers on the finish. Score: around 8.5.
2008 D’Arenberg “The Money Spider” Roussanne, McLaren Vale
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of honeysuckle and beeswax. In the mouth the wine has a juicy lychee and apple flavors, and a hint of nuttiness as the wine heads for a clean finish. Nice acidity. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2008 D’Arenberg “The Hermit Crab” Viognier Marsanne, McLaren Vale
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of peaches in syrup with a hint of bergamot citrus. In the mouth it is zesty and juicy with apple, pear, and faint apricot flavors that linger in a nice finish. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $17. Click to buy.
2007 D’Arenberg “The Olive Grove” Chardonnay, McLaren Vale / Adelaide Hills
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of freshly popped and buttered popcorn. In the mouth the wine offers a lemon curd and lemon zest flavor with a juicy pink grapefruit quality on the finish. Clean, bright with acidity, and refreshing. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $17. Click to buy.
2007 D’Arenberg “The Lucky Lizard” Chardonnay, Adelaide Hills
Pale gold, nearly colorless in the glass, this wine smells of cold cream and buttered baguette. In the mouth it offers lemon juice and lemon zest, with a wonderful underlying minerality. Only 30% new oak, the rest well used barrels, and about 5% fermented with natural yeasts in barrel. Nice finish. Score: around 9.
2008 D’Arenberg “The Last Ditch” Viognier, McLaren Vale / Adelaide Hills
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of citrus and just the barest hint of apricots and peaches. On the palate the wine is wonderfully floral and citrus oriented, with a nice light texture (as opposed to the thick quality the grape variety can often have). Hints of unripe peach sneak into the finish which is clean and long. Fantastic acidity. Refreshing but missing some of the deeper complexity that would make this a profound instead of just pleasurable wine. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $23. Click to buy.
2008 D’Arenberg “The Feral Fox” Pinot Noir, Adelaide Hills
Light to medium ruby in the glass, this wine has a nose of nose of dried raspberries and well oiled leather with a very distinctive orange peel quality. In the mouth the wine offers juicy sour cherry and dried raspberry flavors with an orange peel and cinnamon note on the finish. Good acidity, but this wine is a little less successful than it could be. Score: between 8 and 8.5.
2007 D’Arenberg “The Custodian” Grenache, McLaren Vale
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of raspberry and green herbs. In the mouth the wine offers woody tannins that wrap around a core of raspberry and cherry fruit, with savory, even salty, dried herbs on the finish. Nice acidity. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $19. Click to buy.
2006 D’Arenberg “The Derelict” Grenache, McLaren Vale
Medium to dark ruby in the glass this wine smells of dried cherries and raspberries. In the mouth the wine is quite velvety, with light supportive tannins that run through a core of cherry and raspberry fruit that has a wonderfully savory, umami quality, making the wine quite delicious. Nice acidity keeps the flavors fresh as the raspberries and texture of the tannins linger into the finish. Excellent. Score: around 9. $26. Click to buy.
2006 D’Arenberg “The Ironstone Pressings” Grenache Shiraz Mourvedre, McLaren Vale
5% Mourvedre, 20% Shiraz and 75% Grenache, this wine has a medium ruby color, and a nose of cassis and cherry with a nice briary and leathery aspect. In the mouth the wine is velvety with muscular, lightly grippy tannins and flavors of sour cherry, raspberry, and new leather. Dried herb aromas emerge on the finish with some citrus oils. Nicely integrated and balanced, this is a very drinkable wine. Score: around 9. Cost: $45. Click to buy.
2006 D’Arenberg “The Cadenzia” Grenache Shiraz Mourvedre, McLaren Vale
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of sweet cherry fruit with a hint of orange peel. In the mouth it is explosively juicy with cherry and sour cherry flavors with hints of citrus zest. Incredible acidity and faint tannins add to the well-integrated package. This is a wine that compels multiple gulps. Delicious. 48% Grenache, 45% Shiraz, 7% Mourvedre. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $28. Click to buy.
2007 D’Arenberg “The Twentyeight Road” Mourvedre, McLaren Vale
Medium cloudy ruby in color, this wine smells of stewed cherries and mulling spices. In the mouth the wine is nice and juicy with cherry and sour cherry fruit, and tight grained tannins that linger with some cinnamon notes in the finish. Nice acidity and a medium body, this is a deft rendition of the Mourvedre grape. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2006 D’Arenberg “The Galvo Garage” Bordeaux Blend, McLaren Vale / Adelaide Hills
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of rich stewed cherries and black olives. In the mouth it has a distinct cherry and black olive character with tannins that taste as well as feel like well oiled leather. The black olive character lingers with an anise component in the finish. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $29. Click to buy.
2008 D’Arenberg “The Wild Pixie” Shiraz Roussanne, McLaren Vale
Dark garnet in color, this wine has a nose of cassis and blackberry aromas with a hint of golden delicious apples. In the mouth the wine has a blackberry and tart/sour cassis backbone, supported by burly tannins. Light orange peel notes emerge on the finish. The wine contains 5% Roussanne that is cofermented with Shiraz. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2006 D’Arenberg “d’Arry’s Original” Shiraz Grenache, McLaren Vale
Medium ruby in color, this wine has a nose of rich ripe and dried cherry and chocolate. In the mouth black cherry and chocolate flavors dominate, with lightly herbal and cassis notes in the finish. Nice acidity and supple tannins give the wine life and complexity. Tasty. Score: around 9. Cost: $19. Click to buy.
2006 D’Arenberg “The Footbolt” Shiraz, McLaren Vale
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of cassis and blackberries with a sour cherry overtone. In the mouth the wine offers blackberry and sour cherry flavors with woody tannins and nice acidity. Less complexity or depth to the fruit than there could be. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $15. Click to buy.
2007 D’Arenberg “The Laughing Magpie” Shiraz Viognier, McLaren Vale
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of cassis, white flowers, and honey. In the mouth the wine offers a juicy blackberry and honeysuckle aspect, with a nice cedar and cocoa powder aspect that lingers in the finish. Muscular persistent tannins and nice acidity. This wine is 10% Viognier, more than usual to compensate for an aggressively tannic Shiraz year. Score: around 8.5.Cost: $19. Click to buy.
2005 D’Arenberg “The Sticks and Stones” Red Blend, McLaren Vale
48% Tempranillo, 42% Grenache, 10% Shiraz, this wine is a medium garnet color in the glass. It smells of dried cherries and fresh raspberries with a hint of floral notes. In the mouth it is velvety and lush with cherry and raspberry flavors and aggressive but smooth tannins that linger, along with a note of citrus into the finish. With some time to mellow the tannins this will be a really drinkable wine. Score: around 9. Cost: $22. Click to buy.
2006 D’Arenberg “The Coppermine Road” Cabernet Sauvignon, McLaren Vale
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of rick black cherry and just the barest hint of green bell pepper and green herbs. In the mouth the wine is a nice balance between rich black cherry fruit and a greenish aromatic herbal component that seems welded to leathery tannins that will need a couple of years to settle down. Wonderfully balanced, with excellent acidity this is a wine to age and enjoy in a few years. Score: around 9. Cost: $62. Click to buy.
2003 D’Arenberg “The Coppermine Road” Cabernet Sauvignon, McLaren Vale
Medium to dark ruby in color, this wine smells of dried cherries and a hint of black olive. In the mouth the wine has a wonderful dried cherry and red miso quality. Well integrated tannins and nice acidity give the wine a nice poise, that combined with its velvety texture demonstrate the benefit of laying this wine down for some time. Score: around 9. Cost: $62. Click to buy.
2006 D’Arenberg “The Dead Arm” Shiraz, McLaren Vale
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of cassis and blackberry with a nice violet note. In the mouth the wine has a rich cassis and blackberry-with-briar flavor, and rich velvety tannins that coat the mouth and grip the edges of the tongue tightly as the wine finishes for a long time with a hint of brown sugar and cedar. Much better than a bottle of the same vintage I had nearly a week prior. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $49. Click to buy.
2008 D’Arenberg “The Noble Prankster” Chardonnay Semillon, McLaren Vale
Light yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of honey, candied orange peel and vanilla. In the mouth the wine has a nice silky texture and flavors of candied orange peel, orange blossom water, and honey. Somewhat simple. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $20 for 375ml. Click to buy.
2008 D’Arenberg “The Noble Mud Pie” White Blend, McLaren Vale
An unusual blend of botrytized Viognier, Pinot Gris, and Marsanne, this wine has a medium gold color in the glass. It smells of dried mango, papaya, pineapple and candied orange peel. In the mouth it is exceedingly thick and silky on the tongue with flavors of dried pineapple, dried mango, and rich orange blossom honey. Comes across as somewhat syrupy and needs more acidity for me to want to drink more than a mouthful. However, poured over ice cream I’d expect it to be fantastic. Score: around 8.5.