Diary-of-Axel-Ritenis FINE WINE Fine Wine Articles/Interviews

Interview with Chester Osborne of d’Arenberg Wines

Written by Aksel Ritenis

It was  Australia Day 26th of january,and I was in the wine region of McLaren Vale ,..on a mission,..to witness the festivities surrounding“The Santos Cycling Tour Down Under” which has become an iconic event for South Australia  and  showcases South Australia globally and also provides an opportunity for visitors and the local community, to witness and participate in a world-class Cycling event,.. with much of the cycling route threading through the vineyards of South Australia including McLaren Vale.

I was also visiting some great wineries (in an area familiar to me and close to where I grew up as a boy), and preparing a vintage report and compile material for various wine publishing projects.

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I contacted Chester with a view to visiting his Winery and meeting with him,.. and he very kindly invited me and my travelling companion John Synnott (a former State Political Correspondent for the Fairfax Press in NSW with a good knowledge of Aussie Wine) to attend his organised Australia Day BBQ to be held at his home adjacent to the Winery.

It was a magnificent hot and sunny day in McLaren Vale ,..and the vines, which were coming up to harvest time, were clearly short of water,..,..and appears increasingly stressed,..not a good thing when the final ripening stage is under threat.

Luckily,.. the same couldn’t be said for this correspondent,..who was imbibing copious amounts of delicious wine,..and received the gracious hospitality for which Australians are renowned the world over,..and the opportunity to try what seemed like  the full range of D’Arenberg wines ,(as well as some great Burgundies which were tasted later),….to accompany the Aussie feast of food at the quintessential Aussie BBQ! Company staff,family,assorted journalists,local Vignerons,.. and friends of the popular and exuberant host,..Chester Osborne all created a buzz ,..and a memorable Australia Day,..even Clarry (Chester’s winemaker father) was on hand to make the event a success.

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Following on from this  fabulous event  I compiled and duly received back this Interview with Chester Osborne,.. which I now share with our readers,..and hope it does justice to a passionate and internationally popular advocate for McLaren Vale wine and Australian wine.!

McLaren Vale, S.A. February 2014

1. How did you become one of the leading figures in the McLaren Vale winemaking region? Perhaps you could tell our readers about your background and training/education and experience, and how your passion for wine developed?

My passion for winemaking began when I was 7 years old, sitting on Len Evans knee (1969). He asked me what sort of wine I was going to make and because he was quite intimidating, I replied ‘A yummy one’. A year later, I told my father the rest of my future plans, and asked him what he was going to do after I return from travelling Europe.I was confident that I would be the winemaker! From the age of 7, I worked half of all my holidays, in the vineyard, winery & bottling department. After seven years of primary school at McLaren Vale Primary, followed by 5 years boarding at Prince Alfred College, I took a year off and worked vintage at Tulloch and then worked at d’Arenberg. I studied for 3 Years at Roseworthy Agricultural College, which resulted in a degree in Oenology. I also did vintage at Hardys in McLaren Vale and at Tulloch again while studying. That’s the nuts and bolts, however, the passion for wine really started from just listening to my parents and their friends talking about wine. I always had a very practical, methodical & mechanical mind, which sets you up for deep curiosity of the ins and outs of great wine. At age 8 my friends and I made a V8 car out of scrap parts from the dump. We just made the chassis out of 2 inch water pipe. All through my young life I made hundreds of things, including sculptures and masses of different food dishes. As I grew older and income allowed, I explored the great wines of Europe. In a rather excessive & expensive manner, this helped develop my palate understanding to make very age-worthy wines. When I returned home from Roseworthy in 1983, Dad left me to do whatever I wanted. Having only been taught the background / theory of winemaking at RAC, I thought I wouldn’t modernize the equipment, (Old submerge cap, open fermenters, basket presses), instead I thought with more understanding and control about what was going on, so that we maximise the potential of each vineyard, quality wise. When I returned home from Roseworthy in 1983, Dad left me to do whatever I wanted. Having only been taught the background / theory of winemaking at RAC, I thought I wouldn’t modernize the equipment, (Old submerge cap, open fermenters, basket presses), instead I thought with more understanding and control about what was going on, so that we maximise the potential of each vineyard, quality wise.

 

2. How many premium producers are there in McLaren Vale?

About 100. All selling wine over $20/bottle.

 

3. Is McLaren Vale trailing the Hunter in Australian Wine Tourism? What is the way forward?

The Hunter Valley sees many more visitors than McLaren Vale due to its proximity to Sydney. I have plans to make a 5 story high iconic building at the winery to house our tasting room, offices and functions, based on a building cube but with puzzles on the outside instead of colours, it will attract attention and generate considerable tourism sales.

 

4. I must say that my colleague John and I have been extremely impressed with the region on this visit, what are the major selling points or features and special appeal of “the Vale”,.. is it its proximity to the sea, how do you see it?

McLaren Vale has many features. It’s sandwiched between the sea and the southern Mount Lofty ranges and the rolling, random hills which makes the region breathtakingly beautiful. There are about 40 different geologies and 19 different districts with very varied flora. This makes the region multi-faceted. There are many great restaurants and lots of great accommodation either on the sea, vineyards or bush.

 

5. With such a proliferation of high quality wines on international markets, why should overseas “connoisseurs” be interested in McLaren Vale? What are the key selling points?

McLaren Vale’s great quality wines sold rapidly and fairly easily overseas when the story was new (in the 90’s) and the dollar was cheap. Now we have matured, it’s a slow hard slog to build back the reputation that has been damaged by the focus on cheaper wines. Rome wasn’t built in a day though! McLaren Vale offers wines with considerable flavour and soil expression, while they can also exhibit beautiful elegance. Many wines can live for many years. We are making wines right now that in good vintages they will age over 40 years. Great wine must age well to be considered great! Wines which develop great flavours and display length free of the nasty oxidative broad characters are great age worthy wines that reputations are made of.

 

6. Are the McLaren Vale wine styles developing and evolving from a historical perspective? There seem to be more varietals all the time? Mainly Italian it would seem – is this the new Med?

The red wines of the 60’s and 70’s were often lower in alcohol and much less oak was used. Refrigeration was limited and picking was done during the heat of the day. This produced wines that varied with the randomness of the heat waves. We now, largely pick when it is cool and can control temperatures better, along with yeast etc. This means that we have more repeatability of style. However, many producers in the 90’s, picked riper grapes and used masses of newer oak. Fortunately the oaky wines have now gone and most producers are picking ripe grapes instead of overripe grapes. A few anomalies still exist.

 

7. I noticed that there are many new varieties such as Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, etc. and the Spanish Tempranillo being grown and produced, which new varieties are showing the most promise in your opinion?

Enormous arrays of varieties are being tried in McLaren Vale now, many with very good success. At d’Arenberg we have 33 different grape varieties. At this stage the most promising, new varieties are Roussanne, Marsanne, Fiano, Petit Verdot and Sagrantino.

 

8. What are your own preferences and priorities in wine varieties and styles in your region?

I prefer wines with great style, where there is elegance and length, with a healthy soil expression, while still not being light, and wines that challenge us, often going through nervous evolution. Very much the d’Arenberg style. The most exciting wines in the region for me are Roussanne, Shiraz, Grenache, Cab Sauv and Sagrantino. Sagrantino has the potential to rival the rest to be the greatest wines of the region.

 

9. Numerous local retailers and cellar door staff at several wineries have suggested to me that Shiraz tends to outsell Cabernet by 3 to 1, or thereabouts? Is this your experience, or can you confirm this trend?What conclusions can we draw about this?

At all price-points we sell about 5:1 Shiraz Vs Cabernet, probably because this is what the world wants from Australia. Up until 1990 Cabernet Sauvignon was king, demanding the highest prices for grapes and wine.

 

10. d’Arenberg has an enviable position as one of the leading medium size wineries within the region, and in Australia and international markets, as an exporter, what do you put your family success down to?

We have worked very hard at investing a lot of time overseas, visiting trade shows and doing many functions. It’s this that sparks the interest along with great reviews. Then it is the quality of the wines and the story that sells it further.

 

11. After a visit to the Cellar Door several years ago, I was very impressed with the Single block wines. It seems you have developed a reputation for producing stunning varietals and high quality wines that are a fabulous expression of the terrior. Can you tell our readers about this project?

Our Single Block wines, we call “Single Vineyard” and make up what we call “The Amazing Sites” . There are over a dozen Shiraz and up to 3 Grenache from each year. The Shiraz is a few barrels from our best Shiraz vineyards that go into make The Dead Arm. The Grenache are parcels from the Ironstone G.S.M blend. They are all made the same way with no new oak and all should age enormously and elegantly long. They all differ considerably based on the soil geology, distance from the sea, altitude and vine age.

 

12. From my conversations here over the past week, I understand that there is a new concept and initiative in place called the Scarce Earth Wines. Can you explain what this is and how it works?

The Scarce Earth Wines are effectively the same but each wine company can only sell 3 from a given year. The wines must not be over or under ripe, free from faults and not be insignificant.

 

13. What are your plans in this area, I understand that Cellar Door activities and the tourist dollar are a top priority for local wineries?

Not only are we working on the d’Arenberg Cube, we have set the place up with a tractor and implemented museum, including over 100 year time line development of d’Arenberg, we have an old store barn, now called ‘The Stables Wine Immersion Centre’ which contains lots of soil/geology cores, wine display & interactive I pad exploration. We host private tastings and The Blending Bench Sessions there, which attracts many visitors to d’Arenberg. Our d’Arry’s Verandah Restaurant, has won numerous awards and is one of the iconic & visited restaurants in the region. We are also working on building a very large amptheatre.

 

14. I understand that here at McLaren Vale, you have some ambitious tourist and cellar door development plans afoot, with a giant Rubik’s cube structure being planned? Can you please elaborate?

Question briefly answered in Questions’s. 4 & 14.


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Aksel Ritenis

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