For years, d'Arenberg has been one of my go-to wineries from Australia. Everything from the McLaren Vale winery seemed to show distinctive character and refinement. Having recently tasted some of the newest releases, I have been puzzled by an apparent change in direction in the top wines. The past several vintages show a difference in texture. Where before, you could count on a d'Arenberg wine caressing the tongue with supple, sleek tannins, the last couple of vintages show a distressing tendency toward gritty textures.
Some, but not all, of the more recent wines show funky, earthy, gamy flavors, too.
Last time I met with Chester Osborne, the long-haired owner and winemaker, he talked about making the wines "tighter." I'm not sure it's an improvement.
"Australia makes big wines that are approachable early, open, lush, with gutsy flavors," he explained. "I try to make a wine that has the bigness and ripeness of Australia but the length, the fragrance, the tannin, the regional character, the soil character of the Old World."
Osborne made a point to say he has stopped fertilizing his vineyards. "By not fertilizing, the more you see the tannin flavors come out in the wines," he said.
"Fertilizer and water are the evils that make a wine fruity and juicy," he added. "The true expressions comes through if you make the vine do things on its own. But you have to be very careful about extracting the tannins and that's why we do it very gently." Osborne uses a phalanx of basket presses at d'Arenberg, instead of big pneumatic presses.
That sounds good, but the results in the glass seem to have traded away a bit too much of the charm in favor of tannin. To my taste, the signature red, the Dead Arm Shiraz, has only reached an outstanding rating once in this decade, and I recall having to taste four bottles of the 2002 to find one that had the intensity to battle the tannins successfully. The signature Cabernet, Coppermine Road, hasn't reached the 90-point level since 2001, subsequent vintages striking me as too tannic for the flavor intensity.
I found similar trends in recent vintages of Laughing Magpie (a Shiraz-Viognier) and High Trellis (another Cabernet), which also showed some funky, gamy flavors.
At the low- and moderate-priced end of the spectrum, d'Arenberg continues to deliver good values. At $10 The Stump Jump red blend is fun to drink, and at $19 The Footbolt Shiraz, Custodian Grenache and d'Arry's Original (a blend of Grenache and Shiraz) deliver lithe textures and pretty flavors. The whites mostly are a bit brighter these days, but not too tart to enjoy.
I miss the supple, seductive wines the Dead Arm, Coppermine Road and Laughing Magpie used to be. I hope Osborne will decide he's gone too far toward tannin and find a happier middle ground.