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What's Happening at d'Arenberg?

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jun 21, 2007 2:12pm ET

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.

Stephanie A Hubbell
winter —  June 22, 2007 12:24am ET
Harvey, I fully agree with you, these were some of my early favorites of Australia. On your travels down under are most of the winemakers talking about trying to add more tannin structure?
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  June 22, 2007 2:26am ET
Actually, no. They're talking about achieving better balance of tannin, acidity and alcohol to make more elegant wines without losing power and intensity. It's actually been fairly common for Aussie winemakers to ADD tannin, a practice which has begun to fall out of favor. Chester surprised me with this idea of encouraging tannin development for more expression of terroir.
Whit Thompson
Rochester, NY —  June 22, 2007 10:08am ET
Harvey, I was wondering if you still stand by your recommendation to drink the 2000 Dead Arm by 2007. Some of the other readers' comments suggest more time in the bottle would benefit the wine. I also noticed that your review of the 2002 vintage shows a recommendation to drink through 2020 -- a much longer window than the 2000, even though it (the 2000) received a higher rating. Any advice would be much appreciated.
David A Zajac
June 22, 2007 11:00am ET
I have found the top of the line d'Arenberg wines to be a little over the top for my likes, although their Coppermine Road has been very good. I understand what they are trying to achieve but how they are going about it leaves me scratching my head a little bit, although I won't claim to have Chester's background or winemaking knowledge...but when I taste wines like Torbreck, Clarendon Hills or Greenock Creek, he has some excellent teachers if he chooses to use them.
Laurie Woolever
New York —  June 22, 2007 11:19am ET
Whit, I've just heard from Harvey, who is away from web access today, so he's asked me to let you know that the drink window for the 2000 Dead Arm should be "after 2007."
-Laurie WooleverAssociate Editor, Wine Spectator Online
Arnaud Tronche
Chicago —  June 22, 2007 4:05pm ET
I don't really see anything wrong in having more gamy, earthy flavors in the wine. If I want fruit, vanilla and glycerin I know where to go. But that's not wine. Those kinf of wines have been praised by people like RP and WS way too much. Good to see some winemakers trying to improve and evolve the style of their wines.
Gary M Lewis
Beverly Hills Ca —  June 25, 2007 2:46pm ET
I too have loved d'Arenberg over the years, especially the Magpie. I too have noticed some tightness, an increase in what I call unripe tannin. The fruit of the 2004 and 2005 is fantastic (most of So. Aussie Shiraz seems to be in 04-05), yet the wine is unnecessarily tight.

What i dont get is winemakers trying to create "ageable" "classic", etc, by adding HARSH tannin, often from green/unripe seeds. Many great ageable wines are lovely after a year or two cellaring, and age well for years. I believe that ripe tannin in quantity doesnt have to taste harsh even in it's infancy, yet will provide that structure needed for ageability. We see this in many California Cabs, who for years were knocked due to their perceived "unageability", yet years later are drinking wonderfully.

I recenty had some really ripe cab, merlot, and malbec grapes I ran an extended maceration on for 40 days post alcoholic fermentation. You can chew the tannin on the back teeth, yet, they arent harsh at all, can be drunk young, and should age for 10-15 years.

I would suggest to the viticulturist/winemaker, Osborne in this case, that making a growing decision that slows the ripening of the grapes, they needs more hang time (not my preference) or lower crop thresholds (my preference) to get riper skin and seed tannin. He could then soak and press to his hearts content, still add structure, and avoid unripe/harsh tannins.

Gary Lewis
Lewis Family Vineyards
Alvin Miller
Dallas, TX —  July 6, 2007 9:57pm ET
Sometimes it is difficult to fathom why a winery would change a successful formula. Despite the realization that that is the perogative of the winemaker it saddens me to know that the Magpie I have enjoyed (not often enough) is now a different bird. D'Arenberg was getting a very devoted following and I hope these changes are not a capricious reaction to some marketing whim. I will watch closely and hope that the wines I have loved will still be great.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  July 7, 2007 12:25am ET
Alvin, I don't think it's a marketing whim at all. I think Chester truly believes he is making better wine. Apparently, I'm not the only one who wonders...
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  July 31, 2007 10:32pm ET
At an Aussie tasting this past winter, I enjoyed none of the D'Arenberg offerings. Now I know whom to credit: he who said "the evils that make a wine fruity and juicy". Now I just want to know what he's smokin'.

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