D'Arry Osborn, founder of d'Arenberg winery in Australia's McLaren Vale, is a tough old guy. The day before a scheduled 21-hour trip to Houston, the 79-year-old gashed his leg open in the winery woodshed. But after more than six decades in the wine business, a lot of blood and eight stitches weren't about to stop him. He made his flights: Adelaide to Sydney to San Francisco to Houston, thank you very much.
Osborn and his son, Chester, d'Arenberg's winemaker since 1984, came to the United States for a two-week, six-city sales trip. One of their stops was San Francisco, where on June 29, d'Arry and Chester hosted a tasting of 16 current releases, then a dinner with three dozen more wines.
McLaren Vale's reputation has skyrocketed in the last 30 years--it's now regarded as one of the world's premier sources of Syrah/Shiraz--and d'Arenberg is one of the best-known producers there, with colorfully named wines such as The Dead Arm. So it was particularly interesting to try three of the winery's older bottlings, made from 50- to 110-year-old vines on its estate: the d'Arry's Original 1989, which is a Grenache-Syrah blend, and a pair of Shiraz-Cabernet blends from 1977 and 1970.
Time was that Cabernet, not Shiraz, was the star in Australia. Perhaps that was due in part to the country's connection to England, which venerates claret. In addition, Syrah has only gotten its due as a premier red wine grape within the last 20 years or so. Whatever the reasons, Cabernet was in greater demand and shorter supply, so Aussie vintners found ways to stretch it.
D'Arry used to first ferment the Cabernet, then press the wine off the skins, for one bottling. Then he fermented Shiraz with the leftover Cabernet skins, producing wines that showed plenty of Cabernet structure and flavors. Although the winery didn't keep precise figures, Chester guesses that Cabernet skins comprised as much as 20 percent of the total blend.
Both the 1977 and 1970 blends showed fairly well, albeit with firm tannins that dominated the fruit. In 1984, Chester stopped fermenting Shiraz on Cabernet skins--he wanted softer structure and more forward fruit.
The d'Arry's Original 1989 was probably a 50-50 blend of Grenache and Syrah, though sometimes the wine contained as much as 75 percent Grenache. The 1989 had more fruit richness than the 1977 and 1970, but also a pronounced leathery character.
My favorite wine of the evening was the NV Tawny Port Daddy Longlegs, so-called for the spiders that climb over the barrels. It's fabulously rich, with tremendous complexity and length. Made predominantly from Grenache, along with Shiraz, Mourvèdre and a Sherry variety, Pedro Ximénez, some of the blend dates back to 1928. When he took over production, Chester inherited 15 barrels, which evaporation has subsequently reduced to five. The wine will probably retail for about $300 for a 375ml bottle.
All told, d'Arenberg makes more than 30 other wines, including The Dead Arm, its highest-priced release, at $65 for the 2003 vintage. The rest of the portfolio ranges across bone-dry Riesling, Pinot Noir and various blends of Rhône and Bordeaux varieties, with prices generally between $10 and $30. Production now stands at 270,000 cases per year, about two-thirds of which stays in Australia, with the rest going to the United Kingdom and United States.
I always enjoy meeting vintners from Australia and New Zealand, particularly old-school types like Osborn--these producers tell it like it is. When I asked d'Arry about the reasons for the U.S. trip (his third), he responded, "sales," with a self-evident shrug. "There's a lot of competition in the market now, and unless you go out and wave the flag, you're lost."
After listening to d'Arry recount his family's story, I noticed some striking similarities to the pioneering Italian families who helped launch the California wine industry, such as the Sebastianis and Seghesios. The Italian families started off selling California wine in bulk or in inexpensive jugs that came more or less in two flavors--red and white. It wasn't too profitable or glamorous, but it was a living.
The Osborns have been in the business since 1912, when d'Arry's grandfather bought a 50-acre vineyard planted to Shiraz, Grenache and Mataro (Mourvèdre). Until the 1950s, they mostly sold wine in bulk to a négociant in England. D'Arry left school in 1943 when he was 16 to start working at the property. His father's health was poor and, with every able-bodied man in uniform, they couldn't hire labor for love or money.
In 1959, two years after his father's death, d'Arry launched the d'Arenberg brand, bottling wine in jugs (called flagons in Australia). The English négociants had stopped buying Australian wine, forcing producers to start their own labels. D'Arenberg produced a "Burgundy" (Grenache and Shiraz), "Claret" (early-picked Shiraz), Shiraz (late-picked Shiraz) and Shiraz-Cabernet, and the wines were generally very well-received.
In family wineries, conflict often arises during the transition from generation to generation. But unlike at Sebastiani and Seghesio, where new ideas initially sparked resistance, that wasn't the case at d'Arenberg.
"Father was keen for me to come home [from school] and modernize the winery. I was the first trained winemaker [we'd ever had], and he let me do whatever I wanted to do from the word 'go,'" explains Chester, a jovial character who clearly has a comfortable rapport with his father. (During d'Arry's talk about the winery, Chester observed of one old photo, "Hmm, that looks about 25 years and a few stone ago.")
It may have helped that Chester didn't make too many changes. He reduced irrigation, stopped using fertilizer and brought in refrigeration equipment, which allowed d'Arenberg to amp up its white wine program (whites need to be fermented at cooler temperatures to preserve fruit character). But the production methods of the reds have stayed roughly the same, although they do now use smaller oak barrels in addition to the large neutral oak vessels that once were the rule. And, of course, Cabernet skins are no longer added to Shiraz.
Another thing that hasn't changed much are d'Arenberg's prices, which remain relatively modest when a number of Shiraz producers from Barossa and McLaren Vale charge upwards of $150 per bottle. Chester acknowledges that the prices reflect his father's perspective, formed in leaner times. "It's easier to sell the wine at $65," he explains. "At $100-plus, it moves at a trickle. But we want a brand that will be in it for the long haul."