The art of being different

The art of being different

Since starting off as a grape growing business, d’Arenberg has become a South Australian wine icon, synonymous with not only quality, but ground-breaking innovation.

Published Selector Winter 2010

When you think of what winemaking and horseracing have in common, a teetotaller isn’t likely to spring to mind. But that’s exactly what Joseph Osborn claimed to be when he purchased a vineyard in South Australia’s McLaren Vale in 1912. To afford the vineyard, he sold his stable of prized racehorses.

However, Joseph’s great-grandson Chester questions his teetotal claim. “I think he lied. He raced under a different name so no-one knew it was him. But I think he did drink.”

Chester’s father Francis, or ‘d’Arry’ as he’s better known, disagrees, insisting that Joseph was true to the Methodist pledge, especially given the fact that Joseph’s own father had “died of alcoholism, he drowned in the Murray when he was drunk.”

But one thing about Joseph that d’Arry and Chester can agree on, is that his shrewd purchase laid the groundwork for one of Australia’s most famous wine dynasties – d’Arenberg.

Having been on the board of Thomas Hardy and Sons since 1881, Joseph Osborn had a good knowledge of the vineyards of what’s now known as McLaren Vale. So when his son Frank was forced to leave his studies in Melbourne due to illness, Joseph was well placed to purchase 64ha of land, including some established vineyards.

Without a winery, the father and son team sold their grapes to neighbouring producers and concentrated on expanding their vineyard plantings.

Nine years after buying the land, Joseph passed away, leaving the business in Frank’s hands. By this time, Frank had married Helena d’Arenberg and their first child, Antoinette, was born in 1921, followed by Rowen in 1924. The youngest, Francis (d’Arry), was born in 1926, but tragically, Helena died during his birth.

By 1927, the time was ripe for Frank to build his own winery. Thanks to the Wine Export Bounty Act of 1924, the export industry was booming, which meant that apart from the disruption of World War II, Frank ran a successful bulk wine business from his first vintage in 1928, until his death in 1957.

Frank’s success was thanks, in part, to d’Arry, who in 1943 at age 16 left school to help run the business. d’Arry’s winemaking training was on the job, with one of his father’s workers, Norman King as his main teacher.

Although working for the family business was what d’Arry always wanted to do, life with his father was sometimes tough.

“Dad was very difficult, he was ill a lot of the time, he couldn’t help it,” recalls d’Arry. “I had the responsibility of looking after him, picking him up off the floor when he fell over. He used to drink too much a lot of the time and he gave me a pretty raw deal.”

Fortunately d’Arry’s busy social life gave him an escape. “I played a lot of sport; cricket, tennis, golf, bowls, table tennis. I was always doing something and I had lots of friends.” d’Arry also had a great passion for dancing, which is how he met Pauline Preston, who he eventually married in 1958.

By the late 1950s the popularity of table wines was surpassing fortifieds and many companies were actively promoting their individual brands. However, Frank had never been interested in getting into labels, so it wasn’t until 1959, two years after his death, that d’Arry and Pauline launched plans for a label.

The first step was choosing a name and d’Arenberg was chosen as a tribute to d’Arry’s late mother. Next they needed a design for the label and d’Arry was keen to make a striking impression. Inspired by Houghton’s distinctive blue stripe, they designed a white label with a red stripe, which were the colours of d’Arry’s former school, Prince Alfred College.

The launch of their new name and label saw half gallon flagons hit the market, followed by the first d’Arenberg bottles in 1961. Just eight years later, the d’Arenberg 1968 Cabernet Sauvignon won the 1969 Jimmy Watson Trophy. Add to that an incredible seven Trophies and 29 Gold medals for the 1967 Red Burgundy and the success of d’Arenberg was assured.

It was a busy year for d’Arry and Pauline in 1959, with the birth of not only their brand, but also their first child, Jacqueline. Three years later they had Chester.

Like their father, Jacqueline and Chester spent their childhood on the property and Chester describes his first experience of the winery as particularly prophetic. “Apparently my mother, when I was two years old, carried me around the winery telling me that one day I’d be a great experimental winemaker.”

Chester remembers some of his initiation into wine production as tough, “in winter you’d be out there all day in the howling wind just tying rods onto wires”, but by the time he was eight he’d mapped out his future.

After an open day at Roseworthy College, Chester said to his father, “I’m going to go to McLaren Vale primary, then Prince Alfred College, then I’ll take a year off and work interstate, then I’ll go to Roseworthy College, then come back, go overseas for a while, then come back to the winery and make the wine.”

After declaring his intentions, he asked his father, “Then what are you going to do?”

By the time Chester returned home in 1984 after finishing at Roseworthy and spending some time in Europe, d’Arry was happy to hand over the winemaking reins to his son.

This was because, d’Arry explains, Chester “had all the training I didn’t get and he modernised the winery and did things that I didn’t know like refrigeration. I’d been waiting for him to come home to do that.”

Although d’Arry had complete confidence in his newly qualified son, Chester still saw himself as a student of the craft. “You learn all the background at Roseworthy, you develop a palate to a certain degree, but you’re not making wine. It’s like going to art school and not being given a paint brush, canvas or paint, then afterwards saying, ‘I’ll paint you a great painting’. It’s really when you get out there and start watching what’s happening in the vineyards, tasting the grapes and seeing what you make out of them that you actually develop the ideas for winemaking properly.”

Although Chester introduced some modern upgrades to the winery, he’s maintained most of the original techniques. “We still use the fermenters that were built in 1927. We tread the ferments in small five tonne fermenters, we basket press everything and we don’t filter or fine. So basically everything is made in the same way, just maybe with a bit more understanding.”

He’s also concentrated on stripping the vineyards of human intervention. “There haven’t been any fertilisers for 10 or 15 years. That’s so the grapes are much more like what they were and the vines actually have more soil characteristics because we’re not feeding and watering them. You get more soil character into the grapes and better tannins; the skins are thicker and the berries are more turgid so they have better flavours and acidity, creating longer ageing wines.”

Just as Chester has followed the plan he set out as a boy, he’s also fulfilled his mother’s early prediction. One of his major experiments was planting the white varieties of Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne in 1995. The risk was twofold; not only was he planting white grapes in a region famous for its reds, but they were largely unknown varieties. Shortly after planting these new vines there was a seminar in McLaren Vale called Great White Hopes where they tasted Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne from around the world. Chester recalls the seemingly ludicrous decision he’d made. “Most of the wines were oxidised, they were a bit old and weird so everyone thought I was really crazy then. Everyone was planting Shiraz and I was planting all these whites and no-one liked them!”

Chester maintained his resolve however and it’s certainly paid off. He’s bagged a haul of awards for his whites including Best International White Single Variety Trophy at the 2006 Decanter World Wine Awards for the 2005 The Money Spider Roussanne. In 1997 Chester pioneered Tempranillo in McLaren Vale and they now have a whole host of lesser known varieties including Sagrantino, Petit Verdot, Souzao and Tinta Cao.

By staying true to the d’Arenberg motto of ‘the art of being different’, Chester has become one of Australia’s most influential and revered winemakers.

While Chester’s taken charge of the winemaking, d’Arry has maintained a hands-on role in the business and the industry. He’s been a Member of the Wine and Brandy Coorporation since 1958 and has worked hard promoting d’Arenberg, McLaren Vale and Australian wine as a whole. Amongst his many awards, d’Arry received a Medal of the Order of Australia for his contribution to the industry and McLaren Vale. At 83 years old, d’Arry is still the Managing Director of d’Arenberg, dealing with the daily mail and signing off on all expenses.

d’Arry and Chester have set an incredibly high benchmark for succeeding generations to follow, so the question is, will Chester’s daughters rise to the challenge? Although Chester would love to see them continue the tradition, at only six, 10 and 13 years old, they’re undecided on their future. But if they have half the creativity, vision and talent of their father and grandfather, the d’Arenberg dynasty will be in safe hands.


Reproduced with the kind permission of Wine Selectors.

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