Chatting with Chester Osborn, d'Arenberg Winemaker
To celebrate their 100-year milestone, Chester Osborn is leading his d'Arenberg team on a whirlwind tour of Asia, China, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the US. We spoke to him during the Singapore leg to hear about their adventures thus far.
Interviewed by Allie Schratz, Editor, Business Review Australia
China is certainly a huge market for Australian wine nowadays. How do Southeast Asia’s and Japan’s wine markets compare?
Japan has been steady. Australia’s not a big player there, but we’re certainly significant. They do take quite a lot of higher-end bottles from us. We’ve been coming to Japan for many, many years – probably 30 years.
Singapore is a pretty strong market for Australian wine, as is Southeast Asia, and it’s been great to get out and see some new people who love the wine – and eat some interesting cuisine.
I bet that's offered a lot of new food pairing ideas.
Oh yeah, it’s amazing. There are so many great chefs scattered everywhere. It gives a completely different meaning to what you see anywhere else in the world. Not sure I can eat too much more sea urchin though – it’s very intense.
And which wine might you pair with sea urchin?
Oh, something strong that can [mask] the flavour!
Haha. Looking ahead to the next few years, is there anything in particular you’re working on? We’ve heard rumours about new Rhone-style white blends in the making...
We planted viognier in 1995 in McLaren Vale after visiting John Alban's viognier vineyard. I thought, this look pretty interesting. I hadn’t seen much of it in Australia, so I planted it – right in the middle of the red wine boom.
Growers were saying, we can’t plant shiraz flat out like everyone or it’s going to be oversupplied; we’d like to plant a white variety of some form. I suggested they plant viognier. After a couple years, I worked out that we’d planted about 140 acres! So, we were making viognier at this stage.
But it sounds like this was a good move for d’Arenberg.
We’re lucky that The Hermit Crab Viognier/Marsanne worked very well. We now use viognier in quite a lot of our reds as well. We’ll have another ‘super duper red’ coming out that has shiraz, Marsanne and viognier in there.
I believe I tasted The Hermit Crab during a G’Day USA event back in January, actually.
Oh cool! It’s been very well received because I’m making sure it’s not too ripe, but it’s still not a weak wine. It’s got plenty of flavour. The Marsanne in the blend – about 30% – gives this great green mango, green papaya/pistachio character, which is really quite intense and blends so well with the viognier.
On your anniversary tour, have people been pretty savvy when it comes to picking up these specific flavours?
Oh yeah, everyone’s really embraced the tour and they’ve had two hour [blocks] to walk around and check out the 40-50 wines. They’ve been excited about the vintages and the many verticals. They’re all priced at $100 and there’s been quite a lot of interest in buying them too. The allocation for each market is really small because we only produced 200 cases of each.
You’ve called the winemaking process “artistic.” Can you elaborate on that a bit?
It’s very much an art [form]. An ‘art’ is defined by the desire of the winemaker to manipulate grapes into what he wants. A lot of it is driven by the vineyard, but you’ve got so many options along the way: in the vineyard, you can do minimal input, or you can add fertilizer or irrigation, whatever you want.
I was asked a question a little while ago about how much passion in winemaking is important versus preparation. It’s mostly passion – if you don’t have the passion, then you’re not going to bother thinking about it too hard. Winemaking is quite a complex process and you really have to consider every factor that could affect the flavours, which changes every year. Preparation is just one part of the process.
It’s also a process you have to teach yourself: at winemaking school, you aren’t given grapes. Imagine going to art school and not receiving a paintbrush, paint, or canvas? You have to learn by your errors, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing – they teach complexity. I believe that winemaking is the management of winemaker-induced faults. All of those little faults have added to the complexity of the wine.
Could you see yourself doing anything outside of winemaking?
I used to say I wanted to be a rockstar. I like to sing and play guitar. Photography was another area I excelled in, and art – making sculptures – and architecture is interesting. Anything in the art and design worlds, I’d be inclined.
I understand you’re also quite the fan of bright shirts.
Yes! I’ve always been a believer in that there’s not enough colour in the world and that wearing colour adds fun and interest conversation. When you’re wearing a loud shirt that’s quite entertaining, people become a little bit more alive. [That energy] can even reduce your hangover!
I’ve been working on a line of high-end dress shirts to sell internationally. We tried to start it in 2008 before the crash, but for now it’s on hold.