There are two types of people: the first thinks that wine is serious, stuffy and must be consumed from a glass with a bowl that is as big as your head. The second thinks that wine is fun, and recalls that wine has for millennia been a part of celebrations and birthday parties and general occasions of merriment. The first takes wine seriously and pours over the minutiae of different smells and tastes, searching for that one last flavor descriptor that will push the wine from being moderately complex to being very complex. The second loves to enjoy a glass of wine while regaling friends with stories of when they watched grapes being crushed with bare feet on a trip to Greece. "It was delicious, but ewwwww," he says and everyone laughs.
So who says that we can't be both? Who says we can't have a serious side to our wine, that we can't enjoy it and research it and immerse ourselves in its ridiculous amounts of information, yet also grab, gulp and enjoy it without getting too wrapped up in the hows or whys? d'Arenberg winery in the picturesque McLaren Vale of South Australia exemplifies this dual persona to a tee. They know how to make some serious juice while keeping a lighthearted approach to the wine and the world of wine. Even though every wine is handcrafted some of those wines have names that seem to be straight out of a long night in the 1970s- The Stump Jump, The Laughing Magpie, and what has to be a personal tribute to Hunter S. Thompson, The Lucky Lizard. Ok, so it refers to the lizards that inhabit the vines that often get swept up and thrown into the grape crusher during harvest only to make it through unscathed due to the special crusher employed at d'Arenberg, but it sounds like a tribute to Hunter. What's next, The Funky Monkey?
I wouldn't put it past them. Though each name is seemingly more random than the previous, they have a very specific purpose and story to tie them to the wine. From the very first wine this tradition was born, when an Old Vine Shiraz was renamed The Footbolt since "there wasn't an old vine anything in those days," says winemaker Chester d'Arenberg. Footbolt was the name of a horse whose winnings were used to purchase the very first vines at d'Arenberg.
But that is the feel one gets from d'Arenberg, crazy name or not there is a purpose behind it. There is a reason to every turn of the grape, so to speak. Why are they one of the few remaining wineries to basket press all of their wines? Because the gentle method of squeezing the juice provides the cleanest juice with the least amount of interference. Why would they use an old Demoisy rubber-toothed crusher that came all the way from Burgundy when there are bound to be more modern and efficient ways of crushing the grapes? Because it is one of the softest and gentlest ways of getting quality fruit even though it may be much more labor intensive. It is like this for just about everything, it is just the d'Arenberg way, something they speak of quite fondly at the winery.
The d'Arenberg way started in 1912 when Joseph Osborn purchased highly regarded Milton vineyards in what had just been designated McLaren Vale. Two generations later Francis d'Arenberg, better known as d'Arry, took control and the real success of d'Arenberg was on. International and local awards aside, the d'Arenberg name had become synonymous with quality wine in McLaren Vale. But the family was just getting warmed up. D'Arry's son Chester became chief winemaker in 1984 and took to the daunting task of retooling the old winery and ancient vines. Since then all they have done is win scores of awards both at home and abroad as well as develop the d'Arenberg brand from being a winery known for fortified wines and the d'Arenberg Burgundy (later to be renamed d'Arry's Original) to one that is filled with a vast portfolio that features diversity, quality and of course, some funky names.
Too many wine lovers around the planet think that Aussie wines begin and end with Shiraz. True, there are some fantastic Shiraz, and "the potential for Shiraz is enourmous. Australia has a great box seat for that," says Chester. But the d'Arenberg line up ranges from dry Reislings and Chardonnays to Rhône varietals for the whites and Pinot Noir to the biggest and brawniest Cabernets and Shirazes you could ever hope to have stain your teeth for the reds. The diversity is the key.
Most winemakers will tell you that diversity begins with nature, and the beautiful McLaren Vale is a "Marvellously predictable place to grow grapes" due to its Mediterranean climate with cool, wet winters followed by warm summers with low humidity. Winds from the ocean nearby as well as the Mount Lofty Ranges keep the vines cool in the summer, allowing them to hang for longer periods of time and develop more concentrated flavors and intensity. Readers may be surprised to note that the average summer temperature in January is a downright cozy 71º Fahrenheit.
McLaren Vale is also a hotbed of different soil types, from loose sand and limestone clay to fertile red-brown earth called terra rossa. This combination of different soil types and moderate climate allows d'Arenberg to plant many different grape varieties. Many of the grapes are dry grown with no irrigation, which forces the vines to dig deep into the earth in search of moisture picking up a multitude of nutrients and minerals along the way. Yields are kept ridiculously low to ensure that the grapes remain ultra-concentrated with all the goodies that turn good juice into great wine. Handy to have such great natural resources to start with since Chester "wants to make the loudest, most fragrant, most fruity flavored wine that has a great palate texture free of excess oak and has a long lively gritty youthful fragrant fruit tannin extending out the fruit taste for ages." Oh, is that all?
"We always have floweryness, plenty of fruit and plenty of fragrance," explains Chester. "But when you wind the vineyard back from fertilizer and water you get more mineral and earthy character."
Other quality methods are employed in both the vines and the winery. Legumes and clover are planted between the rows as a cover crop and to provide nitrogen and mulch to the vines. The vines are planted primarily on their own rootstocks, a rarity throughout the world. South Australia is lucky enough never to have been hit with phylloxera. The grapes are harvested at night and in the early morning to retain freshness and acidity. Dry ice and large plastic bags are employed to ensure the white wines remain untouched by oxygen when heading through the basket press.
The wines are fantastic. Small parcels of individual grapes are harvested, pressed, fermented and barreled separately and only at the final assemblage after a rigorous selection process are they blended to make the final wines. This is a difficult process since according to Chester there are "hundreds" of different blocks of vines to keep straight. "There may be up to four different fermentations per vineyard, and even different blocks from the same side of the same vineyard."
Despite a lineup that features so many wines, each product receives the utmost individual attention. For every wine lover out there d'Arenberg has a wine in its line up for you. The styles, grapes, colors and weights available pretty much have every base covered. Of course, you could also just pick the name you like the best and go with that.
The Stump Jump wines are blends, one white and one red, that are named for a plough designed to jump over roots deep in the soil, thus saving a back or two in the process. The white is a blend of Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Marsanne that is crisp and refreshing. The red is a mix of Grenache and Shiraz that is clean and fruit forward. Both are great values from one year to the next.
Though I did not get a chance to try the Hillbilly line of wines, they are certainly a name to keep an eye out for, even if you want to buy one and tease your dad about his roots. I mentioned the history behind the name of the Lucky Lizard earlier, but what about The Feral Fox Pinot Noir? It is so named for the foxes that inhabit the vineyard and keep the yields low by sampling a few of the grapes now and again.
The Dry Dam Riesling gets its moniker from the local dam that would dry up completely in the driest of summers, which coincidentally also provided the best grapes. The Love Grass Shiraz is a masterful example of blending great Shiraz vineyards together. Named for the wild grasses that attach themselves to the vineyards workers' socks and refuse to let go (call it Obsession Grass, maybe?) it is a fragrant and flavorful wine that was a little tightly wound at the time of tasting, but one could just smell and taste the quality and fruit behind the tannins and acid. A great choice for the dinner table.
Other whites include The Other Side Chardonnay, since it comes from a vineyard on the other side of the property, as well as The Broken Fishplate Sauvignon Blanc and The Olive Grove Chardonnay. My favorites however, hail from a line known as The Great White Hopes. Jerry Cooney fans sit down, the name refers to white counterparts to the red Rhône varietals that have had so much success at d'Arenberg over the years. The Last Ditch Viognier and The Money Spider Marsanne aside, my favorite of all the d'Arenberg whites is The Hermit Crab which is a blend of Viognier and Marsanne. It is named for the elusive crab that lives on the coasts nearby as well as the large supply of fossilized crustaceans that can be found in the vineyards for this tasty wine. Fragrant and alluring on the nose, with honeysuckle, ripe peaches and pears, as well as a long almond oil note. The palate is at once big and rich and crisp and refreshing, with plenty of fruit and a long savory finish. Please, people! Set down the glass of Chardonnay and give this baby a try. You won't be disappointed.
The line up of reds is no less impressive, and instead of listing all fifteen here I encourage you to visit d'Arenberg's website and track down the names for yourself. Highlights though, are The Laughing Magpie (a bird with a eerily human-esque call) which is a blend of Shiraz with a touch of Viognier to the mix, just like they have done it in the northern Rhône for years. This is one of my favorite wines year and out, and never disappoints with its combination of weight, richness, finesse, fragrance and tannins. Also look for The Custodian Grenache, a big, earthy, gamey, spicy, fruity and smoky example that is everything great Grenache should be. The wine gets its name from the fact that Grenache has been a significant contributor to the wines of d'Arenberg since day one despite the vine's lack of popularity. Now that the grape is making a comeback winemakers all over Australia look to d'Arenberg for guidance as they have been the custodian of the vine.
D'Arenberg also makes a line of reserve red wines called the Icon wines. They are the epitome of Australian quality and they feature the best blocks, the oldest vines and the best barrels of each wine. Though not inexpensive, the Coppermine Road Cabernet, the Ironstone Pressings GSM and the Dead Arm Shiraz are wines that any serious collector needs to splurge on. Buy, cellar for 10-15 years, drink. Repeat.
D'Arenberg also creates two excellent ports as well, one tawny style and one vintage. The Shiraz vintage port is one of the best I have had from outside of Portugal.
But who would expect anything less from such a distinguished yet irreverent approach to making wines? The dichotomy of crazy name yet insane quality inside is one that I relish. It is proof that for as much as we take the world of wine seriously, we have to take a step back and just enjoy it sometimes. It seems that the folks at d'Arenberg are living that philosophy one wine at a time.