I had a call from Moss Wood Vineyards last week. I thought they might be asking me to review some wines from Western Australia, as I’ve been woefully negligent, but it turns out they were looking to sell me a case or two of a recent vintage. I wanted to buy some, but I need to sort out my cellar before I buy anything in six or twelve bottle quantities, so I had to say thank you but no. However, I greatly enjoy their wines and have a magnum of their wine that I’m sure will be the high point of a party at some point soon. So a day later, I ended up buying this bottle, the Moss Wood Vineyards Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, and I hope in some small way it will make up for not buying a case of the 2009 over the phone.
It’s past due that I write about something from Western Australia. There’s no shortage of good wines, and in fact WA (as we tend to call it here) punches significantly above its weight in terms of international awards relative to the other states. I think it’s largely down to my quest for interesting new varietals hasn’t really taken me to WA as the alternative grape wines there are don’t seem to make it to South Australia. But rather than focus on why I haven’t been writing about WA, how about I start writing.
Western Australia is the biggest state in terms of landmass and fourth in population, but it has less than 5% of the grape crush. Despite that, it grabbed almost 15% of the awards for Australia at the 2011 Decanter World Wine Awards. So while as with all of Australia, there’s a range of quality levels across producers, WA is certainly doing well in quality.
Western Australia at present has nine wine regions, the best known of which is the home of our wine today, Margaret River. It’s roughly 250km south of Perth just in from the coast in the southwestern corner of Australia. It’s a temperate Mediterranean climate with maritime influences from the Indian and Southern Oceans. Winters are wet but mild, summers warm and dry. The geography is gently hilly, and the soils are generally decomposed granite gravel loams with little organic matter. Grapes were first planted in any quantity in 1967, and while the region is best known for Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, Semillon is more widely planted than either. There are also significant areas of Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz and Merlot vines.
I’ve managed to taste eight wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon, three of them straight varietals, without saying much meaningful about the grape, even to cover the basics, so I’ll do that now, though I feel a bit silly doing so given that it’s the most famous grape in the world. It is a dark, thick-skinned grape with an extremely high pip to pulp ratio. It ripens late, and can give high yields if not carefully managed. The thick skin provides good resistance to most diseases, though it is still vulnerable to powdery mildew. Its home is generally considered to be the Left Bank in Bordeaux, though as my tasting history shows, it can be found throughout the world. It is thought to prefer gravel-based soils, which can both provide additional heat required for full ripeness and can help to limit yields. It can produce wines of great concentration, which can stand up to both oak and in some cases decades of ageing. In Bordeaux, as well as many places making wine in that style, it’s often blended with some combination of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.
I had the pleasure of visiting Moss Wood on a trip to Margaret River a few years ago. They have no cellar door, but my wife was invited there on business and I got to tag along. (Yet another reason it’s better I maintain my secret identity.) It was not a large operation, though like many Margaret River producers, their small volume is offset by their high quality. I was reading through their history and for some reason it sounded extremely familiar, and as it turns out, for good reason. It was founded by Bill and Sandra Pannell in the late 1960s as the second winery in Margaret River. The Pannell name is familiar because one of their sons, Stephen Pannell, led a tasting I attended back in April.
Moss Wood operates two vineyards, Moss Wood and Ribbon Vale, just over 18HA in total, and from which they produce different labels. They’re both unirrigated, hand pruned and hand picked, as are the handful of other local vineyards from whom Moss Wood source fruit. Plantings include Cabernet Sauvignon, Semillon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Merlot, with tiny amounts of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. In addition to the Moss Wood and Ribbon Vale labels, they also produce a line called Amy’s Wines and a Mornington Peninsula Pinot Noir that they travel to Victoria to make. And while this wine says Cabernet Sauvignon on the front label, it also contains Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.
In the glass, this wine is clear and bright, with an opaque core, ruby rim, and quick, thin legs. The nose is clean, with medium plus intensity, a developing character, and perfumed, with lots of red berries, but not so much the cassis one might expect. It’s more soft skinned fruit, some toasty oak, and sweet spice (cinnamon and cloves). It’s much more a Cabernet Sauvignon on the palate, with rich chocolate, cranberry, black currant, pencil shavings, and a hint of ash. It’s dry with medium plus acidity, medium body, medium plus alcohol, medium soft tannins, medium plus flavour intensity, and a long length with pencil shavings and chocolate finish.
This is a very good wine – full of flavour and complexity, and very fresh at four years old. The tannins area already softening, so it’s fine to drink it now, but the acidity is strong enough that I’m sure it will reward those with the patience to wait a decade.