Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Margaret River's worst kept secret

If I asked you to name the top cabernet sauvignon producers in Margaret River, you’d probably rattle off Moss Wood and Cullen without blinking. And for good reason. But does the name Woodlands also spring to mind? If not, it should, because Woodlands cabernet easily equals the region’s - the country’s - best.

I can understand why this vineyard hasn’t developed the household name status it deserves: it’s hard to build a reputation with more than a decade gap in full commercial production.

Things started well: the vineyard was planted by David and Heather Watson in 1974 with cuttings provided by legendary winemaker Jack Mann, and when a Woodlands cabernet won three best-of-show trophies in 1982 it helped catapult Margaret River to national prominence.

But from 1988, while the Watsons put their kids through school and uni, the vineyard was leased and most of the fruit sold, with Woodlands grapes anonymously ending up in other producers’ wines. It wasn’t until the early 2000s, when sons Stuart and Andrew became involved in the business, that more and more of the Woodlands grapes started being made into Woodlands wines at the family winery.

I caught up with the Watson boys recently and was blown away both by the quality of the wines and the enthusiasm they share for their vineyard. They are very different souls: Andrew, who studied to be a lawyer, is excitable and talks a million miles a minute. Stuart, who worked as a brick cleaner and windscreen fitter before taking up winemaking, is solid and laconic but no less passionate.

‘We grew up surrounded by Margaret River locals, grapegrowers and winemakers, and were always being told that we had the best vineyard in Australia,’ says Andrew. ‘With that kind of self-belief, you can make things happen.’

‘Every time I walk out of the winery,’ says Stuart, ‘there’s this one spot on the path that looks down across the vineyard where I think: holy shit, this place is awesome! How great is it that I get to do what I do?’

The current release Woodlands reds are all excellent, across a wide price spectrum. If you’re a serious wine nut with a cellar and a bit of cash, you simply must splash out on the 2008 ‘Shelley Anne’ Cabernet Sauvignon (around $100): from the original block of low-yielding, dry-grown vines, this exceptionally fine, cedary, balanced wine will mature gracefully for 20 years or more. If you’re looking for a special dinner party wine, the 2008 ‘Margaret’ Reserve Cabernet Merlot  (around $40) is more generous right now, with wonderfully complex black olive and chocolate richness. And if you’re into good value Margaret River red for more frequent drinking, then the 2009 Cabernet Merlot (around $21 and available from quite a few retailers including the Dan Murphys chain) delivers in spades: intense, elegant blackcurrant fruit and fine, savoury tannins.

(This article was first published in the Weekend Australian on 17 September 2011)