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Margaret River, Western Australia
Part 3: Moss Wood 

When I arrived at Moss Wood, the last reds of 2007 were being pressed. 'Everything looks positive', reported winemaker Josh Bahen, who together with vineyard manager Steve Clarke hosted my visit.

Moss Wood is one of the most celebrated of Margaret River wineries. Back in the late 1960s, when Margaret River had first been identified as a promising potential wine region by John Gladstones, Bill and Sandra Pannell spent six months searching the area for ideal land for a vineyard. Eventually he identified a site at Wilyabrup, and in 1969, they established Moss Wood. 

This was one of the four Margaret River pioneers, along with Cape Mentelle, Vasse Felix and Cullens. Pinot Noir, Semillon and Chardonnay followed in the years to come. Roseworthy graduate Keith Mugford was hired as winemaker in 1978; eight years later he and his wife Clare purchased Moss Wood from the Pannells.

Around 200 tons of fruit are harvested each year, which translates into 15 000 cases. All the fruit is from their own vineyards, with the exception of two parcels they buy in annually. Total vineyard area is just under 20 hectares.

No irrigation is used, and the vines are all cane pruned. Many of the vineyard plots make use of the Scott-Henry trellising system, with dual upward and downward facing canopies, creating a wall of vines sort of effect (see the picture). This is an adaptation to the high vigour of some of the sites, and the dual canopies help to get the vine into balance. More light gets to the fruit zone and there is less disease. It is labour intensive, though, with three or four passes through the vineyard needed to get the lower canopy shoots down right.

The dual canopy system, with each vine being pruned to four 
canes, two on each side

But a good portion of the vineyard is on a simple T trellis, due to its age. Older vines are usually a bit less vigorous, which is probably one of the reasons why old vine fruit is so highly regarded. The Old Block Cabernet vineyard here was the second vineyard planted in Margaret River, and so is almost 30 years old. It produces the best fruit.

The old Cabernet vineyard

Quite a bit of leaf plucking is done here. This is the selective removal of leaves that are in the fruiting zone to allow direct sunlight to hit the fruit. This can be a good or bad thing: sunlight helps to ripen the berries properly and causes the green tasting methoxypyrazines to be metabolized. But if it is too intense, it can burn the berry skins and affect the aromatic compounds in the grape.

So they've trialled the procedure. For Chardonnay, they like the combination of half leaf-plucked fruit with half non-leaf-plucked fruit. For Cabernet, three options were tried: a control with no leaf plucking, then half leaf plucked and fully leaf plucked. We got to taste the results, so more on this later.

A big viticultural headache in Margaret River is the Cape garden weevil. This can strip the young vine growth out completely, and there's very little alternative but to control it chemically with chlorophos. They eat cape weed in the winter and then when the soil temperatures increase they emerge and eat the vine shoots. Chickens or guinea fowl have been tried, but the chickens tend to get eaten by foxes and the guinea fowl get run over. Wind damage can also be a problem here, although Moss Wood's vineyards are quite well protected. As Moss Wood is just 1 km from the coast, it can be five or six degrees cooler on really hot days.

We took a quick trip to the neighbouring Ribbonvale vineyard, which Moss Wood purchased in 2000. It's a great terroir, with 30% gravel content in the soil.

Ribbonvale: this is Sauvignon Blanc

In the winery, work is as careful and non-interventionist as possible. There is no sulfur dioxide used at pressing as it can extract phenolics from the skins, which you want to avoid for white wines. The must is not pumped until the wine has been pressed (the risk of extracting harsh phenolics from seeds present would be too high), so gravity or elevators are used.

Then we tasted the wines. The star of the show is the Cabernet Sauvignon. 'All the Cabs need time', says Josh. 'We did a 19752003 vertical a while ago and some people thought the 1975 was the best wine'.

Moss Wood Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2006
The Sauvignon was picked in three passes over five days to move through the fruit spectrum for this variety, from very grassy to tropical. The Semillon was picked at 12.5-13 Baume. This has a fresh, bright fruity nose that leads to a crisp, full palate with good weight. Crisp, fresh and balanced. 89/100

Moss Wood Semillon 2006
No oak used here. 2% solids are added to the ferment. Fresh, full and lemony. Quite precise, with a nice stylish character and a light juicy finish. 89/100

Moss Wood Pemberton Chardonnay 2005
This is the last vintage made of this wine: controlling quality out there was too difficult. Herbal edge to the nose, which continues to the palate. Fresh, but very herby, and may end up with tinned peas character. 84/100

Moss Wood Chardonnay 2006
Apparently the lees don't start breaking down until three months, and even after a year they haven't broken down all that much, so there isn't a lot to be gained by lees stirring
save for a bit of oxygen. So they leave this on the lees unstirred for 1011 months. It has a stylish rich, toasty, nutty nose. The palate is broad and rich with nice restraint. Good balance here with some complexity and a spicy edge. 91/100

Moss Wood Pinot Noir 2004
Pinot can be pretty variable in Margaret River. This is a good one, though. Deep coloured, it has a nice sweet nose that shows bright, sweet dark fruits with a bit of cherry. The palate is quite fresh with nice structure and good fruit. It's big for a Pinot but it's still a nice wine. 90/100

Moss Wood Amy's Cabernet Sauvignon 2005
From a vineyard parcel bought in, this is 86% Cabernet, 10% Malbec, 4% Petit Verdot and Merlot. Deep coloured, it has a stylish blackcurranty nose with a bit of creamy richness. The palate shows bright, rounded, concentrated fruit with a nice spicy edge. A stylish Cabernet with good weight. 90/100

Moss Wood Ribbonvale Cabernet Merlot 2004
Pinot and Merlot are the two varieties that suffer most from high crop load. This wine has a rich, ripe blackcurrant and berry fruit nose with stylish, spicy, full fruit. Chunky and richly fruited, with good structure a really nice wine. 92/100

Moss Wood Cabernet Sauvignon 2003
This is normally 95% Cabernet with some Petit Verdot, Merlot and Cabernet Franc making up the blend. Smooth, dark, rich elegant nose of cassis with a touch of chocolate. Concentrated, pure fruit on the palate, which is elegantly rich, with the primary fruit complemented by spiciness and savoury structure. Serious. 93/100

Moss Wood Cabernet Sauvignon 2004
Elegant, smooth, rich sweet spicy fruit on the nose, showing very pure cassis aromas. The palate is concentrated, rich and full with lovely sweetness to the fruit and dense, tight structure. A massive wine; very sophisticated. 93/100

Moss Wood Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 (cask sample of final blend)
Rich, dark, intense and mouthfilling, with great density and intensity of tannic structure. A remarkable wine. 9395/100

Moss Wood Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 (cask sample of final blend)
Lighter, showing some oak. Quite stylish in this lighter style. Picked five weeks later than the 2007. Shows nice focused fruit and is quite elegant. 8991

Moss Wood Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 barrel samples: this is where the results of the leaf pluck experiment can be seen

100% exposed fruit very ripe, sweet, intense and big. Inky dark. An intense, sweet style.

50% exposed. Bit more structured and there's more freshness. Still very dark, intense and focused.

Control more of a herby character. Focused, bright and with fresher, herbier fruit.

Wines tasted 04/07
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