ONE OF THE FIRST TRAINED VITICULTURISTS IN THE REGION IS STILL IN HIS VINEYARDS, MAKING COMPLEX AND ELEGANT WINES.
It is just six months shy of 40 years since Keith Mugford first rolled up at the gates of Moss Wood. It was very early days for Margaret River as the local timber and dairy industries began their terminal decline and the locals first saw the odd vineyard planted in the surrounding and picturesque rolling hills. No doubt the many surfers did not know what to make of the influx of vignerons buying up parcels of land with dreams of crafting world-class wines.
Local visionaries Bill and Sandra Pannell had started planting Moss Wood in 1969 and 10 years later Bill began the search for a qualified viticulturist and winemaker to assist. He made inquiries among his friends, including Bill Hardy of the famous Hardy winemaking clan, looking for some talent – and the young Hardy knew of a local doctor’s son who he thought might fit the bill.
Mugford had grown up in McLaren Vale, surrounded by winemaking families, which no doubt led him on to the winemaking path: first into formal wine study at Roseworthy, and then into a job at Moss Wood with the Pannells. Mugford and Bill Pannell worked closely together and formed a strong bond crafting wines that still drink well to this day. Clare and Keith Mugford first leased and then purchased Moss Wood in 1985 from the Pannells; that bond forged between the two families as they laid the foundations for Moss Wood remains strong to this day.
Mugford timed his move to Margaret River exquisitely, and as one of the first winemakers in the region who had actually trained in viticulture he was at a distinct advantage. The region had already attracted a group of passionate and skilful enthusiasts who would between them set Margaret River on its meteoric rise from holiday destination to the global superstar wine region it is today.
“It was a wonderful time to be part of,” Clare Mugford says. “Everybody prickled and sparkled with enthusiasm for a new shiny produce that was interesting, cool, exciting to grow, steeped in history, but so, so new for this area. All the early wine pioneers were idealists, perfectionists in their own careers and determined to bring that resolve and those high standards to what that they chose to pursue in their spare time. Keith and I were privileged to be swept along with them.”
They may have been swept along at first but it was not long before the wines of Moss Wood were also considered among the region’s finest – particularly the Estate cabernet sauvignon. And today, while many of the region’s pioneers have stepped away from the day-to-day management of their wineries and vineyards, Keith and Clare remain intimately involved in all steps of the winemaking process at Moss Wood, with sons Tristan and Hugh keen to follow.
It was not only the skill and hard work of its first vignerons that drove the region’s success – Margaret River also enjoyed a spectacular natural advantage in terms of its climate and natural environment. Close to the coastline, with the moderating influences of water to the north, west and south, the wines from Margaret River manage to retain a sense of elegance in even the warmest vintages and from a wide range of grape varieties. Moss Wood, 3km from the sea, also enjoys gravelly loam soils that provide an elegant savoury style for the Estate cabernet sauvignon, a blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and 4 per cent petit verdot when vintages permit, along with a gentle hand in the winery.
While red wines from the original estate plantings have long been the stars at the winery, recent vintages have seen the rise of new vineyards, particularly Ribbon Vale, and white wines in the Moss Wood stable. Ribbon Vale is planted close to and on similar soils to the Moss Wood Estate and creates superb reds, if in an earlier drinking style than the Estate vineyard. The Moss Wood chardonnay, grown on the original estate, also appears to be gaining refinement and delicacy with every vintage.
The wines from Moss Wood, much like their proprietors, are never flashy and brash; they never jump out of the glass and demand attention. But what they invariably do is show understated strength and power in a reserved and elegant style. That combination of might and finesse is at the core of what makes the Moss Wood Estate cabernet sauvignon, especially in exceptional vintages such as 2015, worth seeking out.