Andrew Watson from Woodlands Winery
Co-owner of Woodlands Winery Andrew Watson looks inwards to bring his second-generation Margaret River wines to the world. By June Lee
“There’s no ego in our wine,” muses Andrew Watson, almost to himself. The handsome, tall Aussie is surprisingly Zen-like, having spent the last 1.5 hours cheerfully answering my questions but then turning thoughtful when my questions get closer to the roots. There have been many turning points in his life, from leaving a thriving law career in 2005 to reading a book that fundamentally changed his thinking in 2008. Meeting his French wife Marie in 2011 and starting a family has also brought out a different side of him, one that thinks about the third generation a lot, which has also influenced a big push into organic certification.
Andrew’s parents David and Heather Watson first planted grapes in Wilyabrup in 1973, influenced by agronomist Dr John Gladstone’s report of the Margaret River area having Bordeaux-like terroir conditions. David, a surveyor and a big fan of Bordeaux, particularly Latour, concentrated on Cabernet Sauvignon to great acclaim – Woodlands Winery’s 1981 ‘Andrew’ won best red at the Perth Wine Show and was the first from Margaret River to win a National Red Wine Trophy as well. However, he and Heather, a criminal lawyer, focused on bringing up their three children in Perth and production stopped in the 1990s.
“My first job in the vineyard was labelling wines for pocket money,” recalls Andrew, who grew up spending weekends and holidays at the winery. It was a close-knit community, where his dad would play tennis with Kevin Cullen over at Cullen Winery, or the kids would head to Vasse Felix to play, or end up at the Watsons’ own little family home. Young Andrew was fastidious about upkeeping the grounds, and would try to keep it looking neat by picking up branches and leaves. “When we were growing up, our books were of Old World chateaux and vines,” he laughs. “Those estates looked so beautiful, and I wanted so much to create that in my family land. Looking back, that’s all I ever wanted to do.”
Woodlands was also one of the first wineries in Australia to use family names every year for the flagship Cabernet Sauvignon. The current one is Matthew, which we enjoy over the final course at Ginza Rokukakutei, an ochazuke style rice bowl that completes a fine meal of kushiage. But it is the Clémentine Cabernet Malbec Merlot 2016 – named after Andrew's daughter – that he’s most proud of, and also incidentally it comes from the Woodlands Brook Vineyard acquired in 2008, where he and Marie fell for each other.
A distinctive style
Though he studied law, Andrew came to realise that he liked the tangible and the ability to make things. Elder brother Stuart joined the winery full-time in 2002, and Andrew juggled a law career while helping out. “That first year in 2003, we were both young men who wanted to make young men wines,” deadpans Andrew. “We made wines higher in alcohol, chest-beating wines because we wanted people to pay attention. But we realised those were not the wines we wanted to drink years later, so by 2005, we were looking for those with finesse and elegance.” By 2005, Andrew had quit his job and joined the winery full-time.
Constant investment in the estate has taken a toll financially, but the wines have never been better. A Bucher sorting table helps separate berry by berry, taking away stalks and unripe fruit while keeping the best grapes – the wines are brighter and have more purity as a result. This year, they’ve also invested in four new tanks to vinify the fruit separately.
“Chardonnay just wants to be complex,” explains Andrew. “Other white fruit can go into a big tank where you need just one person programming the tanks for one hour a day, but to get the highest quality Chardonnay, every drop is fermented in a barrel. With 250 barrels of our Chloe Chardonnay, that’s 70 hours of work per day; stirring, topping and checking it so that you get 250 ferments. With Chardonnay, you get back what you invest.”
Nature is always teaching them, not the other way around, adds Andrew. “Did you know that Japan's Shinkansen (high speed railway) was designed based on the kingfisher?” he probes. “There’s nothing new in this world that you can't learn from nature. Itʼs arrogance to throw out the old. We were one of the first in the 90s to prune leaves for thicker skins and higher quality, something we still do by hand and not machines. It keeps the vines healthy and less prone to disease. My father wanted to make claret, and back then there were very few instructions on how to do it here. The Woodlands approach to learning has always been hands-on with a view to quality.”