There’s something to be said for staying in one place. With 42 years as the winemaker at Moss Wood, what Keith Mugford doesn’t know about his vineyards probably isn’t worth knowing.
Although Moss Wood has long been considered one of Margaret River’s iconic wineries and its wines among the region’s finest, it is a source of some delight to Keith Mugford that many commentators have regarded the 2018 Cabernet as the winery’s finest, and the most recent financial year as its most successful ever.
When he arrived from the depths of McLaren Vale in 1979 to be Bill Pannell’s winemaker at Moss Wood, Mugford’s thoughts were more clearly focused on the potential of Margaret River’s surf than the possibilities of a working life being spent on one Wilyabrup vineyard. All this changed when the 26-year-old and his wife, Clare, were offered the opportunity of buying Moss Wood from Bill and Sandra Pannell.
For Mugford, one of the advantages of working on the same vineyard for such a long time has been the ability to look back on the skill set learnt during similar vintages. The 2021 vintage proved to be the most technically challenging vintage since 1989 and so the couple were able to draw on their experience of managing the vineyard in advising the current team.
Mugford dismisses the notion that Margaret River is an easy place to grow cabernet, saying it’s more marginal than most imagine. He notes that the ideal 2018 vintage was only one week away from being problematic – had it got wet earlier, the locals would have been significantly challenged. Just one-quarter of one degree difference in the average temperature over the growing season will produce a perceivable difference in the flavour profile.
"Just one-quarter of one degree difference in the average temperature over the growing season will produce a perceivable difference
in the flavour profile."
There has been a lift in quality at Moss Wood in recent years, which appears linked with a move of the family back to Wilyabrup and living on the vineyard.
They had moved to Perth when the family decided that the children and their schooling would have priority. Mugford organised weekly visits and regular phone calls, detailing specifications for each wine. In discussing this, he is at pains to make it clear that he is not critical of what the staff were doing at the time. He says that once he was back living on the property, he had a chance to see all the nuances. And he now believes it makes a difference.
There was also some experimentation with chardonnay and pinot noir, which resulted in some quirky wines. These are unquestionably back on track. The 2019 Moss Wood Chardonnay shows power with finesse, intensity with tight, full-flavoured characters of peach, cashew and grapefruit, and a crisp, long finish. It is among the region’s finest.
While Margaret River is not considered a great pinot region, the 2018 Moss Wood Pinot Noir is marvellously plump with wonderful drinkability.
The 2019 Moss Wood Amy’s is sourced from long-term winemaker Ian Bell’s Glenmore vineyard. It’s a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec and petit verdot, and made to be drunk while young. This is riotously aromatic with bright blueberry, blackcurrant and bramble characters that entice. Supple, fleshy, delicious.
Another of the major changes has been Clare’s greater involvement in the winery and winemaking. She completed a graduate diploma in Wine Business from the University of Adelaide and the different perspective she brings to tasting is appreciated.
Ribbon Vale, bought by the Mugfords in 2000, has proved a canny purchase with the tannic muscularity of the cabernet sauvignon better balanced than before. The 2018 is powerfully primal with an immediacy that makes it attractive current drinking yet with the potential to age. Mugford believes the merlot is underrated, with full-bodied, briary characters: just needing some time.
The 2019 Ribbon Vale Elsa is a rare new wine for Moss Wood: a product of the next generation of winemakers. It is pristine, complex and restrained, with cape gooseberries, lychee and dried mango characters.
What binds it all is the Moss Wood cabernet sauvignon. It’s as good as it’s ever been with a string of impressive vintages. The 2018 is the equal of the 2001 – probably as good a wine as the vineyard has produced. It has wild berry aromatics, powerful fleshy velvety texture, and taut, ripe, fine tannins. Memorable drinking now but with a glorious future awaiting those who cellar carefully.
REGIONS | Margaret River, WA
YEARS IN INDUSTRY | 42
ANNUAL CRUSH | 180 tonnes, 12,500 cases
STAND-OUT WINES | 2018 Moss Wood Cabernet Sauvignon
Photography by Frances Andrijich.