Margaret River & Moss Wood

Moss Wood is one of our icon wineries, no doubt about it. But while it has remained both a family-owned independent, and a boutique sized winery, it's moved ahead in many subtle ways.

First is the number of wines it produces: when Bill and Sandra Pannell sold Moss Wood to Keith and Clare Mugford in 1984, the 10-hectare property at Wilyabrup produced just four wines: cabernet sauvignon, semillon, chardonnay and pinot noir. Now it has ten wines – seven produced from vineyards the Mugfords own, the others from other people's vineyards. All are good to excellent in quality, with a serendipitous variety of styles.

There are for instance two chardonnays now: the Moss Wood estate and the Lefroy Brook Vineyard, each with a distinct personality. The Moss Wood estate ($55) style is full-bodied, rich and opulent, with as much complexity as possible. Key flavours are nuts, smoke, butter, vanilla and ripe-peach. Lefroy Brook ($35), from the Pemberton region south of Margaret River, a substantially cooler location, makes a very distinctive cool-climate style, more fruit driven and with evoking flavours of grapefruit, lime, herbs and subtle hints of the nutty, buttery characters of oak and malolactic fermentation.

In the 2003 vintage, the last to be released (in mid-2004), both are fascinating but there's no doubt the estate wine is the grandest. Let it breathe for a few hours, let the temperature rise a bit, and you'll find a wonderfully complex, decadently rich wine. I have often found this wine too oaky at first taste – which usually means straight out of someone's fridge. That's too cold for most chardonnay and one such as this, matured in 100% new oak, will be more disadvantaged than most. Give it time, or give it air and don't over-chill, and it's a ripper.

A similar contrast is found with the three cabernet-based reds, and it's cabernet on which Moss Wood's fame primarily rests. The last release estate cabernet 2001 ($88 cellar door; over $100 retail), which is likely to go down as one of the winery's best-ever, is as close to a blockbuster as Moss Wood gets. It's a very rich, bold, concentrated wine, not overripe but flirting with that spectrum of flavours, and certainly 14.5% alcohol suggests it's no shrinking wallflower. "2001 was a great year for cabernet," Mugford recently told a group of tasters at Vintage Cellars Double Bay. "I can't recall ever having a better wine in the cellar than this."

That's no sales pitch because, unhappily if you haven't got any, the wine is long sold out. (The good news is that the 2002, while a very different wine from a much cooler year: refined, elegant and more classic, is to be released on July 1.) The Moss Wood estate cabernet style is fleshy, concentrated but smooth with supple, fully-ripe tannins. Key flavour descriptors are cassis, coffee-bean and tobacco, tending cigarboxy with a little age. It seldom has any of the herbaceous characters so common in the region. When you ask why this is, Keith humbly replies that the vines are unirrigated and the soils are such that the vines are sustained, even through the region's typically dry summers; yields are low (averaging 8.5 tonnes per hectare), and "it's the site". In other words: terroir!

In the '90s, Keith and Clare Mugford decided Moss Wood needed to expand to cater for its growing (and increasingly frustrated) customer list. The choice was to either buy land and plant another vineyard, or buy an existing one. They chose the latter, buying John James's Ribbon Vale vineyard in Wilyabrup in 2000. The same unirrigated, hand pruned, hand picked approach applies; the grape varieties complement Moss Wood's with sauvignon blanc, merlot and a different clone of cabernet sauvignon. Since 2000 the wines have appeared under the Moss Wood label.

In contrast, the Amy's Vineyard Cabernet, which is grown on production manager Ian Bell's family vineyard 'Glenmore' at Yallingup in the northern end of Margaret River, has a more herbaceous style and can be a trifle green some years. The last releases, 2002 and 2003 ($30), have been pleasant enough wines but on the lighter side and lacking the distinction of the estate and Ribbon Vale reds.

And then there's the Ribbon Vale Vineyard, which is a 60/30/10 blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc, and therefore significantly different from the other two in make-up, even though it's also from Wilyabrup – just down the road from Moss Wood itself. The latest release of this, 2002 ($33), is an absolute cracker: fragrant cassis/blackcurrant aromas, superbly ripe, fruit-driven, classic cabernet flavours -- a gorgeously concentrated yet elegant, beautifully proportioned wine. There's no doubt this is the bargain buy of the entire selection. The Ribbon Vale '02 Merlot (also $33) is lighter, more evolved, quite leafy, a decent merlot but not a patch on the blend.

I am less excited by the Moss Wood estate pinot noirs. Margaret River is not well suited to pinot, and Keith acknowledged this in his own scrupulously honest, completely guileless way, when he told the VC group: "It's not really a top pinot noir region. But we enjoy making it, and it would leave a dent in our lives if we stopped." Well okay, as long as punters are prepared to pay $45 CD for the privilege. But it must be said that the wine lacks the finesse and depth that the grape can deliver, except in the occasional year when conditions are right – such as 2002 (rich spicy gamy berry flavours, good concentration and staying power), and 1986, which has stayed the distance very well. But these are exceptions to the rule.

Finally, the Ribbon Vale Semillon Sauvignon Blanc deserves special praise: after just four vintages under Mugford's hand this has proven itself one of the leaders of the genre. The '04 ($18 at Vintage Cellars) is outstanding for its concentration, beautifully ripe spectrum of flavours, fine harmony and length of palate. It's a bargain.