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From tennis to wine, Mark Woods is an ace

Photo: Maitland Mercury

Photo courtesy Maitland Mercury

“That’s the Basin there,” Mark Woods says, his arm pointing through the open window of his white four-wheel drive. We’re in the vineyard at Leogate winery in the heart of Hunter Valley wine country, over the hill and out of sight of both the winery and the road, surrounded by vines. Over in the next paddock there’s dry country that looks like it could do with a good downpour or three. “See the different soil colours as you go down the hill – chocolate at the top and red down at the bottom – that’s what got me thinking about it.” ”It” might not seem much to you and me, but in the winemaking game, small things can make big differences. In this instance, what Woods did put a young Hunter winery on the international stage and made a lot of good judges sit up and take notice. Woods is head winemaker, a 45-year-old Maitland boy who lives in Pitnacree. His journey to winemaking was indirect – first as a tennis professional alongside his older brother Todd, teaching kids how to play at the old East Maitland tennis courts on Newcastle Road, and then a stint as a brewer – “and before you ask, yeah, I still enjoy a cold beer on a hot day”. He’s a laid-back sort of character who thinks carefully before speaking, and when he does, he chooses his words carefully. Suffice to say he prefers the background to the spotlight and in Hunter winemaking circles, he’s as popular as he is talented. It was this very low key nature, as well as his well-credentialled winemaking skills, that attracted him to the Leogate owners, Bill and Vicki Widin, in the first place. But more of that later. The big change he made recently seems simple enough: to separate two parcels of fruit that had previously been combined to make one wine – and a good one at that, Leogate’s Reserve shiraz – and instead make two separate wines. The first wine is called the Basin, from the vineyard he has just shown me, and the second is its sister wine, now known as the Western Slopes shiraz. At a none-too-shabby $115 each, there’s nowhere to hide, these wines must sit alongside the Hunter’s very finest. And if the early indications are anything to go by – and remember, this is the first time they’ve been sold separately – then Woods is onto a winner. At the recent International Wine Challenge in London, the Basin 2011 shiraz was named best first-year wine in the world. Some feat, especially as the London competition is internationally regarded as one of the major wine shows. The Western Slopes didn’t fare too badly either, picking up a silver medal. The Western Slopes vines are nearby – just over the rise in fact, but rather than sit in a basin, they face west and get the full force of the afternoon sun. And with it, a different flavour profile altogether. Without getting too technical, The Basin gets less heat, has a bigger leaf canopy to protect the fruit, and has pure, vibrant berry flavours with quite noticeable peppery spice on the finished. The Western Slopes is a bigger flavour with earthy, leathery characteristics, dark fruit and plums, again with peppery spice. Both are elegant wines that will age for decades. “The Western Slopes jumped out of the blocks and in early wine shows it tended to dominate,” Woods says. “But now the Basin is really starting to hit its stride.” Co-owner Vicki Widin prefers the Basin, but her real passion is chardonnay – keep an eye out for a new chardonnay – Vicki”s Choice, out shortly. She and husband Bill don’t have a wine background – Bill’s a cattle man and they own an 11,500 acre cattle property just south of Tamworth, Middlebrook Park Black Angus cattle stud. Vicki had a successful antique gallery at Birkenhead Point in Sydney, and they still have a house at Neutral Bay. “We would drive from Sydney to Tamworth and would come through here and always liked it and Bill thought it might be an idea to buy something,” she said. “They we got a call about this property, and here were are.” The significant point about Leogate is that it sits on the former Rothbury Brokenback vineyard that Len Evans, one of the great men of Hunter wine, originally planted 40 years ago. In its heyday it produced some cracking shiraz. But its heyday seemed a long way back and it’s fair to say when Bill and Vicki saw it, it badly needed some TLC – Tender Loving Care or Truck-Loads of Cash, take your pick. To be brutally honest, it needed both. ”It had such a rich history that Bill and I said if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it properly and restore this vineyard to its original glory,” Vicki said. “Bill has had large properties before, and I don’t think the 330 acres fazed him. But I also think he was surprised at just how much needed to be done. We’ve poured a lot of time, a lot of love and a lot of money into it. “We wanted to get a cellar door and winery set-up, and then to make the very best wine we could produce. It deserved no less.” The cellar door didn’t come easily and took quite a few years of wrangling with council before it was finally approved. Today it sits back off the road and is one of the grandest in NSW – with an Italian feel, covered archways, a magnificent tasting room, function area (weddings are very popular) and restaurant Villa Du Pays, one of the region’s finest . The vineyard may be less flashy, but has nonetheless had new posts and watering system installed, and the fruit is clearly as good as ever. Which brings us to the wine. “Bill and I knew we could handle the business and restoration side of things, but everything hinged on the winemaker,” Vicki said. “Then we met Mark and for someone as good at his job as he is, he was just so humble and understated. We knew straight away he was the right person. “And then when someone like Mark comes up to us and is so excited by these two parcels of fruit – the Basin and the Western Slopes … well, we trusted his judgement. “Next thing you know Bill and I are on stage collecting an international award at one of the world’s biggest wine shows.

“The best thing is I think this journey is just beginning.”

RA Originally published in the Maitland Mercury, September 2014