Meet the Maker,
Mark Aitken of Woodgate Wines
While it was a desire for a country lifestyle that led Mark Aitken down the path of becoming a winemaker, today he’s one of the most respected artisanal producers in the Southern Forests. And as the owner of Woodgate Wines and the vice president of the Southern Forests Wine Regions association, he’s passionate about introducing people to the winemaking potential of this off-the-beaten-track destination.
In 2002 Mark Woodgate was keen for a new challenge. He’d spent the past fifteen years working in Perth as an electronics technician, but both he and his wife Tracey had a yen for the country. “But I needed a new job that would facilitate a move,” says Mark. “And I figured that if I was going to go to the trouble of a complete career change, then I might as well do something that was going to be fun and creative – something that I could really get passionate about.” So he enrolled to study viticulture and oenology.
Mark’s first job after graduating from Curtin University saw him pressing grapes in Margaret River, however a role at Chestnut Grove vineyard in Manjimup soon followed. He quickly realised that the exemplary local grapes on offer would result in top quality wines.
“We were able to make some seriously good Merlots and Verdelhos that achieved national recognition, including a raft of trophies in capital-city wine shows,” says Mark. “There’s no question in my mind that the fruit grown here is equal to that of any of the larger regions. So in 2006, when one of the vineyards that sold fruit to that winery came up for sale, we decided to throw caution to the wind and buy it.”
Mark and his wife Tracey (who today handles all the sales and marketing) found themselves the custodians of a three-hectare property in Deanmill, just north of Manjimup. A few years later, they expanded the business by leasing a second property to the south near Middlesex.
These two properties now supply all the grapes for the Pinot Noir, Shiraz, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignons that Woodgate Wines produce. The vines also produce around 30 to 40 per cent of the white-wine fruit the couple press each year (primarily Chardonnay), while Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Viognier grapes are sourced from other producers. This is a ‘‘low risk’ approach in the Southern Forests region, according to Mark, as these varieties are well suited to the local climate and are always grown to a very high standard – allowing him to concentrate on caring for the vines that can be a little more challenging. Another benefit is that Mark can experiment each season with different varieties that take his fancy, keeping the Woodgate Wines range fresh and his winemaking chops honed.
The couple are also expanding into growing some varieties not commonly seen in WA, with Tempranillo and Fiano already grafted, and plans to add Vermentino, Lagrien, Brachetto and a Russian red called Saperavi to the mix.
Mark describes his approach to viticulture as one of “continuous improvement” – each year the vine management regime is analysed and new techniques implemented. “The overarching philosophy is, we’re not growing grapes we’re growing wine – so our winemaking plan begins each year in the vineyard at pruning time,” he explains. “Our techniques are targeted to integrate with what happens in the winery; viticulture is just one part of our winemaking practice.”
In line with this, soil health is a primary concern, with Mark and his team adopting organic farming practices to encourage balanced soil flora and fauna and less dependence on chemical inputs. “We’re not registered organic but we’re definitely transitioning towards that, and away from conventional viticulture,” he says.
And like many small businesses in the area, Woodgate Wines has chosen to eschew third-party distribution and retail outlets (with the exception of a few local retailers) in favour of cellar door and online sales, and managing supply to a select group of small bars and restaurants. “This means we can pursue a ‘less is more’ approach to our production volumes, and make less but better quality wines.”
“Hand-picked fruit and small-batch, artisanal winemaking is our go-forward position; in 2019 we ceased involving any third-party contract facilities and are making it all ourselves. This way, we can ensure the attention to detail practiced in the vineyard is also practiced in the winery we operate.”
This hands-on approach is made possible by the strong collaborative relationships Mark has forged with his fellow Southern Forests winemakers. In particular, Mark works closely with Mel and Clint of Chateau June-Jerome and Stuart Hutchinson of Truffle Hill wines, with the group pitching in together to take care of harvesting, pruning and processing across their combined properties.
And as the vice president of the Southern Forests Wine Regions association, Mark is dedicated to getting the word out there about the quality and diversity of the wonderful wines being produced here.
“I want to see all of our local producers do well and produce great wine, as it benefits all of us,” he says. “As a region, we’ve got so many strengths that are unique to this place, which we can show off to visitors in addition to our wines. And that uniqueness and individuality is what wine is all about.”
“There’s just a slow, unpressured pace of life here and it’s largely undiscovered by the masses – it’s not a crowded crush everywhere, but all of the normal amenities are available if you want them. I’m always raving about how beautiful and peaceful the place is: the fresh air, the forests, the blue skies and all of the farming history and culture of the place. ”