Spotlight on: Mark Warren
I have an awesome job. I am privileged enough to be able to travel ’round the world and meet winemakers and drink their wines and call it work. Every visit is different and most are memorable in their own way. But some winemaker visits leave more of an impression than others. This is usually almost entirely down to the winemaker him or herself (and of course that the wines are good is a given!). When I shook Mark Warren’s hand at the doorstep to Happs Winery in the Margaret River region of Western Australia, I knew this would be one of those visits. A gregarious, humble, and just plain nice guy, Mark embodied that laid back ‘don’t take yourself too seriously’ attitude that I love in Australians. Plus he had an eyebrow ring. It was easy to picture a younger version of Mark; perhaps a leather-wearing long-haired drummer in a local band with a knack for winemaking and wine drinking? Maybe. In any case, I liked him straight away. And the fact that I also liked his wines sealed the deal.
Mark and I chatting and sipping
Mark is a winemaker in every sense of the word. While I’m sure he also spends plenty of time in the vineyards, his main area of expertise is in the winery. A scientist if I ever met one, he double-majored in bio-chemistry and micro-biology at university, has a degree in wine science, and teaches viticulture at Curtin University. Mark is the head winemaker at ‘Happs’ and ‘Three Hills’ and he also contracts out the winery to other smaller labels, including his own, ‘Marq’. In total, Mark makes around 70 different wines, a dizzying figure.
Mark generously opened about 20 of those wines on my visit with him (although it was a Friday so I think it was also a good excuse to get drinking!). I’ll spare you 20 tasting notes don’t worry. But there were a few common themes stringing all of Mark’s wines together; they were intricately structured, their acidities were of ‘European’ levels, and for the reds, their tannins integrated yet bold. Old Worldy wines with a New Worldy touch, all clearly made by an immensely talented and experienced winemaker, for they made no apologies for what they were, and were well thought out and well made.
At lunch, my Thai curry with prawns went well with Marq Fiano
Mark loves experimenting with different grape varieties, and has proven that the Margaret River can make so much more than veggie sauvignon blanc and minty cabernet sauvignon. Most of the grapes for his ‘Marq’ range and for ‘Three Hills’ are sourced from Kerridale, on the southern end of the Margaret River where cooler temperatures, granite soils, and enormous red gumtrees rule.
Mark (on right) and assistant winemaker Tyke (aka Mike)
Perhaps because Mark approaches winemaking with a scientist’s eye (although his wines are made with an obvious passion and love for the art of winemaking), his stance on more unexplained concepts like certain aspects of Biodynamics for example is like many of his Western Ausssie colleagues–if it can’t be explained, it must be ‘witchery’ (as one winemaker said to me), or hippy tree-hugger nonsense. As someone who veers closer to that ‘tree hugging’ end of the spectrum, I tend to disagree with him (and probably most of the notoriously conservative winemakers in the Margaret River). I think that just because humans can’t explain every inner working of nature doesn’t mean it can’t exist. But then again I don’t have a double major in bio-chemistry and micro-biology, and I do tend to visit a lot of ‘hippy’ winemakers and drink their wine. However, despite being relatively restrained when it comes to some viniculture and viticulture techniques (for example when I asked if he would ever experiment with concrete eggs or qvevri he admitted it was a bit too ‘out there’ for him), Mark is still, in comparison to a good majority of his winemaking compatriots (with the exception of a handful), pushing the boundaries in this relatively new winemaking region by experimenting with lesser known grape varieties, using native yeasts, and making some sulphur-free wines. For this part of the wine world, these are rare and commendable achievements. And the results are some of the most beautifully drinkable, restrained wines in Western Australia. So in my best worst Aussie accent, ‘Good on ya Mark’.
Here are a few of my favourite wines from Mark Warren:
Marq wild ferment Chardonnay
Wild ferment Marq Chardonnay 2010: This is perhaps one of the best chardonnays I’ve tried from Western Australia. Those native yeasts and plenty of lees stirring gives the nose that bready, toasty overtone I love so much in ‘wild’ chards. There’s also ripe grapefruit and lemon, and on the palate a good dousing of flinty minerals woven into a delicately creamy, chalky texture. To put it simply, this wine is beautifully made and could rival some top Burgundys. Even better, it sells in Australia for $28 (about £18) a bottle…much cheaper than your average top end Burgundy.
Marq Fiano 2011: I’ve always been a fan of this underrated grape from southwest Italy, and Mark’s version does it every justice. It’s nose is heady and complex-floral, mineral, orange peel and stone fruits, and cashew nuts in the background. The slight CO2 and great acidity on the palate keeps it refreshing while the oily texture and bitter nuttiness makes it a perfect food wine. Mark said he’d tried it with crab in a saffron butter sauce, which sounds perfect. It sells for $25 (about £15) a pop.
Marq Gamay 2010: Another exciting grape to see grown in this part of the world. Generally considered the less serious Beaujolais brother to Burgundy’s pinot (especially when made in the ‘nouveau‘ style), Mark’s gamay was more along the lines of a Beaujolais Cru and achieved plenty of austerity and power with ripe cherries and sweet spices and a slight earthiness, along with velvety tannins and great acidity. Put this against a good pinot noir and it could most definitely stand its ground. Again selling for a very reasonable £25 a bottle.
Marq Tempranillo 2010: Again, fantastic to see this famous Spanish grape outside of Rioja and in Western Australia. Inky black in colour (darker than your average Spanish stuff), and 14.5% (admittedly a bit ‘hot’ to start), this wine starts off black olives, spices, ripe blackberries, and a slight meatiness, but opens up after a few minutes into something more delicate and perfumed. The palate is the winner here, with juicy dark fruits, a great acidity that bursts into the mouth straight away, and a long finish with silky tannins. £28 a bottle.
Some others to note: Happs Pinot Noir 2011 (rusty colour, redcurrants, slightly meatiness, cinnamon spice, simple but very good for $14 a bottle!) Happs Shiraz 2009 (raw meat, iron, stones, minerals), Palmer Shiraz Reserve 2008 (rich blackberries, spicey, great acidity), Three Hills Sangiovese 2009 (meaty, deep rich plummy fruit, savoury peppery palate with heady red fruits and excellently balanced), Happs Cabernet 2010 (classic minty, eucalyptus, rich blackberry, great structure, will age beautifully)
Note: Mark is released a ‘Cut and Dry’ Shiraz in the Amarone style to be released this year. After trying a barrel sample, I think it will be the perfect fireplace, cheeseboard wine for next winter, so keep an eye out for it!
Note number two: Sadly Mark’s wines are not yet available outside of Australia, but hopefully we’ll see them in the UK in the near future..I’ll keep you posted!
Many thanks to Mark and assistant winemaker Tyke for generously tasting me through so many of their wines!