Winery Spotlight: Vasse Felix

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Vintage Cellars
November 28, 2018
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Vasse Felix in Western Australia's legendary Margaret River has pushed the boundaries since day one. The result: fruit with flair.

From its inception, Vasse Felix dared to dream big. Founder Dr Tom Cullity was a Perth-based cardiologist with no previous experience in gardening, let alone horticulture, and definitely not in winemaking. In August 1967, he planted 2.8 hectares of vines — principally riesling and cabernet sauvignon — on his Vasse Felix property at Cowaramup in the isolated Margaret River farming community. The date is now celebrated as marking the start of commercial wine production in Margaret River.

“I was the bellwether and the vineyard was the district’s feasibility study,” Cullity recalled in an interview before his death in 2008.

Vasse Felix has played regional bellwether ever since, whether pursuing and promoting two of its greatest strengths — chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon — or seeking out individual vineyard sites in emerging subregions.

The story behind the name

In 1801, a French expedition to map the coast of Australia (New Holland at the time) reached the southwest coast, but storms and swells struck and assistant helmsman on the Naturaliste, Thomas Timothée Vasse, tragically was swept overboard. Rumours surrounded his fate for years. Founder of Vasse Felix, Dr Tom Cullity, paid homage to Vasse in the name of his winery and, hoping his vineyard would enjoy a happier fate, he added the Latin word felix, meaning "lucky", and thus Vasse Felix was born.

Lucky charm

Vasse Felix is destination deluxe, where great wine, food and the arts come together.

The wine producer’s economic and marketing insight comes from the Holmes à Court family, who has owned the company since 1987, but the creative winemaking flair and daring are delivered by longtime Chief Winemaker Virginia Willcock.

The style icon

A rarity among winemakers in the region, Vasse Felix has three price and quality tiers for chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. The reasoning is simple: “It’s all about different fruit characteristics from different vineyard areas,” explains Willcock. “And when you look at all the different soil types and aspects and all those factors that go into viticulture, you’re going to have at least three tiers.”

In the winery, Willcock has introduced important changes, too. Every Vasse Felix red wine is fermented naturally, leading to a finer expression of style with complexity and finesse. With chardonnay, the winemaker admits she has “pushed the boundaries” of early picking, embracing sulphides and phenolics to promote the grape’s fruit power and elegance.

Willcock’s contribution to the Australian wine industry was recognised in 2017, when she was named Winemaker of the Year at the Australian Women in Wine Awards.

A tiered approach

The introductory tier for Vasse Felix chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon is Filius (meaning “son of”). Vintage 2014 was the first release for Filius Cabernet Sauvignon, a blend of cabernet with a smidgeon (about 13%) of malbec.

“Its fruit is sourced from vineyards that produce lighter weight fruit but still carry the characteristics of Margaret River cabernet,” says Willcock. “There are so many different factors involved.”

The middle tier is the Premier range, which makes a statement about regional identity enhanced by Virginia Willcock’s own vision.

Premier Chardonnay, with its signature Margaret River plush and ripe stone-fruit flavour, is acknowledged as offering standout value for money in the crowded Australian chardonnay category. The top-tier chardonnay is Heytesbury, a multi-award-winner.

The top-tier cabernet sauvignon is the Tom Cullity, in honour of the winery’s founder. Like many Vasse Felix reds, malbec plays a subtle but nonetheless important role in the wine. Grapes come from the home vineyard, including some of Cullity’s first vines planted back in the 1960s.

Pure elegance and inbuilt longevity are the key factors to crafting the Tom Cullity. Sourcing malbec from the original vines was “goosebump material," says Willcock, while the wine’s easy drinkability upon release she puts down to Margaret River cabernet’s smooth tannins.

“This is our history, our heritage,” she adds. “The two — cabernet and malbec — have been blended since 1972. In the warmer years, you see blackcurrant come to the fore; in cooler years, it’s sage and herbs. The cooler vintages age particularly well.”

Wine, food and the arts

Three of the Holmes à Court family’s great passions — wine, food and the arts — come together at their Vasse Felix winery. More reminiscent of a country house, the multi-storey complex connects the winery, a restaurant, wine lounge and an underground vault, drawing together local jarrah and marri timbers and stone in inviting rustic tones and textures.

Enjoy a wine tasting, order a glass of chardonnay or cabernet with a charcuterie board in the Wine Lounge, or investigate a winemaking tour. Vasse Felix offers a comprehensive number of options, starting with The Original Tour, The Epicurean Tour or the beachside Cape To Vine Tour. The Cellar Experience, conducted in The Vault, is a must for wine lovers and includes a tasting of a “historic” Vasse Felix cabernet sauvignon.

Vasse Felix Art Gallery, housed in Tom Cullity’s original winery, hosts local artists, as well as an annual calendar of exhibitions. The sculpture garden walk is an excellent precursor to lunch at the winery restaurant, where the wine pairing banquet is worth checking out.

On a mission

If Vasse Felix were ever to indulge in a mission statement, it might run something like this: “Our mission is to produce elegant, delectable cabernets and chardonnays that aren’t standard. We are courageously going forward with this philosophy, because it makes better wine to drink and it’s not the norm, not what so many people imagine Australian cabernet and chardonnay should be.”

These words are courtesy of Virginia Willcock, and you wouldn't be surprised to see them emblazoned on the door above the entrance to the Vasse Felix winery. We think Tom Cullity would approve.