It was a privilege to be one of a small group invited to meet online for this special tasting. I joined up with Virginia Willcock and Paul Holmes à Court, Chief Winemaker and Owner respectively, of the historic Vasse Felix estate in Margaret River, Western Australia. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of the first vines being planted on the estate.
Vasse Felix was founded by Dr Thomas Brendan Cullity in 1967 (pictured). This tasting would centre around five examples of their top Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine, named ‘Tom Cullity’ in his honour. In fact, these five are the only vintages made to date, with the newly-released 2017 joining 2016, 2015, 2014 and 2013. We would also have the chance to taste the new vintage of one of my favourite Australian Chardonnays, the Heytesbury 2019.
Paul Holmes à Court represents only the second generation of the family who have owned Vasse Felix since 1987, while Virgina Willcock has been with the estate since 2006, born and raised in nearby Perth and working over 30 vintages in the region. Virginia stressed that the five vintage of Tom Cullity should tell their story, which has been focused on quality and a statement of where they are from. “These are not heavy wines, I believe the character of Margaret River is as fine and as intellectual as any Cabernet can be. This wine tells the story of our history.” Virginia’s poetic interpretation is that her wines should smell of the ocean and of the forest, elements that dominate the Margaret River landscape.
Margaret River’s reputation was built on Cabernet Sauvignon, right from the first releases when the maritime-influenced region was often compared to Bordeaux. Virginia relates that recent research suggests both Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec were planted in Western Australia in the 1850s, and that 100 years later Tom Cullity almost certainly planted vines that had come from those original plantings.
After years living away and not focusing on the Vasse Felix, Paul says he has come to believe that Margaret River truly is one of the world’s greatest wine regions, and argues passionately that his family, working with others, have a mission and a responsibility to help the regions, and of course, Vasse Felix, acheive its full potential. “In everything we do we first of all ask ‘is this consistent with being one of the greatest wine estates in the world’.” That has included expanding vineyard holdings, not to increase production, but to bring the entire operation ‘in-house’ without buying fruit.
All vineyards are now certified organic, making Vasse Felix the largest organic vineyard in Western Australia.
(2022) A cool start to the growing season slowed development, but summer conditions were good, a rapid cooling in March aslo allowing extended hang-time. 76% Cab in this vintage, with 20% Malbec and 4% Petit Verdot. Nineteen months in French oak, 61% new. A very perfumed, green herb and olive-touched character, bright and lifted with black fruit and a light balsamic glaze, fresh and fragrant. Very pure and attractive black fruit, but it retains that savoury, lightly salty olive and fennel note, oak spices, a touch of chocolaate, and very pure but firm tannins and acids. The sweetness of the fruit really builds on the mid-palate, finishing savoury and long.
(2022) A 'text book vintage' according to Vasse Felix, with consistent weather through the ripening season. Crop levels were good, despite some spring storms reducing cropping potential. 80% Cab with 16% Malbec and 4% Petit Verdot, it spent 18 months in French oak, 62% new. A little more dense in colour that the 2013, this also is perfumed, but more on pure red and black fruits and florals than the more herbaceous character of the 2013, with raspberry and light anise notes. The palate is luxurious, sweet and creamy fruit and a soy character, a little sweet, damp earth. Lots of saltiness and seasoning on this wine, very gastronomic, very digestible, the tannins and cherry pit acdity of the finish are really quite elegant, though spicy and intense too.
(2021) A year of mild conditions and a slow and steady vintage, though spring storms did reduce yields. 78% Cab with 20% Malbec and 2% Petit Verdot, it spent 16 months in French oak, only 51% new. Quite reserved at first, or rather, quite densely, tightly wound with tobacco, cedar and black fruit on the nose. The palate burst with a juiciness of ripe blackcurrant, but that initial tension of the nose does not dissipate: this stays taut, muscular, deep and still relatively impenetrable at this stage, but such a concetration of sweet fruit, firm and elegant acidity and chocolaty smooth tannins that it is both gorgeous now, and promises considerable longevity.
(2022) A dry and warm spring set good fruit and better yields than in the preceding vintage. Warm conditions with some helpful rainfall in January led to a long finish to the season. 78% Cab with 20% Malbec and 2% Petit Verdot, it spent 19 months in French oak, 80% new. Lots of mint and eucalypt here, chocolate too and refined cassis. Also plenty of ozoney freshness, leafy fennel and liquorice. The palate has great concentration and balance, again it is a wine with great drive and focus because of those taut, fine tannins and dry cherry-pit bite of the acid, but this does have the ripeness of fruit too, plump blackcurrants and brambles, just a background of quite exotic, incense-like spice.
(2022) The coolest and latest vintage for a decade, with delayed ripening and good acid retention. January and February so both warm sunshine and some rain, but a warm March and the driest April since 1982 so excellent ripening of red varieties. 82% Cab with 17% Malbec and 1% Petit Verdot, it spent 19 months in French oak, 61% new. More dense in colour, but far from opaque, running to pale pink on the rim. Quite closed, gravelly and olive scented, a hint of mint and showing that elegant and precise side of Cabernet, some exotic cigar box and Sandalwood spice. In the mouth the wine fleshes out immediately, sweet and ripe, the plushness surprises after the strictness of the aromatics, filling the mouth with plump blackcurrant, but then the edge begins to come through, really taut, succulent tannins and acids give this authority, but the wine has great drive and focus, finishing on fruit and suggesting great potential once again.
(2021) A cool start to the vintage meant careful canopy management to avoid disease, but mild conditions through the growing season extended the harvest to finish with ripe fruit, slightly lower alcohol and good acidity. Matured in French oak barriques for nine months, 61% new. Plenty of flinty, mineral and gunsmoke character to the fore here, a subtle oatmeal creaminess and some lemon meringue pie aromas follow. In the mouth it is bracing stuff, a nervy sweep of acidity punches through nuttier, creamier texture and ripe but lean fruit flavours. Long and tensioned from front to back, a very nice Chardonnay indeed with intensity and cellaring potential.