Vasse Felix – where Margaret River makes masterpieces

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12th December, 2019 by Edith Hancock

If you were looking for an oenophile’s paradise to rival the Old World, you’d struggle to do better than Australia’s Margaret River Region.

(Photo: Vasse Felix)

Tom Cullity at Vasse Felix’s then-fledgeling vineyard (Photo: Vasse Felix)

While it only has a viticultural history spanning 52 years, the Chardonnays this slice of Western Australia produces have been known to rival the greats of Burgundy. Nevermind the beautiful, bold Cabernet Sauvignons the region has become world-renowned for.

Vasse Felix was the first vineyard and winery to be established in Margaret River. Founded in Wilyabrup in 1967 by Dr Tom Cullity, it is recognised as a pioneer of the region.

The winery’s launch came as part of a pivotal moment. The year before Vasse Felix was set up, Dr John Gladstone conducted an in-depth climate and soil study and identified the key areas suited to making high quality wines.

Thanks to its place in Margaret River’s history, the Vasse Felix name and brand has become synonymous, not just with quality, but also “a true and pure expression of the region”, Mick Langridge, the estate’s senior winemaker, tells db.

And the two varietal wines that express the region best, he says, are Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Chardonnay may be having a moment in Margaret River right now, but Cabernet is still “the king” of the region. While Western Australia is known for its bold and unashamedly alcoholic reds, Vasse Felix’s own expressions are “fully ripened, but elegant” Langridge says, pouring the estate’s recently-launched Tom Cullity 2014 – a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec – for a private tasting in London.

It is only the second vintage of Vasse Felix’s top tier wine, but already the estate are heralding it as a “Heritage wine of Margaret River.”

A blend of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Malbec, and a touch of Petit Verdot, it offers aromas of red currant, blueberry, dark chocolate, smoke, potpourri, olive, and an earthy-mineral graphite edge, sitting on a surprisingly soft, elegant tannic structure.

10 years in the planning, the first vintage of ‘Tom Cullity’ – the 2013 – was released in May 2017 to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the estate.

Named after the estate’s founder, the Tom Cullity is a Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec blend, with the fruit coming from the estate’s “home” vineyard which includes the first vines planted by Cullity in 1967. It is, according to the estate, “not a wine that can be replicated.”

“He was truly a pioneer finding these amazing zones,” Langridge says. For this expression, the vineyard team search for parcels with “more muscle”. Fruit is selected from a combination of Cullity’s original plantings, plus a few more plots the estate has planted over the past 10-15 years.

The Tom Cullity is the latest edition to Vasse Felix’s portfolio. (Photo: Vasse Felix)

With every new plot, care is taken to ensure it yield the same quality of fruit Vasse Felix’s founder was able to produce all those years ago. After all, “at the end of the day, it’s all about terroir.”

Margaret River accounts for just 3% of Australia’s volume sales but 20% of its value sales for wine, with the majority of wines there falling into the premium category, which consumers seem happy to pay the extra money for.

While Cab Sav is what the region is known best for, there is a growing focus on ripe, balanced Chardonnays, and Vasse Felix is one of a handful of estates leading the charge.

Temperatures are much cooler at night than during the day, which allows for the perfect conditions for growing cool climate Chardonnay.

“We’ve had a growing focus on Chardonnay in Margaret River for a number of years,” Langridge told db. Indeed, the estate launched a new “Premier” Chardonnay in 2014, positioned to sit just below its top end Heytesbury label as the main reference point for its brand.

It is a wine that the company “hangs our hat on”, made with only the finest blocks of fruit identified by a crack team of vineyard workers each year.

When it comes to identifying plots to use for the top tier Heytesbury Chardonnay, the workers are even more selective. Its relative rarity in the wine world makes it a handy trophy wine on the menus of Michelin-starred restaurants.

Once harvested, the grapes are gently pressed, and the winemakers “embrace the microflora” native to the region to ensure the end result is a true representation of the region

“It’s a perfume people recognise instantly,” Langridge says, not to mention a collector’s wine. Just 14,000 bottles have been produced each year since the first Heytesbury Chardonnay was released in 1996, and “that hasn’t increased for 15 years.”

“There are some parcels that really stop us in our tracks,” Langridge says. They look for vines where the soils express what they can only describe as the “Heytesbury nose”. That means flint, white blossom and stone fruits in delicate harmony.

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