Vasse Felix: Unveiling the Marvels of Margaret River’s Founding Wine Estate

Vasse Felix: Unveiling the Marvels of Margaret River’s Founding Wine Estate.

In the pristine southwestern corner of Australia, there exists a region of unparalleled natural beauty and viticultural excellence known as Margaret River. Amidst the breathtaking landscape, one winery has risen to legendary status, captivating both wine connoisseurs and nature enthusiasts alike.

This iconic winery has a rich history that mirrors the transformation of the Margaret River region into a global wine powerhouse. From its humble beginnings to its current status as a leading winery, Vasse Felix has been a trailblazer in showcasing the unique terroir and exceptional winemaking potential of this remarkable corner of Australia.

In this article, we will embark on a journey to explore the captivating story of Vasse Felix and delve into the secrets of the Margaret River wine region. We will uncover the historical roots of the winery, meet its visionary founder, and discover the philosophy that drives its quest for excellence.

On top of that we will extensively research Vasse Felix’s most important wines, from their Filius range all the way to their Icon range that features the illustrious Tom Cullity Cabernet Malbec and the Heytesbury Chardonnay, two wines that are regarded amongst Australia’s finest in their category.

The Uniqueness of Margaret River: Nature’s Influence on Winemaking

Margaret River stands out as an extraordinary wine region, distinguished by its rare combination of natural factors that create an exceptional terroir. This region, situated on ancient geologic formations, benefits from some of the oldest soils on the planet. These soils are the result of millennia-old tectonic activities, particularly the fusion of the supercontinent Gondwana with the Indian plate. The gravel loam soils, though sparse and dry, offer excellent drainage, setting the stage for the flourishing of robust grape varieties such as the revered Cabernet Sauvignon and the versatile Chardonnay.

The terroir’s uniqueness is further enhanced by Margaret River’s location, where the Indian and Southern Oceans converge, bringing forth a maritime influence that is rare and beneficial. The Leeuwin Current, a remarkable marine phenomenon, moderates the climate, shielding the vineyards from both the intense heat and the chilling cold. This current, alongside the sea breezes, ensures a gradual and consistent grape maturation process, which is crucial for developing the nuanced flavors and balance that Margaret River wines are known for. It also acts as a deterrent to vine diseases such as rot and mold.

In terms of precipitation, Margaret River surprises again, receiving substantial rainfall that defies the drier climate typically associated with Western Australia. The region’s precipitation, falling mostly in the winter months, aligns with a Mediterranean climate pattern, supporting the vineyards’ growth cycle with a wet season followed by warm, sunny periods. This climate is especially conducive to the health of the region’s old vines, which often require little to no irrigation, showcasing the natural suitability of the area for high-quality wine production.

To encapsulate, Margaret River is more than just a wine region; it is a testament to the artistry of nature, where the synchrony of ancient soil, oceanic influences, and a balanced climate has given rise to a terroir of unrivaled distinction. The wines that emerge from this land carry the essence of their origin, embodying the region’s singularity and affirming Margaret River’s esteemed position in the world of fine wines. It is a region where the bounties of nature have come together in perfect harmony to yield wines that enchant connoisseurs across the globe.

Cabernet and Chardonnay, Margaret River and Vasse Felix’s key varietals.

The History and Present of Vasse Felix

The saga of Vasse Felix, a cornerstone in Australian winemaking, commenced in 1967 with Dr. Tom Cullity, a Perth cardiologist whose European travels ignited a zeal for viniculture. Originally, winemaking was a leisurely pursuit for Cullity, meant to delight his inner circle. Unbeknownst to him, his hobby was to become a pivotal chapter in Australia’s viticultural narrative.

His quest brought him to Margaret River, guided by a government report spotlighting the area’s vinicultural promise. Here, Cullity planted the roots of what is now Vasse Felix on a modest 3-hectare plot, juggling his medical career with his vinicultural passion.

It was not until five years later, in 1972, that Cullity’s labors bore fruit with a gold-medal-winning Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon Malbec in 1973. This triumph heralded Vasse Felix’s commercial debut. Despite challenges, such as the 1971 marri tree flowering issue leading to bird damage in the vineyards, Cullity’s innovative spirit never waned, symbolized by the adoption of a Peregrine Falcon emblem inspired by his ventures into falconry for bird deterrence.

The defining turn for Vasse Felix arrived in 1984 with its acquisition by David and Anne Gregg, under whose guardianship the winery flourished, putting it on the international map. The baton was passed in 1987 to the Holmes à Court family, who propelled the winery to new heights with their investment in quality and innovation, including the esteemed Heytesbury Chardonnay.

This legacy of excellence was carried into the new millennium by Holmes à Court progeny, with Paul Holmes à Court assuming leadership in 2008, ensuring that Vasse Felix’s pioneering spirit, embraced by its founder over four decades prior, would continue to shape the winery’s future.

The Philosophy and Focus of the Winery

Vasse Felix Winery’s ethos is deeply rooted in reverence for the environment and a drive to reflect the distinct qualities of the Margaret River terroir in their wines. Their sustainable approach, underscored by organic and biodynamic methods, safeguards the region’s unspoiled habitats.

Central to the winery’s philosophy is the conviction that the vineyard is quintessential to winemaking. Vasse Felix adheres to scrupulous vineyard stewardship and minimalist winemaking, affirming their creed that the vineyard is the birthplace of extraordinary wines. Their confidence in their viticultural and vinification choices is a hallmark of their brand, underpinning their commitment to produce exemplary wines.

Patience is a virtue embraced by Vasse Felix, aligning with the unhurried nature of agriculture and the understanding that excellence is a product of time. Virginia Willcock, the winery’s esteemed winemaker, brings over twenty years of expertise and a profound connection to the Margaret River region. Her finesse in expressing the land’s character through wine has positioned her among Australia’s elite winemakers.

Her meticulous approach to winemaking is a testament to the winery’s philosophy, with a focus on optimal ripeness and the intricate diversity of each vineyard plot. This attention to detail ensures each wine is a true ambassador of the region’s character.

A testament to their philosophy is the Tom Cullity Cabernet Sauvignon Malbec (former Heytesbury), a tribute to both their origins and their quest for exceptional winemaking. This wine, which honors the view from the winery’s window, encapsulates Vasse Felix’s allegiance to their legacy and their unyielding pursuit of world-class winemaking.

Virginia Willcock, Chief Winemaker Vasse Felix.

Wines that are True to their Origin

For this article we tasted and reviewed Vasse Felix’s key varietals (Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon) in three different ranges the winery offers.

Three ranges of Vasse Felix and our Ratings.

Icon Range

Vasse Felix’s truly exceptional wines. Distinct, fine and rare. The icon range consists of the Tom Cullity Cabernet Sauvignon Malbec and Heytesbury Chardonnay.

2019 Tom Cullity Cabernet Sauvignon Malbec

The 2019 Tom Cullity showcases the elegance and finesse of Margaret River, with potential to age well for over two decades. It is characterized by its fine tannins and a texture that enhances the wine-drinking experience. This vintage, the seventh since 2013, comes from old vines that consistently produce the best Cabernet, reflecting the winery’s commitment to quality over nostalgia.

The winemaking process involves both open and static fermentation, allowing for a deep extraction of flavors and the development of complex tannins. French oak is exclusively used for 18 months of aging, chosen for its compatibility with the wine’s tannic structure. The wine is released as a four-year-old, ensuring maturity and complexity. Blending Malbec with Cabernet Sauvignon continues the tradition of the estate, adding to the wine’s layered profile.

The wine presents as a bright garnet in the glass, indicative of its vibrancy and youth. The nose is a tapestry of fruit and earth, with blackcurrant coulis, dried rosemary, and fresh basil at the forefront. Floral notes of lavender and lily add a delicate complexity, while a distinctive sense of place is conveyed through the scent of dried peppery leaf reminiscent of the Wilyabrup Brook. Undertones of cocoa, crayon, and a musk-like fragrance round out the olfactory experience.

On the palate, it offers a succulent and creamy entry, boasting a body that is both concentrated and elegantly structured. Its super fine, powdery tannins create a framework that is both relaxed and complete, leading to a comfortably dry finish that persists with flavors of blackcurrant, dark chocolate, and a sweet, aromatic oak.

This beautiful wine is approachable yet profound, embodying the region’s signature of moderate alcohol and balanced ripening. The approach to winemaking at Vasse Felix, particularly with the Tom Cullity, is not to create ‘tannic monsters’ but rather to capture the essence of what the terroir of Margaret River has to offer. The result is a wine that is not only approachable in its youth but also carries the potential for graceful aging, embodying the slow ripening and moderate alcohol levels that the region is known for.

We award this Cabernet Sauvignon – Malbec with a 98-point DWA score.

2021 Heytesbury Chardonnay

The 2021 Heytesbury Chardonnay by Vasse Felix is a testament to the meticulous viticulture and innovative winemaking that the estate is known for. This wine, only a small fraction of their Chardonnay production, comes from carefully selected vineyard plots and is crafted with the Gingin clone, which has proven to be perfectly suited to the Margaret River region. With its al dente ripeness and distinctive ‘Heytesbury’ character, it showcases a savory profile with a delicate structure that speaks to its high-quality pedigree.

The winemaking process is detailed and intentional, with the wine hand-harvested, whole-bunch pressed, and fermented with natural vineyard yeasts. After 15 months of nurturing in the cellar—eight in oak with lees stirring and seven in tank on full lees—it emerges with a complex structure and the classic Heytesbury perfume.

This Chardonnay is notable for its restrained and balanced flavor profile. In its youth, it is powerful and intense, with a focus on mouthfeel and structure that evolves beautifully with age. It is a wine that, even at a young age, can stand up to a variety of dishes, reflecting its class and complexity.

The evolution of the Heytesbury Chardonnay, particularly under the influence of winemaker Virginia Willcock, has led to a signature style marked by a subtle gunflint, struck match note—a reductive quality that has become part of the wine’s identity. The wine’s al dente acid line, saline element, and power make it unique, displaying exceptional quality upon release but also promising further development with age.

Overall, the 2021 Heytesbury Chardonnay is a remarkable wine that showcases the best of Vasse Felix, with a focus on a single clone that imparts a unique intensity and a structure that promises to unfold beautifully over the years. It is a wine that not only exemplifies the potential of its vintage but also the distinct terroir of Margaret River.

We award this Chardonnay with a 97-point DWA score.

Vasse Felix, the reds: Filius, Premier and Icon Range.

Premier Range

The defining expression of Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.

2019 Cabernet Sauvignon

The 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon, hailing from the esteemed Wilyabrup sub-region of Margaret River, stands as a testament to the winery’s commitment to producing a wine that epitomizes the distinctive qualities of the area. With a legacy dating back to 1972, the 48th release of this premier Cabernet Sauvignon continues to deliver on the promise of elegance, generosity, and longevity that have become synonymous with Margaret River’s finest. The wine is crafted from meticulously selected parcels, benefiting from the region’s ancient gravel loam soils that contribute to a varietal purity and character that is second to none.

While no longer made from the original vines, the blend still features fruit from vines aged between 20 to 45 years, contributing to its depth and complexity.

Malbec and Petit Verdot play supporting roles in this composition, with their proportions varying annually to achieve the ideal balance, adding structure and a hint of spice—much like seasoning to a dish. The result is a muscular wine, full-bodied and dense, yet retaining the region’s hallmark finesse and elegance. It’s a wine that commands attention and respect, and is widely recognized as an archetype of Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon.

The 2019 vintage, in particular, seems to capture the essence of the region with an almost al dente ripeness, delivering a wine that is both assertive and refined, with a savory edge that sets it apart. It is a wine that not only resonates with the connoisseur’s palate but also represents the culmination of years of dedication to winemaking excellence.

We award this Cabernet Sauvignon with a 95-point DWA score.

2020 Chardonnay

The 2020 Chardonnay is a standout representation of Margaret River’s winemaking excellence, showcasing the region’s ability to produce Chardonnays with both power and finesse. The season’s warmth brought an early harvest, capturing the essence of the fruit at its peak—ripe, perfumed, and with ideal sugar balance, all underpinned by a crisp natural acidity that foretells a wine with structure and longevity.

In crafting this Chardonnay, meticulous winemaking techniques were employed. Sixty-seven percent of the grapes were hand-picked and whole-bunch pressed, followed by wild fermentation in French oak barriques, enhancing the wine’s textural complexity. The remaining fruit underwent a selective harvesting process to introduce subtle skin contact, before also being barreled for fermentation. The wine then matured on lees for ten months in barrels, with an additional seven months in tank, where it was regularly stirred to develop a nuanced palate.

This vintage’s blend of 78% Gingin and 22% Bernard clones comes primarily from Vasse Felix’s Wilyabrup and Boodjidup vineyards, with a smaller portion from Karridale, contributing to the wine’s layered flavor profile. The winemakers celebrate the 2020 vintage as a personal favorite, particularly for its expression of Chardonnay, which has managed to thrive despite lower yields across recent vintages due to natural variances.

The wine’s character is marked by a seamless blend of immediate satisfaction and serious depth. It presents a rich mouthfeel that remains refined and not overly opulent, supported by a backbone of acidity that ensures it remains focused on the palate. Its flavor spectrum spans from vibrant citrus to lush nectarine, indicative of the varied terroirs of its sources.

In sum, the 2020 Vasse Felix Chardonnay is a wine that captures the essence of its region, delivering immediate gratification with a profile ripe for aging. It is a wine that not only stands proudly now but also promises to evolve beautifully, offering a taste experience that is both sophisticated and inherently satisfying.

We award this Chardonnay with a 94-point DWA score.

Filius Range

As the “son of” the Premier wines, the Filius range are Vasse Felix’s outstanding value regional expressions.

2020 Filius Cabernet Sauvignon

The 2020 Filius Cabernet Sauvignon by Vasse Felix offers a unique proposition in the landscape of Australian wines. This ‘Son of’ the estate Cabernet Sauvignon carries the heritage and complexity expected from Vasse Felix vineyards, albeit in a more accessible, earlier-drinking style. Crafted from grapes sourced from multiple vineyards, including the notable Adams Road vineyard, the Filius is a testament to the thoughtful viticulture and winemaking that Vasse Felix is known for.

With the intention to create a wine with ‘more generosity of flavor and aroma’ without the intense structure of their premier Cabernets, Vasse Felix has succeeded in producing a Cabernet that is both approachable and sophisticated. The Filius is designed to be enjoyed upon release, characterized by succulent fruit, manageable tannins, and an overall vibrancy that speaks to its meticulous creation.

Wild fermented and matured for 11 to 15 months in predominantly old French oak, the winemaking process is indicative of Vasse Felix’s commitment to quality at every level. The use of older oak and less time on skins and in barrels is a deliberate choice to foreground the fruit and to ensure immediate drinkability.

The resulting wine is not diluted in character; it retains the structural backbone and textural complexity of a classic Cabernet Sauvignon. Dusty tannins and a balanced acidity complement the ripe fruit flavors, making the Filius a versatile companion to a range of culinary experiences. The wine’s crafting allows for potential cellaring up to 10 years, a rarity for a wine at its price point and indicative of its superb quality and potential.

In essence, the Filius Cabernet Sauvignon encapsulates the spirit and tradition of Vasse Felix’s winemaking, presenting a wine that is both a tribute to its lineage and a standout in its own right. It is a testament to the winery’s philosophy that every wine, regardless of tier, is given the attention and care to stand proudly within their storied portfolio.

We award this Cabernet Sauvignon with a 91-point DWA score.

2022 Filius Chardonnay

The 2022 Filius Chardonnay embodies the essence of contemporary winemaking, marrying versatility with a vibrant character. Crafted with an eye for minimal intervention, this Chardonnay is a testament to the purity of fruit and wild complexity, underscored by a refreshing natural acidity. The Filius is an early-drinking style that exudes alluring savory nuances that are a hallmark of Vasse Felix’s winemaking philosophy.

In the glass, it presents a delicate, balanced, and complex profile, thanks to the lighter-bodied and elegant fruit flavors derived from a selection of vineyard parcels. The meticulous winemaking process, which includes natural fermentation and the judicious use of French oak, ensures each batch contributes its unique qualities to the final blend. The result is a harmonious Chardonnay with a clean, bright palate that reflects the varietal characteristics Vasse Felix is celebrated for.

The Filius is not just about fruit; it is a narrative of the winery’s history, echoing the lighter, juicier style of Chardonnay that has been a consistent thread through the years. It is a wine that introduces drinkers to Vasse Felix’s key styles and grape varieties, offering a sensory experience that is both lifted and aromatic. The Adams Rowe vineyard plays a significant role in shaping this wine, adding layers to its already intricate profile.

With a production process that favors wild fermentation in barrel and a careful approach to oxygen exposure, the wine maintains its primary aromas and flavors, presenting a palate that is both fresh and light-bodied. While the Filius may undergo malolactic fermentation, this is always contingent on the vintage, further showcasing the winery’s adaptive expertise.

On the nose, the Filius surprises with herbal notes that are not typical for Chardonnay, adding to its distinctive savory and herbaceous profile. The proximity to the ocean imparts a subtle saline tang, a testament to the terroir’s influence on the wine. The judicious use of oak brings structure without overpowering, allowing the wine’s natural character to shine through.

The 2022 Filius Chardonnay is a relaxed yet polished expression of the region, perfect for those occasions that call for a touch of class without any pretense. It is a versatile companion to a variety of dishes and a delightful choice for those who appreciate a Chardonnay with character and a sense of place.

We award this Chardonnay with a 90-point DWA score.

Vasse Felix, the whites: Filius, Premier and Icon Range.

Vasse Felix: A Testament to Terroir and Tradition in Margaret River’s Wine Legacy

In conclusion, Vasse Felix stands as a paragon of Margaret River’s viticultural excellence, where the legacy of Dr. Tom Cullity and the stewardship of the Holmes a Court family converge to create wines of distinctive character and exceptional quality. Their dedication to the terroir, combined with a sustainable, patient approach to winemaking, has not only set a benchmark for Australian wines but also encapsulates the essence of the region’s ancient soils, maritime climate, and organic harmony. Vasse Felix’s diverse range of wines, from the accessible Filius to the esteemed Icon offerings, is a testament to their mastery of winemaking and the rich tapestry of the Margaret River region. As the winery looks to the future, its ethos of environmental reverence and commitment to reflecting the true nature of its origins ensures that each bottle from Vasse Felix is not merely a beverage but an experience, inviting wine enthusiasts to partake in the story and spirit of Margaret River.

Vasse Felix is imported in the Netherlands by Wijnimport J. Bart and available through selected partners and retailers. The wines are also available for consumers through QV Select. The Tom Cullity and Heytesbury are produced and sold on a limited (allocation) basis.

We would like to especially thank Erin O’Neil (Market Manager) and Evan Gill (Estate Sommelier) for their time and the interview, and Wijnimport Bart for providing the wines. Picture credits: Vasse Felix and Dutch Wine Apprentice.