Australia’s Vasse Felix Winemaker Visits VancouverPR SAMPLE 

Karl MyWinePal with Vasse Felix's winemaker Virginia Willcock
Karl MyWinePal with Vasse Felix’s winemaker Virginia Willcock

Margaret River in Southwestern Australia is a geologically historic land that produces Chardonnay wines which have been compared to Burgundy in quality. I was fortunate to have a tasting in Vancouver with Vasse Felix‘s winemaker Virginia Willcock.  Vasse Felix has been making wine in the Margaret River area since 1967, since the winery’s established by Dr. Thomas Brendan Cullity.  Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec vines have been planted in the region since the 1850’s, own-rooted.  Since 1987 Vasse Felix has been owned and operated by two generations of the private, family-owned company, Heytesbury. 

On the label, there is a drawing of a Peregrine falcon they brought in and trained in 1973 which they use to protect from birds eating the ripening grapes. But the falcon flew off after its first flight over the vineyard.  Peregrine falcons are native to Australia and there may be some protection from these birds, but not one that is owned and managed by the winery.  The winery now uses nets to protect the grapes from birds.  

The Geology of the Area

Vasse Felix vineyard locations
Vasse Felix vineyard locations

There is a geological rift on Australia’s west coast and 4km inland you are 60-100m asl.  It is a steep, but flat land with gravelly old ancient soils.  The winter is rainy giving lots of cover crop growth, e.g. grasses, and then a dry summer, with the cover crop growth decomposing making a fertile topsoil underlain by gravels. Along the coast, there is limestone fill and clay.  The Margaret River area can be divided into a warmer north and cooler south area approximately at the location of Margaret River.  The cooler area being better for Chardonnay and sparkling wine production.  Vasse Felix has two vineyards in the northern half and one vineyard in the southern half of Margaret River. Their southern vineyard is about 25 km south of the northern, home vineyard, and is overall about 4 degrees C cooler on a summer day.  

Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon

The winery over the past 50 years has balanced organic principles and sustainability in the management of the vineyards.  Since 2009, the winery has used wild ferments for their Chardonnays and no new oak barrels during the fermentation.  The Cabernet Sauvignon wines are fermented with wild yeasts with the skins for 28-35 days, then just drain and press to barrel.  No need for racking as their juice is so clean.  They like to use their barrels for 6-10 years.  One interesting thing that Virginia mentioned is that the wild ferments work better in smaller volume vessels like French barriques.  Larger vessels like stainless steel tanks do not work as well for wild ferments. 

Virginia noted that Filius is their entry-level wine moving up to Tom Cullity, their icon red wine and Heytesbury Chardonnay, icon white wine. We started with the Cabernet Sauvignon wines are elegant, finely structured, and have a lower acidity than the Chardonnays.  Their Chardonnay’s are strong, have high acidity, and funk.  Their Cabernet Sauvignon is medium-bodied from Margaret River, due in part to clonal selection.  

The style of production for their Cabernet wines is more the older Bordeaux way than the newer, bigger, blockbuster wines from regions like Napa Valley. Virginia noted that she now lets the grapes express themselves resulting in a lighter style of Cabernet;  A more beautiful wine.   Malbec is added to all the Cabernet Sauvignon wines and all go through malolactic fermentation.

Margaret River has a Mediterranean climate, which should be against producing quality Chardonnay wines, but a specific clone has helped mitigate this warmer climate.  The Gingin Chardonnay clone is widespread across Margaret River and offered the solution to the hotter Mediterranean climate.  The bunches are tiny, ripen slowly, and retain flavour and natural grape acidity, which is an asset in wine production.  The clone was imported into Western Australia in 1957 from the University of California Davis.

Let me tell you about the wines we tasted.

My Wine Tasting Notes

Flight of Vasse Felix Chardonnay wines
Flight of Vasse Felix Chardonnay wines

Vasse Felix Filius Chardonnay 2022 (BC $32.49) – A medium-minus intensity bright clear lemon colour.  Medium plus intensity aromas of toast, roasted apple, butter, and a touch of sweet spices.  Fuller body, smooth and silky soft with a thicker mouthfeel.  Tropical fruit flavour, plus light butterscotch and toast.  Medium level of acidity.  A buttery finish.  Elegant. 4.5 stars

Vasse Felix Chardonnay 2020 (BC ~$44.99) – A deeper bright clear lemon colour.  Lighter toasty nose along with apples and tropical fruits.  Medium body soft and round with brighter acidity.  Tropical fruit and butterscotch plus touches of nutmeg and minerality on the palate. Medium-plus length. 4.5 stars

Vasse Felix Chardonnay 2019 (BC ~$44.99) – A deeper bright clear lemon colour.  Light toast and citrus aromas.  Medium-plus body with a smooth buttery mouthfeel.  Medium plus acidity.  Tropical fruit and butterscotch flavour with touches of sweet spices, citrus, bitterness and toast.  Medium-plus length finishing with tropical fruit and toast flavours and buttery mouthfeel. 4.5 stars

Vasse Felix Heytesbury Chardonnay 2021 (BC $95.99) – The grapes are 100% Gingin clone, come from a few very specific plots, several with east-facing slopes in protected spots (which Virginia mentions has unique indigenous yeasts) and are amongst the latest harvested each season.  This wine has a clear bright deep lemon colour.  Light aromas to start but then opens up with swirling.  You get toast, tropical fruit and butterscotch aromas. Medium-plus body, soft and not but not too thick on the palate.  Medium-plus acidity.  Buttered popcorn, tropical fruit and light toast on the palate.  Medium-plus length. 4.5 stars

Flight of Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon wines
Flight of Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon wines

Vasse Felix Filius Cabernet Sauvignon 2020 (BC $32.99) – with on average 10-14% Malbec added.  The grapes for this wine come from the warmer vineyard which is located to the north and a little more inland.  This is their most popular Cabernet Sauvignon.  This wine has a dull, medium-intensity mix of garnet and ruby colours.  Light aromas; meaty, green stem and blackberries.  Medium-plus body, with a soft, smooth, round mouthfeel.  Medium acidity and tannins.  Sweet juicy berry flavours plus a touch of capsicum.  A light mouthfeel.  Medium length finishing with tart berry fruit and light tannins.  More of an acid-driven wine. 4 stars4.5 stars

Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon 2021 (BC ~$52.99) – with an addition of 14% Malbec.  This is a special wine for Vasse Felix as it represents its 50th vintage. This wine has a medium-intensity clear colour mixing garnet and ruby.  Medium-minus intensity juicy berry fruit and light oak on the nose.  Lighter body, with a soft and smooth mouthfeel.  Medium acidity and light pepperiness.  Juicy berries and red cherries on the palate. A touch of minerality. Light-intensity fine-grained tannins get stronger toward the finish.  4.5 stars

Vasse Felix Tom Cullity 2019 (BC $179.99) – Primarily Cabernet Sauvignon with 22% Malbec, but can vary from 16-22% depending on the vintage. These are the oldest Cabernet and Malbec vines in the region that are own-rooted, and grown on their Home Vineyard.  This wine has a deep clear mix of garnet and ruby colour.  Very ripe berry fruit nose, plus light touches of oak, ripe cherries, blackberries, nutmeg, chocolate and capsicum with swirling. Dry, medium-minus body soft with a lean mouthfeel.  Ripe berry fruit, light pepperiness, oak and capsicum. Red cherries are added with swirling.  Fine-grained light tannins.  Longer length. A touch of sweet spices on the finish. Quality. 4.5 stars5 stars

Vasse Felix Heytesbury Chardonnay 2021, Filius Cabernet Sauvignon 2020, Cabernet Sauvignon 2021, and Tom Cullity 2019 wines
Vasse Felix Heytesbury Chardonnay 2021, Filius Cabernet Sauvignon 2020, Cabernet Sauvignon 2021, and Tom Cullity 2019 wines

Where Can I Buy These Wines?

These wines are not available at BC Liquor stores.  You will need to visit a private wine store. The Vasse Felix Felius Chardonnay 2022 and Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon 2021 are available at Marquis Wine Cellars.  The Vasse Felix Tom Cullity 2019 is available at select Everything Wine stores.

Thank you to Vasse Felix’s winemaker Virginia Willcock for spending two hours telling us about their Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon wines. There is so much you can learn about a winery’s wines when you have the winemaker giving you the background details of the vineyard, grapes, clones, and winemaking methods.  Thank you to Pacific Wines & Spirits for inviting me to attend this seminar.

Author: mywinepal
Drink Good Wine. That is my motto and I really want to help you drink good wine. What is good wine? That can be a different thing for each people. Food also loves wine so I also cover food and wine pairings, restaurant reviews, and world travel. Enjoy life with me. MyWinePal was started by Karl Kliparchuk, WSET. I spent many years with the South World Wine Society as the President and then cellar master. I love to travel around the world, visiting wine regions and sharing my passion for food & wine with you. Come live vicariously through me, and enjoy all my recommended wines.