An Interview with Vasse Felix's Paul Holmes à Court
Only 3% of Australian wine is produced in the Margaret River, however approximately 20% of the wine classified as Premium Wine produced in Australia comes from the Margaret, so it is certainly fair to say this region is pretty high up there with production of ‘quality’.
Where is Margaret River you ask? Situated between Cape Natuarliste and Cape Leeuwin on the west coast of Australia, the Margaret, as it is commonly referred to by the locals, is the most isolated wine region in the world and is totally unique because it is slightly cooler than the wine regions on the east coast of Australia.
The climate in the Margaret River is considered mild with a strong Mediterranean influence. The summer temperatures during the day are warm to hot with a cooling sea-breeze in the afternoon and the winters have moderate to high rainfall. The absence of extreme summer or winter temperatures make the Margaret River an ideal location for growing premium grapes.
The Margaret River soil types are predominantly red gravelly and sandy loam soils in the north of the region whereas as you move further south we start to see the influence of limestone become more evident. The most widely planted Chardonnay clone is Gin Gin which is similar to the Mendoza clone with it’s hen and chicken fruiting habit. The clone nerds among us can read more about the Gin Gin clone in Jancis Robinson’s free article here.
After reading research on identifying potential cool climate wine regions in Western Australia during the 1950’s from UC Davis Professor Harold Olmo and Bill Jamieson of WA Agriculture Department and their subsequent identification of Great Southern (Mount Barker) John Gladstone identified Margaret River as a suitable region.
In the 1960’s Tom Cullity was on the search for land with the potential to produce premium vineyards in Western Australia. Following John Gladstone’s findings about the Margaret River’s suitability Tom made his decision and planted the first vines in the region in 1967.
There are many things that make Vasse Felix the special place it is: the incredible environment and climate of Margaret River, their secure family ownership, their treasured heritage, and their priceless vineyards. But above all, it's the dedication of the entire team to continue Dr Cullity's original aim for Vasse Felix: "to make the best possible wine".
With ancient earth, tall skies and pristine waters, Margaret River is isolated excellence and is one of the few places in the world where Cabernet Sauvignon truly feels at home outside of its native Bordeaux. Vasse Felix also has had a huge amount of success with Chardonnay, Shiraz, Sauvignon and Semillon.
Vasse Felix has been practising organics for the last 3 years with the objective of building and sustaining healthy soil biology and improving the overall environmental health of the vineyards. Vasse Felix has an environmental program that is committed to using natural fertilisers for topsoil enrichment, weed control by allowing sheep and livestock to graze in the vineyards (in the winter when there are no sweet grapes for the sheep to eat!) and sourcing sustainable water sources.
What are the biggest changes you’ve noticed in Margaret River over the last decade?
A couple of things come to mind and partly because I’m seeing it at Vasse Felix, and cause I’m seeing it amongst the other leading producers there, that would be 1. That there is a greater focus and concentration on the lead varietals of Cabernet and Chardonnay. Margaret River is a region that can do just about anything well, but in recent times Margaret River said let’s concentrate our efforts around what we can do as well as anywhere else in the world, or in our particular style better than anywhere else, and making Cabernet and Chardonnay the focus has elevated the quality across the board. And the second thing I’d say is the explosion in organic viticulture. The region is naturally suited to organics. We’ve got a very Mediterranean climate, it’s very sunny, the fresh air the breeze, and it’s relatively easy to grow organically in the Margaret. It went from 1 or 2 organic wineries, now there’s 10, and my prediction for the Margaret River is that in 5 years it will be hard to find someone who isn’t growing grapes organically.
Outside of Margaret River, is there a wine region in Australia that’s making all the right moves?
We only operate in Margaret River, and we solely focus in Margaret River but when were in the trade or look around at who else does a good job, I’d have to say that Tasmania looks fantastic. They seem to be quite unified in terms of direction, their understanding about the cool climate, they have a sparkling thing that is going really well. They have really great Pinot Noir as well, some real exciting pinots. And some Chardonnay too, very different in style from ours but Tassie is pretty hot right now. Adelaide hills, Mornington is quite good from a hospitality point of view. They’re all areas that are a bit on the cool side, that’s what we’re looking at, regions cool like that.
Is there a wine that we simply must try in your collection?
If the house was burning down and I only had time to run in and grab one wine, it would be the Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon. The Premier Cabernet, the gold cap. It’s the first red wine we ever made, it’s the first red wine every produced in Margaret River and what I’ve found is that if that wine is really good at Vasse Felix, and selling well then everything else is good. So if the Cabernet is good, the Chardonnay is good. If the Premier Cabernet is good, the Tom Cullity is good, if the Premier Cabernet is good, the Filius Cabernet is good, if it's right, just about everything else takes care of itself. We put that much more investment into the Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon than we do with any other, if i had to put a wine up to be judged, that’s the wine I would put up.
What is your wine moment, if you had one, or is there a wine you’ve tried recently that has blown your socks off?
It’s a hard question because I’ve got a curiosity that keeps me moving forward, I am more drawn to my next wine more than I am compelled to one in my past. Bit of a cop out answer, but I’m intrigued by where Margaret River is going and the wine that Margaret River is producing, because I genuinely believe it is one of the truly great wine regions in the world. The community there, the winemaking spirit, the winemakers, everyone, there’s a real energy, excitement and momentum and the wines are just flying ahead, it’s really an exciting thing to be part of.
What is the wine to look out for then from Margaret River?
The wines that are coming from there, are going to be some interesting single block Cabernet, that are on old vines, from the Wilyabrup area, that are very fine and delicate and subtle and not Cabernet like and it’s gonna be great.
Very direct, and vibrant high acid, an appealing youthful example.
Fermented with solids and is picked early enabling this with to retain herbal-sage like edge. 9 months in oak before release, it has a fine tannin structure and is an excellent example of refreshing style of Chardonnay
Predominantly gin gin clone (similar to mendoza) and a clone we see dominate WA. Slightly reductive nose on this beauty but soft peach-like fruits prevail, with a good amount of savoury-ness and weight on the palate.
100% gin gin clone (very similar to the Mendoza clone) this wine is founded on elegance and purity of fruit. Seductive fruits, with slight flintiness that runs parallel through the wines. Breadth and power enhanced with an epiphany of stone fruit
Bright abundant cabernet-like characters, this blend is enhanced with a little malbec (7-9%)
Pungent yet dark and a softness captivates the palate and it finished with bright dark fruits.
Mid weight on the palate - seductive - soft red fruit sneaking in balanced with oak integration and wonderful tannin structure and brightness. (horton clone) Paul quote; “If there was a fire at the winery, and I could grab one wine, this would be it"
Only 900 cases produced of this beauty, and one of the more pricey examples in the collection, but hey - we get it! Complex aromas of cranberries, plums, blackberries, all entwined seamlessly, there are hints of savoury characters pushing through, forest floor, mushroomy nuances and delicate mint that harmoniously ties this all together with synchronicity and poise.