Catching up with Vasse Felix’s 2011 Chardonnays & Virginia Willcock, Gourmet Traveller Winemaker of the Year 2012

Just before I headed off to South Africa, I caught up with Margaret River winemaker Virginia Willcock of Vasse Felix. Interviewing her for winesearcher.com’s Q & A (published here), I asked Willcock about her best achievement to date. Had I asked her a week later, when she’d scooped Australia’s most prestigious winemaking accolade, the Gourmet Traveller Winemaker of the Year, no doubt she’d have answered differently!

Still, her winesearcher.com answer revolved around her Chardonnays and, in the words of Peter Forrestal, Chair of the judging panel,“[I]t was that jaw-dropping complexity, awe-inspiring depth and persistence of flavour, and the fascinating modernity of the 2010 Vasse Felix Heytesbury Chardonnay that did it.” Click here for Forrestal’s profile of the worthy winner.

Readers will know from these pages that modern Australian Chardonnay is 10,000 leagues removed from the peaches and cream stereo-type of old. These days, it’s about select sites, picked earlier and valued not just for their fruit, but the natural yeasts which come with them. For this, the so-called winemaker’s grape, it’s the funk, a vineyard driven savouriness, not just the oak, that marks out the wine and, using the highest solids in Margaret River, Willcock certainly makes it funky.

Here are my notes on the latest 2011 Chardonnays (which are fairly widely stocked by, among others, Slurp, Auswinesonline, Noel Young Wines, Wine Direct):

Vasse Felix Chardonnay 2011 (Margaret River)

Harvested in February 2011, naturally fermented and aged for 9.5 months in French oak (29% new, 71% 1-2 year old).  A taut, cashew-nuanced nose reveals smoky oak and lemon oil beneath which is a lipsmacking and intense savoury kick of preserved lemons and firm just ripe conference pears, streaked with limey acidity. A long, tight finish has a salty edge and sour dough tang. There’s a roast hazelnut sweetness too. This is quite a shift in gears from previous vintages I have tasted and showed better – more of apiece – on day two, when its layers seemingly fell into place.  I’d recommend decanting it.  12.5%

Vasse Felix Heytesbury Chardonnay 2011 (Margaret River)

The 2010 Heytesbury, an epic example of modern Australian Chardonnay, bagged no less than 11 trophies on the Australian wine show circuit.  The 2011 is no less compelling, shoehorning, as it does, Margaret River’s intensely concentrated fruit and citric backbone into an ever so-tightly framed package.  On the nose it shows lemon powder puff, kaffir lime and cedary vanillin oak which follow through on a palate whose steely charge of grapefruity acidity fair whisks you off you feet.  Along the journey, fleshier notes of creamy custard apple and white peach tantalise though, save for traces of dried honey, the long finish has a Chabliseque bone dry austerity, even on day two. Most definitely a wine to squirrel away for a couple of years &, no doubt, enjoy over several years, maybe more. As they say, the face of modern Australian Chardonnay.

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