Vasse Felix 50th anniversary launch: Tom Cullity Cabernet Malbec 2013

Virginia Willcock introduces Vasse Felix Tom Cullity 2013 – an evolution

This week I caught up with Virginia Willcock, Chief Winemaker at  Vasse Felix, Margaret River, since 2006. When she scooped Australia’s Gourmet Traveller Winemaker of the Year in 2012, Chairman of judges Peter Forrestal remarked, “[T]he judges loved the 2010 Heytesbury Chardonnay, watched its progress around the Australian wine show circuit, and noted its 11 trophies, including the Fine Wine Partners Trophy, which is effectively best show wine of the year.” However  Willcock’s top notch Chardonnays were not the siren call for me or my fellow tasters, Jancis Robinson MW, Steven Spurrier and Matthew Jukes.  Rather, we were there for the London launch of Tom Cullity, a new top tier example of Margaret River’s most emblematic wine – a Cabernet Sauvignon-focused Bordeaux blend.    

Its release came as no surprise.  When I interviewed Willcock in 2012 for Wine-searcher she told me, “the next 10 years are going to blow the world’s mind about Cabernet from Margaret River – it’s really exceptional.” Back then, we talked about vine maturity, ongoing trials and research about Cabernet clones and sub-regional differences, which Vasse Felix’s annual Margaret River Cabernet Tasting has helped put under the microscope.

A viticultural self-improvement programme

Referring to “a self-improvement programme viticulturally,” the winemaker estimates that her boss, owner Paul Holmes à Court, has spent “well in excess of AUS$10 million” expanding Vasse Felix’s vineyard holdings and executing a painstaking right varieties, right place re-structuring.  The so-called Home Vineyard in the Wilyabrup sub-region, where founder Tom Cullity is now acknowledged to have planted Margaret River’s first commercial vines (8 acres) in 1967, today extends to 44ha following the acquisition of the Gibraltar vineyard and Arlewood Estate’s Wilyabrup vineyard.  Further south in Karridale and Wallcliffe, vineyards have been acquired for Vasse Felix’s whites.  In a couple of years, when long term grower contracts expire, Willcock says Vasse Felix’s wines will be made solely from estate fruit.  Quite a shift since she started, when the estate vineyards supplied 60% of the fruit resource.

History & evolution

But it’s not all new, new, new.  In a not unfamiliar soul-searching story in Australia (and elsewhere),  there has been something of a resurrection of classic, medium-bodied reds.  Quintessential Cabernet one might say.  Which is fitting for new flagship Tom Cullity, which pays tribute to the estate’s beret-wearing, Peugeot-driving founder in Vasse Felix’s (and, it follows, Margaret River’s) 50th year.  Apparently, the Perth cardiologist Cardiologist developed his passion for wine drinking lots of European wines when he studied in London.  Though he had planted his first vines in Bunbury in 1966, Cullity was lured even further south by Dr John Gladstones’ seminal 1965 report highlighting Margaret River’s equable climate and similarity to Bordeaux in a good year.

Tom Cullity & the original Vasse Felix vineyard, Margaret River – photo credit Vasse Felix

When Cullity planted the original vineyard, he used those varieties which were then available – Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Shiraz and Riesling.  Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and, especially, Petit Verdot came along somewhat later. Reverting to a Cabernet Sauvignon/Malbec driven blend made from 100% Wilyabrup estate (the expanded Home Vineyard) vines, Willcock told us Tom Cullity 2013 “is the most significant wine I’ve made in my life.”  In the nicest possible sense, it doesn’t taste like that.  Meaning it’s an elegant wine, which feels neither over-thought nor over-worked. Happy in its own skin.  For Willcock, this intrinsic balance is located in the source (site, clone, age) of the vines and her shift to a more hands off winemaking approach, notably natural fermenting top reds and dispensing with the added tannins which, she says, “were very much part of the 90s.”  There is less new oak  and, for some years now, all French oak too.  Willcock points out, “it has taken a time to understand our vineyards.  Our natural assets – yeast and taninns…the berries are small…all the tannins are there, we don’t need to add them.” Rather she prefers to use more extended macerations.

From Heytesbury to Cullity

We tasted a vertical to put these changes in context.  On which note, I should add that Tom Cullity supersedes Heytesbury red.  It will no longer be made, prompting Spurrier to ask the question which was on all of our lips.  Why abandon this well known brand, which dates back to 1995?   Willcock explained that the project to make a wine in Tom Cullity’s name came about over a lunch she attended with Holmes à Court and Tom Cullity in 2007.  Remarkably, it was the first time that Cullity had returned to Vasse Felix since selling it to his winemaker, David Gregg, in 1984.  Holmes à Court was moved to mark Cullity’s legacy.

Still, at that stage, he was understandably reluctant to hive off the best Cabernet from Heytesbury. The first Tom Cullity candidate comprised an old vine Shiraz but, said Willcock, it seemed like “an insult” rather than the intended tribute, given Cabernet was so clearly the estate’s jewel in the crown. When Cullity died in 2008, the project went to sleep until 2012, when the Malbec’s quality persuaded Willcock to pull back from Petit Verdot and promote Malbec as the chief blending partner.  Given both quality and the fact that Vasse Felix’s original reds had been Cabernet Malbecs, this was the wine which persuaded Holmes à Court to drop Heystesbury.  It was duly labelled Tom Cullity.  However, Holmes à Court then realised that this wine did not fit his concept either, because it was not 100% estate fruit.  So in 2012, Vasse Felix released (the last) Heytesbury red.   And the rest you can guess.

As one might hope and expect from the price differential between Heytesbury (£45-50) and Tom Cullity (£95), this is not simply a re-badging exercise.  Tom Cullity 2013 is made from a sub-selection of the estate’s oldest Houghton clone and Malbec vines and a younger (1994) Cabernet parcel from the Arlewood vineyard which has the requisite flavour/structural profile. (Production was 40% down on Heytesbury).  Willcock describes this as “light and juicy, with a fine tannin profile, elegance and finesse” for the Cabernet (all Houghton clone) and “a plumpness and juiciness of fruit” for the Malbec.  (Fruit which would otherwise have made the cut for Heytesbury was effectively de-classified into Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon, which has become a slightly bigger wine in 2013 – notes below).

The grapes which did the math

Before we tasted the wines, noting that Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec form a significant part of Vasse Felix’s plantings, Willcock told us a bit more about the original source vines.  The so-called Houghton clone of Cabernet Sauvignon was planted at Vasse Felix (and the other pioneering Margaret River estates) and is pretty much confined to Western Australia. For Willcock, it has a great synergy with Margaret River’s terroir, as does Malbec. Cullity blended it with the Cabernet Sauvignon from the outset (in 1972).

The Houghton clone is believed to have come to Western Australia via South African cuttings from the Cape around 1836.  The state’s first plantings were in Swan Valley and it was first documented in 1895, when it was called “Petit Cabernet.” In the 1930s, Western Australia’s pioneering winemaker, Jack Mann, took cuttings from bush vines, planting a five hectare plot at Houghton winery (also in Swan Valley). Willcock said it was Cullity who then brought the clone to Margaret River.  At Vasse Felix, new Cabernet plantings are always a mass selection from the old vineyards.

The clone is distinctive because, she said, “we believe the Houghton clone is a lighter, more fragrant clone with a herbal nuance. The tannins are very soft, lighter than South Australian clones [125 & 126], with less vegetative characters.” Having lost ground in Margaret River both because a later wave of plantings focused on the more productive South Australian clones and, stylistically, because of the ‘more is more’ extractive trend of the 90s and noughties, she believes the region as a whole has swung “back to elegance, without losing the power of great Cabernet; it has been a beautiful journey to get back to the clone.”  Indeed, when I asked her about whether we might expect to hear more about Margaret River sub-regions, her take was, while we are going to hear more about individual sites and winemaking approaches, “everyone in Margaret River is more comfortable with a lighter, more elegant space.”  And now “everyone is going back to Houghton clone,” Willcock reported that work is underway to isolate best vines for propagation.  Apparently, South Australia-based Yalumba, who own Australia’s biggest private nursery, took cuttings around five years ago.

As for the Malbec, Willcock pointed out that, because it does not graft well onto US rootstock, it struggled for yield in Bordeaux and, when frost devastated Bordeaux’s Malbec plantings in 1955, Merlot was planted in preference.  At Vasse Felix, all the Malbec is on own roots.  Recalling her first vintage at Vasse Felix, she recalls that the Malbec wines gave her goosebumps.  Though she experimented with 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, then pushed Petit Verdot as the primary blending partner, she has come to see Malbec as something of a Vasse Felix signature.

Vertical tasting

Willcock showed us a wine from each decade, save the 1970s (of which there are only a handful of bottles).  The wines were made by three different winemakers.  David Gregg was Cullity’s winemaker from 1973 and continued to make the wines until 1992, during which period the ownership of the estate changed twice.  Gregg owned it between 1984 and 1987, when he sold Vasse Felix to the Holmes à Court family.  From 1992 until 2005, Clive Otto made the wines.  In 2006, Willcock was appointed by Paul Holmes à Court, who went on to buy out his family.

The wines were decanted shortly before we arrived.  The vintage notes and technical detail was supplied by Vasse Felix where available.

Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon 1985 (Margaret River)

It was a hot and dry vintage with some rain in March. An excellent vintage in Wilyabrup.  The 1985 was made by David Gregg and comprises a blend of 92% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Malbec.  It was aged in New French Nevers oak.  This is a beautiful wine, quite haunting, with a deep nose, perfumed with tobacco, dried herbs, cedar and, with time in glass, a hint of kelp.  These complexing notes follow through in the mouth, which retains a gentle sweetness to its still silky blackberry, plum and mulberry fruit.  Long, fine and elegant with gravel/ironstone undertones. Going back, classic Margaret River pot pourri/dried rose notes emerge and the mineral-sluiced, gravelly minerality is more marked.  Lovely. Tons of charm.  12.8%

Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon 1989 (Margaret River)

A cool, dry summer was followed by difficult spring conditions. Silver-eyes, parrots and wattle-birds plundered some vineyards. The wines are at the cooler end of the Cabernet aroma and flavour spectra. A vintage heading for greatness.  This wine, also made by Gregg, comprises 95% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Malbec.  As you might expect from a cooler year,the profile is drier and the tannins firmer.  It reveals classic blackcurrant fruit on the attack with earth, coffee/wattle seed and plum going through (doubtless I was influenced by the vintage reference to wattle-birds!).  Like the 1985, it is distinctly medium-bodied with a freshness and mineral- sluiced character.  Going back, it doesn’t hold its shape/fruit as well as the ’85, becoming markedly bloody, with a touch of ketchup. 12%

Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon 1992 (Margaret River)

An extremely fine vintage. Heavy rains during winter and early spring produced big canopies. However, a dry, hot January and February followed the growing season. Cool conditions with intermittent but light rain prevailed in March, ensuring even flavour development. The wines are extremely well balanced.  Another decade and another winemaker, Clive Otto.  This typically 90s shift towards a bolder style is a blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Merlot, 5% Malbec and 5% Shiraz.  Willcock hadn’t tasted this vintage before but observed that the 90s were a period when oak quality was an issue.  It is a deeper, opaque burgundy hue, with a blockier (for Willcock reductive) nose and burlier, spicy entry with coconut.  It seems fleshier, rounder through the mid-palate, though the finish is a little hard, especially going back, the wine feels pushed with a firm, hard citrus acidity.  Not the balance or corsetry of other vintages, which put me in mind of an observation Willcock had made before we tasted about Shiraz.  Willcock never included it in Heytsebury (which was a best barrel selection) “because I wanted the shape of the Cabernet and Cabernet [Bordeaux] blenders to be clear and Shiraz interferes with the shape of Cabernet blends.”  13.2%

Vasse Felix Heytesbury 1996 (Margaret River)

A warm and dry vintage with almost perfect ripening conditions during late summer and early autumn. The wines have great intensity of colour, brightness of fruit and ripe tannins.  The 1996 is a blend of 87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc.  It was aged for 18 months in new French & American oak.  This plush, heady wine very much feels like a best barrel selection.  It is a very deep hue, the nose awash with sweet cassis, cedar and gravel.  Though it has more overt sweetness than the other vintages we tasted it retains its regional stamp – Margaret River’s freshness and juiciness.  There is lovely detail and animation to the finish, with cedar and coconut perfume and a dancing, gravelly minerality and touch of blood (ironstone, not brett) to the finish, which mineral notes are more pronounced – positively incisive – going back.  It doesn’t have the elegance of my favourite wines (note how the TA is the lowest of these later vintages), but this is delicious – really enjoyable – with perfume and flesh, poise and minerality.  TA: 6.4 g/L, pH: 3.49, Residual Sugar: 0.3 g/L, Alc: 14.3%

Vasse Felix Heytesbury 2008 (Margaret River)

Two cold springs in 2007 and 2008 contributed to low yields in 2009 and the harvest was relatively early due to fruit load. Summer was moderate and fine conditions remained throughout harvest. These conditions produced superbly ripe and balanced fruit with immense concentration.  Observing that this wine was during “my exciteable Petit Verdot days,” the 2008 is a blend of  77% Cabernet Sauvignon,  13% Petit Verdot, 10% Malbec.  It was aged for 18 months in French oak (74% new, 26% 1-3 year old).    Petit Verdot ‘s trademark seasoning of spiciness, violets and blue fruit leaps out on nose and engaging palate.  Willcock likes the variety for this personality, but also its “long, deep tannin structure which accentuates Cabernet’s structure.” It’s the first vintage where I picked up a little mintiness too ( a menthol character, usually eucalpytus is typical in Margaret River, which is studded with Marri trees, a type of eucalytus). This is a finely wrought wine, the tannins super fine-grained, the blackcurrant well-honed, making for a svelte but bright, very youthful palate.  Deep and inky too, the tannins – dynamic – engage you more and more as you go through, mouth-coating but blotting paper fine (and fruit absorbing) on a perfumed finish, which strikes me as drier, tighter than its predecessors, although it is of course significantly younger.  Very good indeed if arguably (and I’m being a bit harsh because I like the perfume/tannins too) a touch shrill on the Petit Verdot.  They might just be that hair out of place, though the 2010 had more and it wasn’t so noticeable….TA: 6.97 g/L, pH: 3.36, Residual Sugar: 0.47 g/L, Alc: 14.5%

Vasse Felix Heytesbury 2010 (Margaret River)

Moderate Spring conditions in 2009 allowed for better flowering and fruit set than experienced in the previous year. High temperatures in late January/February saw rapid ripening for whites. Harvest timing was critical and some incredible flavours and natural acid were captured. Mild conditions in early Autumn allowed for an extended ripening period for reds, which was ideal. Classic Cabernet Sauvignon.  The 2010 is a blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Petit Verdot, 10% Malbec. It was aged for 18 months in French oak (77% new, 23% 1-4 year old).  I liked this vintage very much.  It is a deep purple, with mint and polished, super-bright, fresh blackcurrant on a deeply scented nose.  The blackcurrant rises on the palate, supported by a raft of fine but plentiful fine tannins, which themselves start to build through the finish.  Like the 2008, there is that dynamic, fruit absorbing blotting paper quality to the tannins which lends some measure to the intense, over-leaping concentration of fruit at its core.  As does, going back, this wine’s salty, kelp nuances and striking gravelly minerality.  There’s a touch of leesy, savoury texture/flavour too, a quality which Willcock reckons has become much more pronounced in the 2012 top wines which, following trials, are now all naturally fermented.  It makes for wines which she describes as “so much more relaxed and wholesome, with a bit more salt.” TA: 6.9 g/L, pH: 3.45, Residual Sugar: 0.53 g/L, Alc: 14.5%

Vasse Felix Heytesbury 2012 (Margaret River)

Good finishing winter rains with moderate spring conditions resulted in excellent canopy health. The summer ripening period was warm and dry with some above average heat in late January prompting an early start to harvest. The weather tempered in early February and the fruit ripening slowed to a more typical pattern resulting in a long and steady vintage. Continuous fine weather remained through to mid-April when harvest was completed for reds.  The 2012 is a blend of 77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Malbec, 7% Petit Verdot. It was aged for 18 months in French oak (54% new, 46% 1-4 year old).   So Malbec shifting into second place, significantly less new oak and natural ferment distinguish this wine from Willcock’s earlier Heytesburys.  And this is the wine that was originally slated for Tom Cullity (see above).  The Petit Verdot is still here – a purple/violet presence but the whole is more tempered in this very finely crafted wine.  In fact, so finely crafted that one might describe it as seamless.  Or, as Willcock puts it, relaxed.  It certainly strikes a different pose.  Less assertive/racy on the attack, more firmly located on the back palate.  It is more textural, less overtly fruity, a touch more savoury, with, bay leaf, cedar, sage (sage leaf perfume and texture) to its polished blackcurrant fruit. Though it is more firmly located on the back palate, this is not to say it is heavy. Quite the contrary.  Willcock nails it when she observes of the old blocks that they bring “tannins through the mid palate which have a plushness but are levitated.”  TA: 6.9 g/L, pH: 3.38 Residual Sugar: 0.67 g/L, Alc: 14.5%

Vasse Felix Tom Cullity 2013 (Margaret River)

Moderate spring temperatures were accompanied by low solar radiation and cool soil conditions contributed to slower vine growth and increased disease pressure. Thankfully, a consistently warm and dry summer ensured clean canopies and another early start to the white harvest. Rapidly cooling weather in March allowed extended ripening time for the reds and more traditional harvest timing through late March into April.  Tom Cullity 2013 is a blend of 76% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Malbec, 4% Petit Verdot. It was aged for 18 months in French oak (61% new, 39% 1-4 year old).  The nose is deep with contrasting but delicate peppermint and savoury nuances which follow through on the palate.  Like the 2012, this wine is unhurried compared to the earlier vintages from Willcock.  It almost starts taking off on the mid-palate through to back palate, making for a concurve shape, which builds slowly but confidently in the mouth, one senses from a stong base.   Like the earlier vintages, it has lovely freshness, juiciness and persistence, with savoury sage, anise and dark chocolate nuances.  There is a leesy lithe texture to the finish, yet it remains juicy, nimble even, with that levity and plushness which is striking in the 2012 and 2013 wild fermented vintages.  Going back, I find balsamic, cedar and blueberry notes; the tannins very textural still.  The minerality – an ironstone tang – has become more pronounced.  Long, layered, restrained, yet highly involving.  Excellent and, as Willcock points out, a wine so relaxed that you can drink it now, but doubtless it will age very well too, even if not as highly strung as say the 2008.  RRP – £95.00   TA: 6.9 g/L, pH: 3.45 Residual Sugar: 0.55 g/L, Alc: 14.5%

Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 (Margaret River)

Vasse Felix Cabernet 2013, which benefited from fruit which otherwise would have gone into Heytesbury, comprises 92% Cabernet Sauvignon,  7% Malbec, 1% Petit Verdot & Merlot.  Merlot barely features here or in earlier vintages.  Nor does Cabernet Franc. But Willcock believes that Margaret River has clonal issues with both and these earlier ripening grapes (compared with Cabernet Sauvinon, Malbec and Petit Verdot) ripen a little too fast in the region’s sunshine, so “the tannins are not quite in that precise world of Cabernet”, nor  do they serve as “a structure builder,” like Petit Verdot.   That said, she adds, in a cooler year (like 2017), they can be useful.  Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 was aged for 18 months in 100% French oak (46% new, 54% 1-4 year old).  It is a deep purple hue, with a bouncier (blackcurrant) fruit profile than the Tom Cullity and firmer acid backbone.  There’s a touch of peppermint and liquorice going through.  A dash of cedar oak – lovely perfume.  The finish is gravelly, quite dry, with fine, young, papery tannins supporting its intense core of fresh black currant. Very good.  Bright and polished.  £26.99 at Selfridges

If you enjoyed this vertical tasting, click here for my notes on a 40th Anniversary vertical tasting of Cullen Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot/Diana Madeline (1981-2010).








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