Ex Michelin-starred chef and Australian wine expert Roger Jones tastes and rates Tom Cullity 2017 – the new premium Cabernet Sauvignon from Vasse Felix that critics are saying is the best vintage yet – alongside the four previous vintages, including the inaugural 2013 vintage that was released on the winery’s 50th anniversary. Jones also gets up close and personal with Vasse Felix owner Paul Holmes à Court and chief winemaker Virginia Willcock to discover the history of this wine and why it works so well with black truffles.
“It is interesting that Virginia Willcock said that the Tom Cullity should be drunk whilst matched with truffles, which brings out the best in the wine,” writes Jones.
The Tom Cullity descends from the original plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec vines, planted by Dr Thomas Brendan Cullity in 1967, and represents in the words of this Margaret River-based winery “the pinnacle of Vasse Felix”.
Prior to The Tom Cullity, the top red was the Heytesbury, which was made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petit Verdot but sourced from a wider area of the estate as opposed to the original home vineyard that the Tom Cullity is sourced from, production is of course much smaller (half) and the quality is pretty spectacular. Vasse Felix continues to produce a Heytesbury but only in Chardonnay.
It took 10 years to evolve the Tom Cullity prior to the first release in 2017 of the 2013 vintage, sadly Tom never tried the final production, although both Paul and Virginia spoke in length to him about his vision after Paul originally approached Tom in 2007 with the idea of making a premium wine under the Tom Cullity name. Tom had kept diaries giving concise details of his vines and why he chose certain areas for his plantings of red grapes; incidentally Tom never planted Chardonnay, that was Paul’s intervention.
Both the Cabernet and the Malbec have huge importance in making this wine, these grape varieties having arrived in Western Australia in 1854; funnily enough this was also the year Malbec first made its appearance in South America.
Paul Holmes à Court was quite forceful in saying that he believed that Margaret River would become the finest region for Cabernet production in the world, working together with other winemakers in the region to produce the ‘perfect’ Cabernet. Important in Paul’s understanding is that he believes Margaret River is not affected by climate change – the forest, the ocean and the pure environment makes this a very special place. “We don’t make Cabernet like Bordeaux, we have forged our own path and style, everything is about the land, it is unique, remote and distinct,” he says.
He sees it as his mission to take the Margaret River Cabernet success story to the world, and help it fulfill its true potential. And certainly with the time, effort and thorough planning that has gone into the production of Tom Cullity I see no reason why this world class Cabernet does not help to achieve the stature that Margaret River seeks, and in my mind has been for over a two decades.
So how were the wines tasting?
Vasse Felix Tom Cullity 2017
Gently perfumed with an air of elegance, fresh and youthful, evolves with a meaty, savoury umami backbone, with a hint of nori seaweed balanced with black fruit and a touch of liquorice/tobacco – long silky length, bright loganberries and violets lifting it and giving a lovely breath of fresh air.
Vasse Felix Tom Cullity 2016
Perfume of red berries and violets, then black fruits, leather and spice, meaty offal, ceps and truffles, chocolate and black forest gateaux. The freshness comes from a combination of wild berries giving it a focus and lift.
Vasse Felix Tom Cullity 2015
Bilberries, inky, rich and textured, plums, damsons, red cherries. Sweet lamb cutlets with sweet juicy fat, then evolves with a dried mushroom and gentle truffled background. Redcurrants and cranberries dance on the palate giving it a beautiful textural balance.
Vasse Felix Tom Cullity 2014
Rich red fruit, cranberries and cherries, bright and focused, there is a lovely freshness to this, it has power and intensity, balanced by the fresh ocean breeze. There is a background of stone, earthiness from mushrooms and delicate truffles, cedar but, above all, it is pretty seamless and perfect.
Vasse Felix Tom Cullity 2013
Meaty perfume, ox blood and offal, plums, damsons and forest floor. Truffles and orange rind, wild thyme, creamy vanilla with violets and berries on the mid-palate. Hoisin sauce and crispy duck comes to mind, a touch of bonfire but perfectly balanced with ripe cherries, giving a lingering juicy and perfect Cabernet.
Truffles and Tom Cullity
You may have noticed the truffle description a few times in my tasting notes; it is interesting Virginia said that the Tom Cullity should be drunk whilst matched with truffles, which brings out the best in the wine.
Just up the road from Vasse Felix is where you will find possibly the world’s finest black truffles. Australian truffles are relatively new, the first trees were planted in the early 1990s, the first truffle was discovered in 1999 and commercial production began around 2005. The industry is now booming and Australia is thought to have recently overtaken France to become the world’s third biggest truffle producer (after Spain and Italy).
Australian truffles, which are exported across the Globe, come from the area around the town of Manjimup; interestingly in the UK nearly every Michelin star chef uses these truffles brought in by Wiltshire Truffles.
There is something magical about the rich Karri loam soil in this region which, when combined with farming skill and knowledge, produces truffles of astonishing quality. The Australian winter truffle season exactly mirrors the season in Europe, with fresh truffles available during June, July and August.
We finished the tasting with the classic Chardonnay from Vasse Felix, their top label, Heytesbury 2019. I have enjoyed this Chardonnay for many years, having been blown away by the 2010 many years ago which is still drinking perfectly.
Vasse Felix Heytesbury Chardonnay 2019
Pink grapefruit, matchstick and lemongrass evolve from the nose, there is tangerine and pink grapefruit and watermelon sorbet on the palate, beautiful tension, then there is that sea breeze encaptured in the palate, think oyster shells, seaweed. This is a wine to age to fulfill its great potential, an outstanding Chardonnay.
Although I have met Virginia many times this was the first time that I had met Paul, albeit on Zoom, and he brought the Vasse Felix story to life and not only showed his passion for Vasse Felix but for the whole of Margaret River and his ambition to continue to showcase this prestigious wine region to the world. A fascinating and brilliant masterclass that highlighted the importance of Margaret River to the future of Cabernet not only in Australia but across the globe.