The flagship wines of Western Australia’s Vasse Felix – Tom Cullity and Heytesbury – offer exceptional value for money and quality when set alongside comparable wines from the Old World, argues Roger Jones. Our Australian wine expert and retired Michelin star chef met up with Vasse Felix’s chief winemaker, Virginia Willcock to put the wines to the test, tasting the first ever vintage of Tom Cullity, sampling Heytesbury back to 2013 and comparing both wines with verticals of the Vasse Felix Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.
“Key too to Heytesbury and Tom Cullity is that these wines evolve in a decade as opposed to decades,” writes Jones.
Dr Thomas Brendan Cullity, founded Vasse Felix in 1967, where he first planted vines; two acres of Cabernet, half an acre each of Malbec and Shraz, and four acres of Riesling, more Cabernet soon followed. These are on the Home Vineyard and make up numerous blocks, with the original cuttings sourced by Cullity from the WA Department of Agriculture, known as the Houghton Clones, from the legendary winemaker Jack Mann.
After a disastrous first vintage in 1971, Riesling was the highlight in 1972, but it was the Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon 1973 that elevated this founding Margaret River vineyard, winning Gold at the Perth Wine Show.
The estate was purchased by the Gregg Family in 1984, David Gregg had been the winemaker there since 1973, with the current owners the Holmes a Court family buying the property in 1987, now under the solid stewardship of Paul Holmes a Court.
Tasting a vertical of Heytesbury Chardonnay alongside Vasse Felix Chardonnay
Next to the Heytesbury flight we also looked at some Vasse Felix Chardonnay (2018-20). The first Heytesbury Chardonnay was made in 1997, which followed the experimental Reserve Chardonnay launched in 1996. There is also now a Filius Chardonnay as well as the Vasse Felix Chardonnay.
Vasse Felix Chardonnay 2020
Bright clean and focused, soft and gentle mid-palate, citrus, pineapple essence, pure and sweet-fruited, gentle and impressive on the finish. Fine -boned structure, quite exceptional.
Vasse Felix Chardonnay 2019
Love the perfumed floral nose with buttercups and white nuts, great purity with focus and grip, white and rich stone fruit, nectarines to the fore, orange blossom custard.
Vasse Felix Chardonnay 2018
Restrained on first taste, pink grapefruit, pure and precise, lime citrus, elegant floral, this has aged well and the balance is all elegance and refinement. As it evolved this wine grew in stature, and likened itself to a ‘baby’ Heytesbury.
Heytesbury Chardonnay 2021
Flinty and sea fresh herbs evolve on nose with a touch of citrus peel. Fruity, lime, gripping and seductive, delicate pineapple essence with white cob nuts, this is young and full of joyous restrained fruit. Perfect balance.
Heytesbury Chardonnay 2020
Focused, with lemon curd, white, peeled stone fruit; bright, fresh tantalising citrus acidity, gun flint, fresh and delicate with a lingering, bright finish. Pink grapefruit gives it a rush of both fruit and freshness, and that perfect ‘al dente’ feel that Virginia Willcock is after.
Heytesbury Chardonnay 2019
Wow what a stunning wine! Matchstick, pink grapefruit, the purity is perfect, textures sublime with delicate, peeled pear william, white nectarine – citrus acidity dances on the palate giving it a star struck appeal.
Heytesbury Chardonnay 2018
Fresh, clean, citrus acidity, sweet delicate pineapple and cashews, lemon sponge biscuits, refined elegance, pure and evolving perfectly. As it evolves the Heytesbury is all about delicacy, refinement and clean purity.
Heytesbury Chardonnay 2017
Creamy and nutty (green pistachio), different to the norm, a cool vintage, ripe stone fruit, quite funky.
Heytesbury Chardonnay 2016
Brioche, pineapple and nuts are the first aromas out of the glass; on the palate the wine balances and evolves beautifully – restrained and pure on the mid-palate, silky smooth and elegant; peeled, delicate white stone fruit, layered, the purity is quite sublime. Drinking well now but will continue to evolve perfectly.
Heytesbury Chardonnay 2015
Quince, white nuts, refined stone fruit, seamless, so easy to drink and admire, great to see the balance of depth and purity working together. There is a Meursault similarity to this with some firecracker, flinty background giving it maturity, and silky char-grilled pineapple nuance, but underlined by acidity of the GinGin clone to keep it focused and fresh.
Heytesbury Chardonnay 2014
Clean and focussed, gentle and pure, pretty seamless, has all the attributes balanced perfectly. Gentle layers of very fine fruit, coated with a white nutty backbone, flint, mineral, and oozes class.
Heytesbury Chardonnay 2013
Matchstick, flinty, textured, layers of complexity, refined elegant stone fruit, lemon curd, refined brioche nose, waxy, citrus hits, classic New World Chardonnay at its best.
The Tom Cullity and Vasse Felix Cabernet vertical tasting
Tom Cullity is the pinnacle of Vasse Felix’s red wine production and in 2017 the first vintage, 2013, was released to mark Tom Cullity’s 50th anniversary from when he first planted grapes in Margaret River. The Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec for this flagship wine are sourced from the original Home Vineyard. Prior to the Tom Cullity release there was a Heytesbury Cabernet, which was sourced from a wider area of the estate, but the aim was to raise the bar and make the very best Cabernet under the name Tom Cullity, now sourcing only from the original clone. As with the Chardonnay there are now three tiers: Tom Cullity, Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon (which also includes Malbec) and Filius Cabernet Sauvignon (again with Malbec).
Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon 2019
Bright and fresh with clean acidity; notes of cassis, loganberries, olives, cedar and gentle spice. I always love these Vasse Felix Cabs that deliver such great value especially if you age them – give this 10 years and you have a bargain Cabernet.
Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon 2008
Fruit filled, excellent, ripe blue berries, cassis, cedar, blackcurrant, mouth filling with a luscious, silky, clean mid-palate, fresh bright focus on the finish.
Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon 1985
My notes say umami, purity, focused and succulent; the wine has notes of tobacco, cedar, lamb fat, bilberries. What a joy! quite stunning at this age, uplifted by the ‘duck and damson’ dish it was paired with. A rare and wonderful treat.
Tom Cullity 2018
Gentle perfume, elegance, delicate spice, black fruit, umami, seaweed, bright berries lift the flavour profile from itsdeep concentration as it slumbers. Virginia Willcock calls it her dream Cabernet and, with a drinking window starting in 2033 this will become one of Australia’s great Cabs, just outstanding. 78% Cab. Sauv. 17.5% Malbec 4.5% Petit Verdot
Tom Cullity 2013
Meaty perfume of ox blood and offal, then plums, damsons and forest floor. In the mouth the wine has truffles and orange rind, wild thyme, creamy vanilla with violets and berries on the mid-palate. Hoisin sauce and crispy duck, bonfire, perfectly balanced with ripe cherries, lingering, juicy, perfect Cab. This is rich, textured with perfect refinement, still needs time but an outstanding wine even if you want to dive in now for a glass or two.
An exceptional tasting and audience with Virginia Willcock, who adds fun to a hugely educated wine brain, always encouraging and a brilliant winemaker and speaker. Dinner was rather good too, with perfectly matched michelin star food by William Drabble at Seven Park Place. I would highlight the quality of the wines from the stable door to the front door from Vasse Felix, its Filius range offers an exceptional value insight into its top tiers. Both white and red wines excelled here which confirms the faith Paul Holmes a Court has put into Vasse Felix with its investment, and also the promotion given by Western Australia Wine, which is immense.
As value for money and quality gets more important in these changing times, it is important to remember that the Heytesbury and Tom Cullity flagship wines offer incredible quality and value when they are placed next to similar wines from the Old World, and key too is that they evolve in a decade as opposed to decades.