Calgary Wine Life: Vasse Felix Winemaker’s Dinner @ The Lake House

16 07 2015

Let’s play word association.  I say:  “Australian wine”.  You immediately think — ?  You are probably lying if you don’t say “Shiraz”, and with that comes immediate images of big, lush, ripe, fruity, alcoholic reds, bursting with flavour and spice if lacking slightly in nuance.  The wine scene in Aus is certainly becoming more varied and complex as the years go on, but consumer memory changes slowly and initial impressions run deep.  That’s why one of the first instructions that Virginia Willcock, esteemed winemaker at southwestern Australia’s Vasse Felix winery, gave us about her wines was:  “Don’t call them Australian wines.  They’re not.”  At least not in the preconceived way we all think about them.

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Vasse Felix is located in the Margaret River region, a 3 hour drive south of Perth, which is a city surrounded by, well, nothing.  Willcock calls it “the most isolated wine region in the world”, but what it lacks in proximity it makes up for in a much cooler, more temperate, maritime climate than the rest of the country, a growing season that is often compared to that in Bordeaux, and resulting wines that exhibit finesse, elegance and character, wholly unlike the fruit monsters on which Australia made its international name.  Vasse Felix is the first wine estate founded in Margaret River, established in 1967, and it produced the area’s first Cabernet Sauvignon in 1972.  It continues to specialize in Cabernet, and also in Chardonnay, both classic Margaret River varietals, and it does not produce any other types of wines.  As Willcock says, they elected to be the master of a couple trades instead of a jack of all of them (a lesson that many other New World wineries could be well served in learning).

Virginia Willcock, Vasse Felix winemaker.

Virginia Willcock, Vasse Felix winemaker.

I will now lay bare my built-in bias.  My eldest son is named Felix, and since he arrived on the scene I have been a massive Vasse Felix fan, even moreso now that he recognizes his name on the label.  The winery’s unique name actually comes from a historical tale about the exploration and mapping of the southwestern Australian coast.  One of the helmsmen from the French vessel on this journey of discovery, Thomas Vasse, fell overboard in a massive storm and was initially thought to have drowned, but rumours later surfaced about his possible survival, which was never verified.  As an optimistic nod to Vasse’s potential fate and a wish for similar good fortune for the winery, its founders named it Vasse Felix, which translates to “happy/lucky Vasse”.  We named our Felix with equally happy thoughts in mind.

Virginia Willcock was in Calgary earlier in the week for a sold-out winemaker’s dinner at The Lake House in Bonavista, where we were fortunate enough to taste through the three tiers of Chardonnay and Cabernet that Vasse Felix produces, aided by an incredible four-course meal designed to accentuate the hierarchy of wines.  My (briefly scribbled) notes on each of Virginia’s offerings are below, in the order in which we tasted them:

 

2014 Vasse Felix Filius Chardonnay ($32)

FiliusChard“Filius” means “son of”, and this line of wines is the baby of the family, an introduction to Margaret River Chardonnay.  Willcock made a Burgundian analogy (while making it clear that neither she nor the region were actively seeking to emulate Burgundy) and described the Filius as her village-level wine, built to express regional and varietal characteristics in a friendly, approachable style.  This wine met all of those goals, showcasing a leaner, icy, racy version of Chardonnay on a frame of charred, almost crispy oak.  The smoky hickory aromas of the oak meshed nicely with the lemon/lime and Granny Smith apple fruit flavours, lent some complexity by a slightly yeasty, autolytic note likely derived from lees aging.  The Filius was tight, focused, medium-bodied and not at all round or overly powerful — a welcoming, versatile Chardonnay.

88-89 points

 

2013 Vasse Felix Filius Cabernet Merlot ($32)

FiliusCabThe red side of the Filius equation is stated to be a Cabernet Merlot on the label but has a couple of secret ingredients up its sleeve:  it’s in fact 57% Cab, 36% Merlot, 5% Malbec and 2% Petit Verdot, all Bordeaux varietals in a classic blend.  The alcohol level on the red Filius was a full two degrees higher than the white, 14.5% vs. 12.5%, a distinction that generally held throughout each level of Vasse Felix wines.  The Cab Merlot was a deep, lush purple in colour and had a magnetic bubble gum fruit nose reminiscent of sticking your face into a large bag of cherry Nibs (or, as my tasting companion suggested, blackcurrant Wine Gums).  But it was far from a fruit bomb on the palate, displaying an equal mix of black fruit, cinnamon, pepper and menthol and remaining quite light on its feet.  The tannins were surprisingly smooth and minimal for a big red grape blend from a cooler climate region, making the red Filius almost dangerously pleasant and easy to drink.  To the extent that you can actually make an aperitif wine out of a Cab/Merlot blend, this is it.

87-88 points

 

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2013 Vasse Felix Chardonnay ($42)

VFChardThe next level of wines above the Filius were simply named after the winery itself and were described by Willcock as akin to her Premier Crus:  special selections of high quality fruit from particular vineyard parcels.  The VF Chardonnay was like an amplified version of the Filius, with the volume on 7 instead of 3:  bigger, sharper aromatics, more potent flavours, but the exact same winemaking approach and a similar flavour profile.  The fruit remained in that apple/pear/citrus range but increased in richness and lushness, from lemon to lemon meringue, the oak notes smoothed out to creme brûlée and vanilla bean, and new complexities were introduced, mineral edges, an almond nuttiness and a touch of brine, all kept on a razor’s edge by slicing acidity and building to a sizzling finish.  The Filius is a very strong base wine, but tasting this side by side with it almost made it disappear.  A clear step up, and a huge value for the price.

91-92 points

 

2012 Vasse Felix Heytesbury Chardonnay ($80)

HeytesburyChardWe saved the top two reds for last at dinner, which meant an incredible opportunity to taste Vasse Felix’s two best Chardonnays back to back.  While Willcock called the Heytesbury tier of bottlings her “icon wines”, you could stick with the Burgundy classification and think of them as Grand Crus:  the absolute top selection of the best grapes from the top parcels Vasse Felix has to offer, meant to exhibit the distinguishing character of the estate and the vineyards.  All of the Vasse Felix wines are fermented using wild, natural yeasts and aged in French oak, with the Heytesbury fermented in barriques for greater oak integration.  It was a deeper, more shimmering gold colour than the other Chardonnays (at least in part due to its age — each successive Chard we had was a year older than its predecessor), with a brighter, spicier, more refined and yet more exotic nose, adding five spice, ginger and mesquite aromas to the mix on top of herbal, flinty notes.  The acidity ramps up even more on the palate to keep up with the accelerated flavours and the finish just lingers with you forever.  For me the step up in quality and complexity was greater from the Filius to the VF Chard than from the VF to the Heytesbury, but the icon Chardonnay certainly displayed its pedigree in full force.

92-93+ points

 

2012 Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon ($46)

VFCabWith our wild boar-based main course we turned our attention back to the reds, where the silver-level Cab surprisingly stole the show for me even over the gold-level Heytesbury Cab blend.  Both were spectacular wines, but unlike the Chardonnays above, each of the winery’s Cab-based wines displayed a very different approach and style.  While the Filius Cab/Merlot was sleek, modern, cheerful and ready for anything and the Heytesbury Red (discussed further below) was smooth, polished and layered, the VF Cabernet Sauvignon was absolutely classic, textbook Cabernet:  deep, dark, gravelly and structured.  From the opaque ruby-purple colour to the can-only-be-Cab nose that melded leading aromas of blackcurrant, mint, spice and cedar with supporting notes of hot rocks, incense and a forest-y leafiness, it held itself up as an ideal example of the varietal.  The hallmark of the palate was the structure, featuring linear acid and powerful, sandpapery tannins in which Willcock took great pride.  She exulted in the “gritty fruit”, stating of Cab-based wines:  “Let them have tannin!  That’s what makes them unique!”  Vasse Felix was the Cabernet pioneer in the Margaret River and, if this bottle is any indication, continues to be a standard-bearer.  At this price especially, I will continue to seek this out.  My red of the night.

92-93 points

 

2012 Vasse Felix Heytesbury Red ($110)

HeytesburyRedWhich isn’t to say that the Heytesbury Red is chopped liver, of course, but (to potentially abuse Old World analogies even further in this write-up) this top-end blend of 77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Malbec and 7% Petit Verdot almost came across more like a Chateauneuf-du-Pape in style than a Bordeaux, with silkier, less aggressive tannins, brighter fruit and layers of savoury spice.  Willcock would be quick to point out that Margaret River isn’t a copycat of anywhere, and I would agree, but this is the easiest way to paint the picture of what made these two reds different from each other.  The Heytesbury was derived from older vines and mixed almost grape-y fruit with violets, sage/rosemary, earl grey tea and a dank note like pavement or charred meat, its richness cut through by a rush of lifting acidity.  It was a pure, complex and beautiful wine, and extremely ageworthy, but I would give a slight nod to the VF Cabernet for capturing the essence of Cab so thoroughly.  All in all, an amazing tasting and an unbelievable night.  When he grows up, Felix and I will have some drinking to do.

91-92+ points

 

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