By Fergal Gleeson
Vasse Felix and their charismatic Winemaker Virginia Willcock have picked up two significant awards in the last three months. Vasse Felix, Margaret River’s first winery, has of course picked up many Australian and international awards over the years but these are distinctive.
Firstly, Virginia has been awarded Winemaker of the Year 2017 by The Australian Women in Wine Association and secondly, influential US magazine Wine Enthusiast has awarded Vasse Felix as Best New World Winery 2017.
How does it feel to win the Women in Wine Award in London? “That a minority of 10% of the winemakers in the country are female gives the Award a succinct point of difference. There were a fantastic number of great producers present so it was a really good opportunity to showcase Australian female winemakers.”
I ask Virginia why she thinks the number of female winemakers is so low. “I hate speaking on behalf of women because everyone has their own voice. Winemaking is seriously hard work! It’s very time consuming particularly at vintage. You can’t take your eye of the ball when the fruit is ripening.”
“Women have two choices in life. They can have babies or a career. Men don’t have the choice so there is a much higher attrition of women. It is a hard industry. You have to make a choice. I chose to make wine.”
Virginia is the subject of a recent short film in The Winemaker Trilogy for Your Margaret River Region http://www.margaretriver.com/stories-virginia-willcock In it you see the passion, the joy and the obsession that a winemaker brings to their craft.
Is passion necessary to make wine? “Yes. It’s critical to great winemakers. Anyone can learn the science and how to make good commercial wine. To make a great wine, you have to be connected to the fruit, the variety and the place you are growing it. Being a women I need to be connected.”
Why was Vasse Felix chosen for the Wine Enthusiast Award? “Because we are totally blessed in a grape growing environment like Margaret River. Because of the belief and understanding of our owners the Holmes á Court family. Because of the team we’ve got. We love this place and we believe that is a great wine region of the world.”
“Margaret River is a unique place to grow great Chardonnay given it has a Mediterranean climate with a maritime influence. Most great Chardonnay regions are continental. But you can’t underestimate the cool breeze that comes off the ocean which creates a cool climate effect. We get the beautiful sunshine but the cooling effect develops fruit with immense power. You can have a very complex, restrained, full bodied wine with a racy line of elegance.”
“I believe we are at the forefront of pushing Cabernet to where it used to be, where it was elegant and fine but with a powerful tannin line. The world has gone to a bigger style in places like Napa and Bordeaux, influenced by the Parker system. In Margaret River we tried that in the ‘90s and realised that the wine wasn’t pretty anymore. The ‘70s and ‘80s were finer. So we pulled ourselves back.”
What are the mountains Margaret River still has to climb? “For the world to understand that Margaret River is not generic Australian wine. If you’re talking great wine regions they have a clear identity for people who love them. It’s emotionally implanted.”
What are her ambitions? “My ambitions are for Margaret River to be recognised as one of the great wine producing regions of the world and for Vasse Felix to be one of the best of them. In 50 years that’s hard to achieve. You have to have those goals. Don’t compromise for the sake of a quick buck. Wine is a slow game because even 100 years is not a long time.”
Her Legacy? “I’m a tiny person in the long-term legacy of what Vasse Felix and Margaret River will be into the future. It is about what I leave to the next person to take to the next level.“
Then Virginia starts laughing. Not taking herself too seriously. “Life is about enjoying the good things. About being spontaneous and living in the moment every day. I’ve found something that I am truly passionate about, which is not something that everyone can say.”
More at http://www.vassefelix.com.au
This feature originally appeared in the summer issue of Your Margaret River Region Magazine. First published in September 2018.