You don’t become one of Australia’s great winemakers by chance or by accident. Reaching the pinnacle of this hugely competitive industry takes hard work, skill and dedication to the craft. Virginia Willcock is one of the hardest working winemakers in Australia, with a reputation for leaving no stone unturned in her pursuit of perfection. From the vineyard to the winery she’s helped shape Vasse Felix into one of the world’s great wine estates, one that is a global ambassador for premium Australian wine that truly reflects a sense of place.
‘My grape and wine philosophy is a beautiful natural expression of a place… When I smell the forest, smell the ocean, smell the beautiful dirt I want to see some of that come through in the wine in a natural, earthy, rustic sense.’
Destined to become one of Australia’s great winemakers?
Growing up in the suburbs of Perth in Western Australia, Virginia has her parents to thank for sparking her interest in wine. Initially their passion started out simply enough: They loved the culture of having a glass of wine with their nightly meal, and from this their love of wine began to blossom. So much so that Virginia’s father and a few mates decided that they wanted to make their own wine and so bought a vineyard just north of Perth.
Just like her father, Virginia soon fell in love with life amongst the vines. She fell for the country, the estate, the soil and growing vines. She was entranced at seeing the ripe grapes being picked and wondered how they were turned into the wine her parents loved so much. Before long it was for her to decide what to do when finishing high school. Virginia’s father handed her a brochure encouraging enrolment in oenology studies. She took one look at it and knew that this was what she wanted to do with her life.
Exploration to gain inspiration
On gaining her qualifications in winemaking Virginia knew that her journey had just begun. Every year Virginia has picked up experiences, whether working in Australia or in wine regions around the world. Her philosophy has never been set in stone, it’s always evolving in her unstinting pursuit of perfection. Along the way there’s a couple of key people who’ve been vital in shaping her views, let’s meet a couple of them…
Cabernet Sauvignon: A true Australian classic
Working with James Healy, now of celebrated organic winery Dog Point Vineyard in Marlborough, was particularly impactful on Virginia’s grape growing and winemaking philosophy. During a vintage James and Virginia trialed natural fermentation on several parcels of fruit. They found that the resulting wines had more depth and complexity, more natural beauty than the parcels that had been inoculated with yeast.
At another New Zealand winery, Pyramid Valley Vineyards, Virginia learnt valuable lessons about the heart and soul of the vineyard from vigneron Mike Weersing. Valuable lessons about the soil and the place where the vines were grown and nurtured were absorbed. These lessons helped Virginia’s philosophy to evolve to focus on the natural expression of place, of a particular patch of land in a unique part of the world.
‘Every tiny piece of ground with every clone and variety behaves differently. There’s amazing little personalities that come through that I’ve been able to discover here at Vasse Felix… We have so many beautiful vineyard resources here.’
On her travels Virginia picked up a passion for Cabernet Sauvignon through the annual Cape Mentelle International Cabernet Tasting. It was early in her time in Margaret River, Virginia would save her pennies to attend the expensive but oh, so worth it tasting. Sampling the greatest Cabernet Sauvignons from around the world has to offer had a huge impact on Virginia. These wines inspired her and motivated her to do everything she could to make the very best wine possible. Today her Cabernets are proudly mentioned alongside the very wines she tasted at the International Cabernet Tastings.
Margaret River – Home and inspiration
Located approximately three hours' drive south of Perth, Margaret River was ‘discovered’ in the early 1970s after various pieces of research from Professor Harold Olmo and Dr John Gladstones identified it as a potentially great grape growing region.
Planted by Dr Tom Cullity in 1967, Vasse Felix was the first vineyard and winery to be established in the Margaret River region. In just 50 years the region has built an international reputation as a true home of fine wine, capable of matching it with the world’s best. During Virginia’s time in Margaret River the region has evolved from pioneer ‘outstation’ and surfer haven to an area dedicated to the pursuit of great vines and premium wine.
Margaret River - Fine wine from way out west
Ancient soils and cooling sea breezes from the Southern and Indian Oceans provide the Margaret River region with ideal viticultural conditions to craft wines of exceptional concentration and intensity whilst retaining elegance and finesse. Combine this with stunning beaches, beautiful forest walks and caves, exceptional produce and wines and it’s not hard to see why Virginia fell in love with the place from her very first vintage.
Virginia's multitude of Margaret River vintages and her vast international winemaking experience have been coupled with a determination to craft wines of the highest calibre at Vasse Felix today. Combine the wines with a unique underground cellar, a spectacular restaurant overlooking the original 1967 plantings and an exquisite art gallery it’s not hard to see why it’s one of the drawcards of the Margaret River region.
Put all this together and it might sound like job done for Virginia. But it will come as no surprise that despite her achievements she’s not resting on her laurels for one second. Virginia genuinely believes that her greatest wine is still yet to be made. Every piece of knowledge gained leads to the discovery of new things to be mastered and explored. She’s searching for wine with the ultimate soul, the ultimate sense of place. Vasse Felix, Margaret River, Australian wine and wine lovers the world are the beneficiaries of Virginia’s pursuit of perfection. Long may it continue and long may we enjoy the vinous fruits of her labours.
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