WATCH: Behind the scenes with Virginia Willcock, Chief Winemaker at Vasse Felix
I still get butterflies at this time of year.
“You know I’ve done maybe thirty-two vintages in my life. Twenty-six of them in Margaret River and I still get butterflies at this time of year”, says Virginia Willcock, Chief Winemaker of Vasse Felix. It’s January, on the verandah of Virginia’s Margaret River home. A warm breeze blows and the chirp of the crickets is a constant. In the region’s vineyards, winemakers and viticulturists are feeling this same tension. “You’re worried about what the results are going to be. The adrenaline drives you through the process; to then be relaxed and loving the wine at the end of the day. You’ve got to get through it, to get the love. You’ve got to get the hard work done.”
While Virginia knows the steps and emotions that carry winemakers through each vintage, this is no ordinary year. Celebrating its half century, Vasse Felix is also leading a wider celebration of fifty years of commercial grape growing in the Margaret River region. It’s a significant marker, but in winemaking terms, it’s just the start. “I think we’ve got a lot of work to do still, in understanding what we’ve got around us. It’s going to take generations of people to understand this, like every other great wine region in the world has had to. But we’ve got to set everyone on the right path.”
I really need to have other people chucking their ideas in so that it helps me conceptualise. I want them to bring ideas.
Beautiful is a word repeated time and time again. You feel that this is what Virginia is striving for. A beautiful thing is subjective she notes. What to one person is beautiful, is not to another. But ultimately it’s about what she thinks is beautiful and understanding that concept of beauty. For Virginia, she says she’s not trying to replicate something from somewhere else in the world, that she wants to “find the true beauty of Margaret River.“
While that legacy is some years off, Virginia is focused on each vintage, and while she gets many an accolade, she’s clear that winemaking for her is a collaborative effort. “You know I’ve done those personality tests and they come out saying I’m an extrovert and it’s like I know I talk a lot, but that’s not what it means. It’s getting your energy from other people. You have to be with other people to get your thought processes and connections going.”
“I really need to have other people chucking their ideas in so that it helps me conceptualise. I want them to bring ideas. One of the things I suppose for me is that I don’t talk too much and that there is space for other people to throw their ideas in, because quite often I’m coming up with so many ideas, so quickly.”
Conceptualising each wine has been a process of trial, error and tasting for Virginia. “I started to realise what I did like were the more structured savoury wines that actually had layers and layers of depth. That is the most difficult thing to try and achieve” she says. “How do you actually find the beautiful true nature of that little vineyard section telling you that it’s got a herbal nuance, or that it’s got more cherry fruit rather than a raspberry fruit, so it’s more in that savoury end of the spectrum? How do you ferment that? How does it age? Without wood, with more wood, with less wood? A longer time or a shorter time? There’s so many decisions that you have to make that embrace those savoury elements without them being destroyed.”
Time with Virginia is an opportunity to delve into the mind of a winemaker who helps define a taste of Margaret River. “Wines should be tempered,” she says. “They shouldn’t be overt and in your face because the most beautiful drinks are that tempered style, where they’re beguiling, you get depth in them and that’s intriguing and beautiful.”