Female Winemakers are Making Waves

 


Becoming a multi-award winning winemaker takes hard work and dedication. Add strength, moxie, intelligence, and class and you’ve got Virginia Willcock, Vasse Felix chief winemaker since 2006. Outspoken about low intervention winemaking and passionate about expressing terroir in every sip, Willcock has elevated Vasse Felix, Margaret River’s founding wine estate and benchmark for the region’s Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, to a world-class winery.

I sat down with Willcock at TexSom last month. She explained that her passion for winemaking began as a teenager as she witnessed her parents’ and friends’ joy in harvesting their own small vineyard. “The greatest days of my childhood were on that farm” said Willcock, feeling the beauty of nature and the connection of the fruit to the vines. “As a child, I witnessed wine making people happy, it’s like magic juice,” she shares.
With her father’s encouragement, she pursued winemaking at university, where she learned about technical winemaking. But she says it is people who taught her how to make wine. She especially credits James Healy, former chief winemaker at Cloudy Bay, for guiding her toward the beauty of natural winemaking.

Willcock diverges from trends by making natural wine in her own style. “We are not trying to make something the world wants; we are trying to make what our history and land provides,” she explains, adding, “Trying to make a wine constructed to the human palate is bollocks.” Further, she told me, “The reason I love wine is because it’s different from every part of the world and it expresses itself naturally. This doesn’t mean it has to be dirty, oxidized, or Bretty. These flaws can be controlled while still making a natural product, explains Willcock, adding “The more natural we become in winemaking the more we see where we are from.”

Willcock pours this philosophy into every wine she makes. She embraces the microbiology of the vineyard and seeks to capture it through native yeast fermentation and minimal use of sulfur. Through investigating the vineyard, she learned the soil operates as the digestive system. Upon this realization she led the charge at Vasse Felix to change their philosophy of winemaking to match the organic farming practices of the vineyards. “Some rely on technology to choose clones, rootstock, etc. We went through that as well, but through trial and error we kept ending up where we started – our heritage clones,” she explains. The pre-phylloxera Bordeaux cutting is “unique, beautiful, and defines our wines,” according to Willcock.

Vasse Felix wines are closed by screw caps. Puzzled by the closure debate, Willcock shares, in her honest style, “a screw cap is the same as a great cork. If the wine goes into the bottle in the right condition only the cork can screw it up. With a screw cap if you don’t like the wine blame me – I am the one who bottled it in the wrong condition. Don’t blame a secondary piece of equipment I bought to close the bottle.” Willcock shapes her winemaking technique to align with the closure and avoid reduction. By giving the wine enough oxygen in the winemaking process she says it should be just where she wants it by the time it is bottled. Meanwhile, she’s constantly experimenting, playing with fermentation, vessel size, and material. Her next frontier is native fermentation for their Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, seeking to discover the largest reductive vessel that can be used with native fermentation.

Willcock likes to push the boundaries of Chardonnay. In university she learned wine should be polished, clean, and bright. Wisdom taught her to challenge these ideas. “Texture in white wine is beautiful. Chardonnay does not like full skin contact, clean juice, oak fermentation, and full malolactic fermentation. It prefers dirty juice, wild fermentation, and occasional malolactic fermentation if the acidity is too high,” she shares. Willcock expresses Margaret River through her Chardonnay.

I tasted two Vasse Felix Chardonnays: The 2016 Margaret River Chardonnay is a decadent, mid-weight wine. Intense notes of ripe orchard fruit, grapefruit, pineapple, creamy lemon curd, butterscotch, and toasted oak are wrapped in crisp acidity that provides structure and elegance. The 2016 Heytesbury Chardonnay is dazzling. This wine represents top performing blocks from the top vineyards. The tension between the ripe stone, tropical, and orchard fruit and the savory notes of smoke, toast, flint, and salinity is palpable on the palate. It is a joy to drink now, but will increase its reward with further aging.

Willcock crafts Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon the same way, low intervention, low sulfur, and wild yeast fermentation. She says their Cabernet does not smell like anywhere else in the world. “It’s a Cabernet for Italian wine lovers,” she said, indicating a rustic quality. Willcock explains Vasse Felix is by far the most prominent winery using wild yeast fermentation for red wine in Western Australia.

I found the 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon to be elegance personified. Black fruit, cassis, dried savory herbs, dusty cocoa, cracked pepper, dried roses, and a touch of forest floor dazzle the nose and follow through on the palate. Rich, bold, and wild, a gorgeous Cabernet that will benefit from age to further integrate. I’m in love.

Willcock is paying it forward. When she got her start, only 10% of winemakers in Australia were women. Today that number has risen to 50%, but with a high rate of attrition. She explains she was in a class full of boys, but never saw herself as different. She laughingly claims to be missing the part of her brain that cares if she is different. Her strong nature sends a signal that she is not to be messed with. “I have never felt intimidated by a man in the wine industry and never felt I did not get a job because I am a woman,” she says.

Many young female winemakers seek to intern with Willcock. She shares, “When they arrive they are quiet mice, but leave as strong as an ox because I give them freedom.” Willcock believes her relaxed nature offers unspoken permission to these young interns that being themselves is okay. She wants them to relax and enjoy learning to make wine.

Vasse Felix wines reflect the bold, elegant individualism of their winemaker. Willcock says she herself is still learning and discovering; adding, “The more I know, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” However, “I love it and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

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