Meet a legendary woman in wine: Virginia Willcock. She is the Chief Winemaker behind some of Australia’s most critically acclaimed wines, at Margaret River’s founding wine estate, Vasse Felix. Established in 1967 by regional pioneer Dr Tom Cullity, Vasse Felix is Margaret River’s founding wine estate. One of the great wine regions of the world, Margaret River enjoys a truly unique environment and climate which makes it a paradise for winemakers and wine lovers alike.
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Yes, she is a wine queen and I’ll tell you why!! Her resume, tenacity and talent is super impressive and I hope one day to meet her. How did she become a queen? Well, as you may have guessed, she’s worked all over the world, hustled hard, and gives back to the community. She joined as Chief Winemaker in October 2006 at Vasse Felix and is one of the most awarded female winemakers in Australia! She has also been named Winemaker of the Year by multiple publications and organizations. She is a respected authority on Margaret River and its terroir and winemaking, she is also a large part of the wine community and industry in Australia.
Virginia has also worked around the world. To date, she has completed over 30 vintages (like WOW!) in Margaret River – making her a true expert in the region. And she’s spent time abroad doing international vintages in Albania, and in 3 different places in Italy including Trentino, Sicily and Abruzzo as well as New Zealand – talk about a killer resume. As such a force in the wine industry I had a chance to interview her about her journey and her winery. Although I haven’t been to Margaret River I look forward to adding it to my travel bucket list over the coming years.
Wanting to know more about her wine philosophy. I asked her to tell me more about what makes her tick as a winemaker.
“Make the wines you love to drink. As winemakers we scour the world to find those rare and precious wines we will most love. So at Vasse Felix, with our pristine environment and historic vineyards, we must strive to make just that. To perfect a distinctive style that is unique and special, that people all over the world will recognise.”
The Inside Scoop
Since I haven’t been to Margaret River, I asked Virginia to tell me about what makes Margaret River, Australia such a special place in the world.
“It is totally unique and isolated from any other wine region in Australia. It has ancient well drained soils, extensive native forest and incredible ocean surrounding the cape on three sides delivering a maritime influence in this Mediterranean climate. Some say extreme maritime cooling effect from the Southern and Indian Oceans which deliver a cool climate feel to the wines.”
In doing my research I found out that Virgina is drawn toward microbiology so I asked her what about it gets her excited?
“Microbes make the world go round!” she said, “from soil health which is like a digestive system that makes the plants perform better to the native yeasts which exist in the canopies, which we 100% rely on to ferment our wines. Microbes create such a beautiful terroir driven expression in the wines.
Seeing as how passionate Virginia is in microbiology, I wanted to know more about how microbiology is affecting winery sustainability and/or biodiversity?
Virginia began to explain to me how by sharing the winery philosophy “we believe in long term sustainability of our vineyards and this means that we need a growing cycle that incorporates a balance between biodiversity of plants, animals and microbiology. We have moved to 100% organic viticulture over the last 5 years and are now fully certified this year because we believe in natural ecology and can see the proof in the quality of our fruit.”
I also wanted to learn more about climate change. With Margaret river having such a unique and rare climate how does climate change affect the winery and it’s vineyards
“Margaret River appears at this stage to be relatively unaffected with very consistent vintage conditions, no extremes of temperature and regular winter rainfall. We are on the edge of human inhabitation on the earth.”
Making wine on the edge of Australia seems like such a crazy career choice, of all of the vintages I wondered which one she may have done that was the most challenging and why?
“Every vintage is riddled with butterflies in my stomach as we deal with nature and the pursuit of the greatest wine known to humanity, so they are all difficult. I would say the toughest challenges come with personal interception only and that would probably be the 2015 vintage due to losing a winemaking friend in a wind surfing accident, followed by my 14 year old dog dying a month later. However the grapes keep ripening and you continue to remain fully distracted by them.”
That was so hard to hear, it’s good for people to understand that a tough vintage isn’t just about mother nature or the climate, it’s about giving the vintage so much of your time, energy, mental and spiritual space and it can be challenging on many different levels. Harvest can take a lot out of you so you have to prepared and ready.
As a segway to and as the world changes into a new world and a new future, do you think there needs to be any changes in the wine industry and if so what and why?
“The only change I am passionate about on this particular day is adjusting the continuous snobbery toward the “Old” world and respecting some of the excellent culture and producers in the newer wine producing regions.
Ok enough with the serious talk, tell me your favourite food and wine pairing? “Truffle salami and elegant Margaret River Cabernet.” and wow I couldn’t agree more! The earthiness of the salami and the fruit and freshness of Margaret River – just a divine pairing! Oh and by the way Vasse Felix has an amazing chef and restaurant on site when you visit too!
Ok one final question for Virgina – do you plan on remaining in Margaret River for a while or do you have other wine destinations on your mind?
“I love to travel to other wine destinations to talk, eat and drink, but I have 30 years of intellectual winemaking property in Margaret River and I would never want to lose that. There is also no other wine region in the world as beautiful and cosmopolitan as Margaret River with its forest, ocean, food, wine, surf, art and culturally diverse community.”