Planted in 1967, Tom’s Vineyard was the first commercial vineyard in Margaret River. Vasse Felix now farm over 300 hectares across the region, but it is the Tom’s Vineyard site in Wilyabrup on Caves Road that is reserved for their most prestigious bottlings, producing the Premier and Icon ranges, including the flagship red from the oldest vines – own-rooted cabernet sauvignon and malbec – named after the estate’s founder, Tom Cullity. Bart Molony manages the viticultural operations, with most of the vines certified organic across the four sites, including Tom’s Vineyard and the onsite winery.
Viticulturist Bart Molony began work at Vasse Felix in 2004, two years before Chief Winemaker Virginia Willcock came on board. The pair have formed the backbone of the estate’s development over the last decade and a half, with Molony coordinating the viticulture across the four estate sites, including the original vines in Tom’s Vineyard in Wilyabrup, which is also home to the winery, cellar door and acclaimed restaurant.
Tom’s Vineyard is the nucleus of Vasse Felix. It is where Tom Cullity planted the first commercial vines in 1967, which helped shape the Margaret River region into the powerhouse it is today. That original site has been enhanced over the years, with Cullity adding more vines in ’71, then further expansions made by the Holmes à Court family in ’94, 2003, ’14 and ’18. Vines now cover 13.36 hectares, consisting of cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, semillon, petit verdot, shiraz, malbec and merlot.
Currently over 70 per cent of the vineyard is dry grown, with the aim to increase to 100 per cent once newer plantings have deeply established root systems. “In the future, water could become a challenge, so we are working towards dry growing our vines, which reflects our direction to not be reliant on external inputs,” says Molony. “We know that inputs are getting more expensive, and may not be the most sustainable approach, so we are looking to build vineyard eco-systems that are more self-sustaining and require fewer inputs from us.”
Vasse Felix is a member of Sustainable Winegrowing Australia for both the vineyards and winery, while they have also converted Tom’s Vineyard to certified organics (NASAA). The rest of Vasse Felix’s vineyards (300 hectares total) are either certified or in conversion. “Margaret River’s consistent climate presented us the opportunity to move to organic viticulture practices, and with experience it became obvious that we should adopt these practices across all four of our vineyards,” says Molony.
“We have found vine resilience and health has improved, biodiversity has increased, carbon and organic matter has increased. The vineyard ecosystem is becoming naturally self-sufficient, which is reducing fluctuations in fruit quality. We believe this will lead to production stability. Overall, fruit quality has improved and continues to improve each season.”
Molony says the aim is to create a “naturally self-sufficient vineyard system” that is biodiverse and complements the broader environment. “This involves two distinct seasons in our viticulture program. The soil season and the growing season. Soil season is paramount for rejuvenating our ancient soils, naturally, by enriching and balancing soil structure with cover cropping and composting. Regular soil testing of carbon levels, pH [a measure of acidity], nutrient levels and soil compaction measure our progress.”
Legumes, cereals, brassicas, perennial grasses and flowering herbs are planted between the vines as cover crops, which perform many functions: attracting beneficial insects; increasing soil-water-holding capacity; outcompeting weeds; fixing nitrogen in the soils; and improving soil aeration. The returning of organic matter to the soil from those crops is further enhanced with a composting program. “We have a long-term vision to be making wines 100 years into the future and beyond, which drives our long-term goal for sustainability, so we can continue to grow and craft great wines forever,” says Molony. “Ultimately, sustainable practices are better for our land, vine health and longevity. And they are better for our viticulture team.”
That sustainability program has its roots equally in an environmental commitment and a quest to make better wine, says Molony. “We are committed to continuing Dr Tom Cullity’s founding aim: ‘to make the best possible wine’. Our vision is to become one of the great wine estates of the world. And we feel duty bound to be a leader in the region, championing the quality of Margaret River and nurturing the health of our vineyards naturally to preserve the vines that are of such historical significance to the region.”
That regional focus sees a preference for locally adapted vine clones, such as the Gingin chardonnay and Houghton cabernet cultivars. Vines are also constantly assessed for performance, with grafting and replanting employed to ensure the best match of variety to location. Chardonnay and cabernet are currently being expanded at the home vineyard, with the free-draining gravel and loam soils and sea breezes (the site is on a ridge 4km from the ocean) ideal for the varieties.
Molony lists garden weevils and exotic perennial grasses as two of the major challenges facing the viticultural team, but he firmly believes that the long-term answers are to be found in the constant process of improving biodiversity soil health, with healthier soil leading to healthier vines. “This makes the vines less susceptible to weevils and more resilient,” he says. “And better soil health means a deeper and better root system for the vine, allowing it to compete with grasses. Doing what we can to maintain and increase biodiversity in the vineyard helps the vines to outcompete the pests, by bringing more diverse life into the system.”
The increase in soil health and microbial diversity has also had significant impacts in the winery, which Molony believes has improved the natural yeast cultures on the grapes that are employed for natural fermentations. “Healthy fruit has enabled better results from wild fermentation and cleaner finishes to ferments,” he says. “There has also been a reduction in the requirement to rack and return the barrels. These evolutions have led to more body and texture in the wine. Concentration in the fruit has increased. We’ve also seen improvements in consistency of production and quality.”