Tom Cullity Vertical Tasting

Tom Cullity Vertical Tasting

Barry Weinman: 2nd March 2024.

Virginia Wilcock: Chief Winemaker at Vasse Felix

To celebrate the launch of the 2020 Tom Cullity, Paul Holmes à Court (proprietor) and Virginia Willcock (chief winemaker) hosted a tasting of six vintages to give us the opportunity to see how the wines had developed in bottle, and how the style has evolved over time.

When Vasse Felix retired the Heytesbury Cabernet and replaced it with the Tom Cullity, I thought that this was a stroke of marketing genius. The Heytesbury was a superb wine in its own right, so replacing it with another high quality wine at a 40% price increase sounds like music to any accountant’s ears.

But this simplistic view fails to capture the true picture of what the team at Vasse Felix were trying to achieve. The name change heralded a shift in focus. Whilst the fruit for the Heytesbury was the best fruit each year, sourced from across both the estate and grower vineyards, the Tom Cullity is produced from a small section of the Wilyabrup vineyard adjacent to the winery and cellar door.

This includes some of the oldest vines in the region (50+ years old), all of which are on their own rootstock and are unirrigated. The end result is that there has been a significant drop in volume of production as compared to the Heytesbury. Annual production is limited to between 500 & 1000 cases. So, it turns out that the bean counters are not as happy as they might have been, but the consumers are the winners.

Bart Molony

But the story does not end there. Bart Molony, the Chief Viticulturalist is actively working to further improve the fruit quality and ensure that the characteristics of the fruit produced matches the aspirations of Virginia Wilcock and the winemaking team.

One key change is the move to using the Houghton clone of cabernet exclusively in the Tom Cullity. This includes grafting/replanting some parts of the vineyard that were planted to Clone SA125. This clone is the backbone of cabernet on the east coast of Australia, where it produces deeply coloured wines. VARIETIES + CLONES | Yalumba Nursery.

The Houghton clones come from a historic five-acre block in the Swan Valley which was planted in 1930. Selections of the Houghton clones of Cabernet Sauvignon. A key feature of the Houghton clone is that it produces less herbaceous characteristics than SA125. Houghton-Clone.pdf (

The soil (terroir, if you will) also plays an important role, especially in warmer vintages such as 2024, with the vines looking in ridiculously good health, despite being unirrigated. The oldest vines are on their own rootstock and were planted in the very early days of the winery. Their roots penetrate into the clay layer below the topsoil, ensuring that they can access the moisture they need to thrive in a hot, dry summer.

When it comes to the wines themselves, the first observation was how the climatic variation associated with the different vintages was immediately apparent in each wine. From the elegant and pretty 2019 to the sublime 2018, they are all beautiful, but each is a unique expression of the vintage conditions.

However, what was more revealing for me was the similarities between the wines. The exquisite tannin and oak management were evident in each and every wine. Always harmonious and never intrusive, and perfectly judged to match the fruit characters of the various vintages.

There is also a purity of fruit that is just sublime. Precise, focused and ripe, yet elegant and supple.

Other tasters were equally impressed, with descriptions including “effortless”, “sublime” and possessing a “fluidity”.

Regardless of how one describes them, the end result is nothing short of spectacular, with the vintage variations dictating when the wines should be consumed, rather than their absolute quality.

The Wines

Vasse Felix Tom Cullity – Cabernet Sauvignon/Malbec – 2015. Straight out of the bottle, there are dusty, almost tobacco leaf notes. This quickly evolved into more primary fruit characters. On the palate, the pristine fruit is the star. There is incredible depth and intensity, even though this would only be considered medium bodied. The length and persistence are amazing, as is the mouthfeel and texture. The latter supported by incredibly fine tannins that coat the tongue, but do not impede the fruit in the slightest. 96pts. 14% alc.

Vasse Felix Tom Cullity– Cabernet Sauvignon/Malbec – 2016. Here, the beautifully perfumed fruit is apparent from the start. Blueberry, gentle spice, even a touch of minerality. The finish is slightly firmer than the 2015, though the tannins are no less fine. This is a wine that is firmly in its youth and deserves decades to show its best. I love it. 14.2% alc – 96pts.

Vasse Felix Tom Cullity – Cabernet Sauvignon/Malbec – 2017. This has everything in place but is somewhat shy and muted right now. Again, the depth and power are breathtaking, but the inky fruit is still wrapped in a cloak of winemaking goodness. Tannins are a highlight. Superb wine for the vintage. 14.5% alc – 95pts

Vasse Felix Tom Cullity– Cabernet Sauvignon/Malbec – 2018. One sniff of this wine is enough to show that it is truly outstanding. The pristine fruit is unbelievably pure. The blueberry fruit takes on a slightly darker tone in this vintage and is the star of the show. The tannins and oak are, at first glance, invisible, such is the grace and beauty of the fruit. It is only on the very close that they start to make a presence, more texturally than in any overt way. A statuesque wine and one of the great Margaret River cabernets (and surely one of the world’s great cabernets). 14.5% alc – 97pts

Paul Holmes à Court

Vasse Felix Tom Cullity– Cabernet Sauvignon/Malbec – 2019. As with the 2018, the perfumed fruit is the most striking feature here. But in 2019, this takes on a supple, almost slippery mouthfeel that makes it irresistible now. So fine and elegant, yet full of life and personality. Amazing that a wine this young can drink so well. The acid structure ensures that this will live for a decade or more, but I would prefer to enjoy this in its youthful prime. The cooler year precluded the inclusion of Petit Verdot. 14.5% alc – 95-96pts.

Vasse Felix Tom Cullity – Cabernet Sauvignon/Malbec – 2020. This is the most impactful of the lineup, with the tannins and oak making an appearance much earlier in the palate transition than the previous vintages. But with a little bit of air, the spectacular fruit starts to build and just keeps on going, coating the whole length of the palate. Intense and powerful, yet this remains silky and supple. A superstar, but one that I would like to see in the third decade of its life. 14.5% alc – 97pts.