Vasse Felix’s sparkling obsession

Leading Margaret River wine producer Vasse Felix has launched a spin-off sparkling wine house, Idée Fixe. Max Brearley pays its dedicated winery a visit to learn why it’s more than just another label for the Australian wine titan

Words by Max Brearley

idee fixe

For a marque like Vasse Felix, which has built its reputation in tandem with the Margaret River region and on the cornerstone varietals of Chardonnay and Cabernet, Idée Fixe feels like a brave move. More than just a new sparkling wine label, it’s a whole enterprise with its own dedicated vineyard, bespoke facility and soon, a cellar door and restaurant. Although, for Mick Langridge, a senior winemaker at Vasse Felix since 2010, sparkling production doesn’t exactly signal a sea change.

‘It was following on from what’s now thirty-six years of traditional method wine production,’ he says, as he tells the Idée Fixe origin story. Table wine might be king at Vasse Felix, but sparkling has been a part of the programme for decades. ‘Without knowing it, we were laying the platform to launch [Idée Fixe] into what we are now,’ he says.

Idée Fixe winemaker
Idée Fixe's senior winemaker Michael (Mick) Langridge says that a sparkling wine offshoot was a natural progression for Vasse Felix

Touring the spin-off label’s dedicated home, where operations just minutes south of Margaret River began with the 2020 harvest, Langridge says the key difference is that he now has more freedom to experiment. ‘Here, I’ve got complete control,’ he says, gesturing to the refitted winery at what was, until its acquisition by Vasse Felix CEO Paul Holmes à Court, the home of Watershed Wines.

Langridge is proud of the vintages of Blanc de Blancs that came out of Vasse Felix, but he’s realistic about the constraints they faced at the Wilyabrup winery, where time and tank space could be limited and where he was often pushed to use a lot of old oak. ‘So now, I’m increasingly balancing stainless steel with some oak,’ he says. According to Langridge, while Holmes à Court understood that there would be easier ways to grow a sparkling footprint, he is prepared to stay the course for decades; to instead grow something that can stand shoulder to shoulder with Vasse Felix.

Idée Fixe Winery
A new winery space gives Langridge more freedom to experiment with future vintages of the traditional method sparkling wine

A little over a year ago, the offshoot launched with a Premier Brut Blanc de Blancs, of which it is just about to release its second vintage (2020). ‘It’s all about Margaret River’s Chardonnay heritage, and learning from that,’ says Langridge of the flagship release. ‘We’re delving into some of the non-Gingin clones of Chardonnay that have been growing in importance in the region, and combining that with what we’re finding in the south’.

We’re getting that Southern Ocean influence

For more than a decade, Vasse Felix has owned a vineyard in Karridale in the far south of the Margaret River region. Here, they’d been methodically pulling out varieties that weren’t working – mainly reds – and developing their stock of Chardonnay, all to organic viticultural standards. ‘We’re getting that Southern Ocean influence,’ says Langridge. He and his team have studied weather data, seeing that predominantly, winds down in Karridale rip off the Southern Ocean, the region also bounded and effected by the Indian Ocean to the west.

Idée Fixe Karridale Vineyard
Idée Fixe's Karridale vineyard, where morning fog rolls off the Southern Ocean

Langridge counts these frigid winds, elevated humidity, cloud cover (offering high but often filtered UV), and a morning fog rolling off the Southern Ocean as positives where others don’t. ‘All those things together were widely considered as negative for reds… But for whites, there’s been great history with Semillon, more with Sauvignon Blanc, and now increasingly for Chardonnay, too.’

In the northern reaches of the region, Langridge characterises Chardonnay as fuller-bodied, textured, and of broader orchard and tropical fruit flavours. He’s not seeing that in the far south. ‘We’re getting more pristine neutrality from the fruit,’ he says.

Anything that comes out of here will be balanced to a knife’s edge

He refers to the diversity in this southern plot as a ‘Pandora’s box of non-Gingin clones.’ While they do grow the Gingin clone that’s predominant in Margaret River, Langridge also reels off their others like a game of oenological bingo: ‘We’ve got 1, 3, 5, 76, 95, 96, 277, and we’ve got a clone of total unknown heritage.’ He says that, as a result, they generally get fruit that is bigger berried, less aromatic, and with good acid retention.

idee fixe grapes
Chardonnay grapes showing 'pristine purity' are reserved for the label's Blanc de Blancs

Following the release of the Blanc de Blancs came a Brut Rosé, which saw similar experimentation in the vineyard – including the grafting of two clones of Pinot Noir onto Sauvignon Blanc. Once in the winery, it comes down to selecting ‘any batch or any parcel [of Chardonnay] that is slightly broader, slightly richer, has texture,’ – essentially, selecting grapes where they aren’t seeing ‘that pristine purity’ that’s championed in the Blanc de Blancs.

These berries, which in Langridge’s mind are perfectly suited to making a rosé – slightly fuller, with a softer impression on the palate – are then blended with a little bit of that Pinot. Rosé has often been a commercial exercise in Margaret River, and less of a labour of love. ‘Anything that comes out of here will be balanced to a knife’s edge – totally dry,’ says Langridge. ‘There’s no ambition whatsoever for any low-end or half-price bottles; everything is traditional method, time on lees, riddled and disgorged, including this singular rosé.’

idée fixe bottle shot

While Idée Fixe came to market looking fully formed, Langridge enthuses about the decades ahead and his plans to not only hone the Premier Brut but to produce, for instance, small batches of clone-specific Blanc de Blancs.

‘I make no bones about the fact we’re super-early on the journey, and the wines will continue to change,’ says Langridge. ‘I’m asking people everywhere I go to come on a bit of a ride rather than just come and have a look at what we’ve done today.’