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Cullen 50 Years in the Making

Wines Of Now
16 September 2021. Words by Marcus Ellis.

With 2021 bringing up its 50th year, Cullen is one of the stately names of Margaret River, one of five founding estates that stand as unshakeable pillars of the region. But that kind of establishment doesn’t mean that Cullen Wines and its tireless steward, Vanya Cullen, are resting on their laurels, living off the past. Quite the opposite, a ground breaker in so many ways, the estate has only entrenched its reputation amongst the more traditional drinker, while also pushing the boundaries in the vineyard and in the glass, galvanising a new following, too.

While today the Cullen name is inseparable from Margaret River winegrowing, Vanya Cullen’s parents first trialled other crops as well as running sheep and cattle on their Wilyabrup property. “They planted trees, they planted all sorts of things,” says Cullen, “and then their friend Dr John Gladstones visited as they were about to plant lupins on the property, and he said, ‘You’re mad to plant lupins.’ And this was in 1965, before his paper was published, and he said, ‘You should plant grapevines; I’m just doing this study.’”

With his interest peaked, Cullen’s father, Kevin, called the first grapevine meeting in Busselton in 1966. “He and a whole group of friends got together and planted a series of trial acres in the region,” says Cullen, “with the first plot at Juniper, across the road from Vasse Felix, in 1966. They formed a committee, and they did all these things – it must have been rather wonderful – and they then went off to plant Cullen Wines in 1971. So, it’s our 50th year!”

Vanya Cullen with harvested cabernet sauvignon grapes during vintage
Opposite: Kevin and Diana Cullen established the vineyard on their Wilyabrup property in 1971. Photo taken in 1993. Above: Vanya Cullen, “The whole feminine, Mother Earth legacy of caring for the environment really came from my grandmother, Grace Madeline. And dad was a doctor, so he saw all the bad effects of chemicals on patients, which you couldn’t ignore as a doctor.”

While Vanya Cullen has pushed into somewhat unchartered territory for an estate of its institutional stature, with wines that break the mould for most traditional expectations, the flagship wines are still made from the regional hero grapes, and largely from the original plantings. Those classically styled wines are now named in homage to her parents – Diana Madeline for the cabernet blend and Kevin John for the chardonnay.

That tribute is a statement of deep affection for Cullen, but it is also a symbol of how their pioneering spirit continues to infuse the dynamic direction and development of the estate. It is as much a commemoration of what they achieved as it is what their legacy continues to yield.

Age of enlightenment

“Mum and dad didn’t set out originally to be in wine,” says Cullen, “but they were very positive people who I think had a very positive impact on the world. After the war, there weren’t really many positions for doctors in many places. Dad went to Bunbury, where his father was. And there was a position available in Busselton, and they set up there.”

At a time when Australia was still mired in the last vestiges of the White Australia Policy and constrained by the corseted society of the day, the Cullens brought an enlightened way of thinking to the sleepy coastal town, some 220 kilometres south of Perth. “Mum was the first woman to wear trousers in Busselton,” laughs Cullen. “I always love that story. And she was the only woman to have had an education over the age of 13. It was a very different world back then. It was populate or perish. So, they had six children.”

Sunrise at Cullen Winery – birds eye view

Cullen notes that her mother’s progressive outlook was one that had been instilled in her from an early age. “Her mother was a suffragette and a nature photographer,” says Cullen. “The whole feminine, Mother Earth legacy of caring for the environment really came from my grandmother, Grace Madeline. And dad was a doctor, so he saw all the bad effects of chemicals on patients, which you couldn’t ignore as a doctor.”

That love for nature and ongoing quest to be ever-better stewards of the land is what has underpinned Cullen Wines from the start, both to drive wine quality and to leave the land better than they found it. “Our property was one where all the trees had been ringbarked and burnt, and it wasn’t looked after. It was very hard land,” says Cullen.

The rebirth of the soil

Today, the identity of Cullen Wines is intrinsically linked to the biodynamic farming methods that Vanya Cullen implemented shortly after the vineyard’s conversion to organics in 1998, which she credits with rejuvenating the soil. “Mum and dad clearly chose a great site,” she says, “and they farmed with minimal chemical inputs, then we went organic, then biodynamic… and the quality of the grapes is just getting better and better.”

Those biodynamic methods were detailed by scientist and philosopher Rudolph Steiner in a lecture series in 1924, just a year before his death. They were a farsighted response to the industrial agricultural approach that was starting to take a firm hold, and has since dominated farming practices to this day. Integral to Steiner’s approach is encouraging a rich microbial life in the soil, promoting natural resistance to disease and pests by building strength and resilience in plants from the ground up, rather than the industrial chemical response that is akin to taking antibiotics, killing the good alongside the bad. “When you add chemicals to the land it dies, and what dies are the microbes,” says Cullen.

Biodynamics employs elaborate organic ‘preparations’ to restore the natural balance of the soil and encourage microorganisms. Above: making a ‘tea’ from casuarina leaves that is sprayed over the vineyard – an Australian equivalent of BD preparation 508. Opposite: cow horns stuffed with manure are buried over winter before being exhumed to make BD500.

Both the original vineyard and neighbouring Mangan vineyard, which they had planted in 1995, were certified biodynamic for the 2004 vintage, leading Cullen to declare that status proudly on the labels. “We’ve been certified biodynamic for 17 years,” she says, “but it was difficult, and we did get a lot of push back. When we first went biodynamic, some people were really dismissive.”

At that time, organic and biodynamic winegrowers were largely seen as being ideological farmers first, and quality-focused wine producers second, if at all. A bold declaration on the Cullen label was a liability, even if the practices were both a logical progression of the approach of the founders and integral to vineyard health and wine quality.

Green is the new black

Times have indeed changed – and in no small part due to Vanya Cullen’s advocacy – with green credentials now worn proudly by vignerons, and sadly sometimes presented with ambiguous language or opaque claims. This is a great concern for Cullen, who believes that certification is the only way for consumers to be confident that winegrowers are genuine about their environmental claims.

“It’s about caring for the land and giving back, rather than snatching and grabbing ideas as a marketing opportunity,” she says, stressing that the even without the more holistic environmental benefits, the boost to wine quality is well worth the effort. “It’s a testament, particularly in the last vintage, in 2021, when we had quite a lot of rain and we had the most perfect fruit. A lot of people were just dropping all their fruit. It was wonderful to see the health of the vineyard and the vines being reflected in the fruit.”

A flowform aerates water, adding energy to the biodynamic preparations that are applied to the vineyard.
“It’s about caring for the land and giving back, rather than snatching and grabbing ideas as a marketing opportunity.”

That transparency is critical for Cullen, whose operation is certified both in the vineyard and winery, as well as boasting rigorous documentation of both offsetting and sequestering significantly more carbon than the operation, including air travel, produces. “Our biggest achievement is authentic sustainable winegrowing,” says Cullen. “That has always been the core ambition. I should say, authentic, sustainable, quality winegrowing, because that is what has meant we could stay in business.”

First Nations learning

For Cullen, revitalising the land has been a 50-year journey, with the quest to encourage and support others to farm better an ongoing one. Cullen is also mindful that while the efforts at Cullen have restored life to the land, made the hard ground soft again, which the local Wadandi people say the land of their ancestors was, it can never be the same. Rather, the future needs to incorporate First Nations knowledge to heal the land. “I think if there’s a direction,” she says, “that’s where we need to look, I think globally really, but certainly in the wine industry. There’s 50 years of sustainable winegrowing from that energetic legacy of my parents caring for the environment, but we’ve also got 65,000 years of Wadandi sustainable land care, which is always a bit humbling, and we always like to acknowledge the custodians of the land where the grapes are grown.”

“There’s 50 years of sustainable winegrowing from that energetic legacy of my parents caring for the environment, but we’ve also got 65,000 years of Wadandi sustainable land care, which is always a bit humbling, and we always like to acknowledge the custodians of the land where the grapes are grown.”

Cullen has a six-season calendar in the works, which mirrors the six seasons of the Wadandi, but she emphasises that it’s not a chronicle of indigenous knowledge, rather a way of better understanding their own intersection with the environment. “It’s about what grows in the six seasons, about the vegetables we grow and about the vineyard as well,” she says. “We’re acknowledging those six seasons. In Europe, there are four seasons, but this is a different place and we’re using that knowledge of the land. It’s about listening to the land and what the land is doing, rather than overlaying a culture on it.”

There is no doubt that the estate is in the best shape of its life, with the health of soil and plants visible even to the most casual observer, while the wines have never been so highly regarded. But for Cullen, the mission is a farsighted one, and one that she envisages will continue to grow and improve when she finally passes the custodianship on. “We just want to keep making better quality wine, and down the track I’m sure it will still be owned by the Cullen family.”

The Wines

2019 Cullen ‘Kevin John’ Chardonnay $135 RRP

There’s power and restraint here in equal measure, a range of cool stone fruit in the white rather than yellow spectrum, along with green fig, lime pith, firm pear and lemon blossom, with winemaking inputs melding in seamlessly, a sliver of classy oak, a whisp of matchstick. That sense of poise is doubled down on the palate, with the drive and intensity of those old vines giving this a quiet assuredness, a grace through the mouth that is gently supported and framed by the winemaking, rather than being dominated.

2019 Cullen ‘Diana Madeline’ $140 RRP

87% cabernet sauvignon, 7% merlot, 3% cabernet franc, 2% malbec and 1% petit verdot. This opens with intense aromas of mulberry, dark cherry, black and red berries, tobacco leaf, lilting florals, both red and blue, dark spices, woody herbs, cedar and an underlying ferrous and gravelly minerality. There’s lots on show, but the impression is of effortlessness, a serene harmony, which carries through to the palate, a cresting wave of flavour channelled by ultra-fine tannins and spine of natural acidity through an incredibly long finish. It’s a wine that has many decades ahead of it, yet drinks so well now.

As at time of publishing this article, the 2019 Kevin John chardonnay is effectively sold out. For all Cullen Wines purchase enquiries, visit their website.

Cullen Wines are a partner of the Wineslinger Awards.