Cullen Wines have been certified biodynamic for nearly 20 years, and its footprint is now not just carbon neutral, but carbon negative. We chat with Vanya Cullen, and review the release of Cullen’s 2018 flagship wines.
Wines Of Now
– 2020 Top 50 Winemaker Feature
On the surface, it’s easy to compare the Geelong wine region with the Mornington Peninsula. Its Bellarine Peninsula embraces Port Phillip Bay in tandem with the Mornington Peninsula, and two of the regional heroes are chardonnay and pinot noir. But the two places are remarkably dissimilar, with Geelong sprawling both along the coast and bay, as well as inland, unlike water-flanked Mornington. While Mornington catches the light with a good dose of glamour, Geelong has a quieter resolve and greater subregional diversity, which makers are exploiting to exciting effect. This year’s Top 50 features Mulline’s Ben Mullen, Empire of Dirt’s Natasha Webster and Micro Wines’ Jonathan Ross.
The Geelong wine region was largely founded by Swiss settlers in the 1840s, who had the good foresight to plant pinot noir and shiraz, amongst other varieties, which to this day are two of the region’s great strengths. They also planted pinot meunier – with an unknown vineyard in the Barrabool Hills the source of Best’s historic vines (thought to be the world’s oldest), in Great Western – pinot blanc and chasselas, a Swiss variety. What is now known as Neuchatel (formerly Suisse Vineyard), was perhaps the most famous of the original sites, with an original chasselas vine still framing the doors of the historic stables – it is the only living remnant of that era.
Many of Victoria’s vineyards disappeared in the late 19th century and early 20th century, with a mix of economic decline and phylloxera almost wiping out the state’s wine industry. Geelong suffered a particularly cruel fate, with a government decree mandating all vines pulled as some kind of ‘back burning’ to save other regions from phylloxera. The effort was both destructive and a dismal failure, with key zones falling to the vine louse regardless.
Like so many abandoned wine regions, replanting in Geelong began in the 1960s – beginning with Darryl and Nini Sefton’s Idyll Vineyard – though perhaps its most famous producer, Bannockburn Vineyards, was first planted in the 70s. With the irascible Gary Farr at the helm, Bannockburn became arguably Australia’s leading producer of pinot noir and chardonnay in the 80s and 90s, informed by his ongoing experience working at Domaine Dujac, in Burgundy.
“There are not a lot of places in the world where one finds shiraz/syrah planted on clay/limestone soils,” he says. “That, combined with the legacy of the Bannockburn estate, makes these grapes quite special.”
Farr left Bannockburn in 2005, but he lives on the adjacent property, and had begun planting his own vineyard in the mid-90s. Today, he takes a lower profile, with his son, Nick Farr (2007 YGOW finalist), making the wines for their By Farr and Farr Rising labels, with both seen as some of the pinnacle expressions of chardonnay, pinot noir, gamay and shiraz from the region, and very much made in a classic style.
By Farr wasn’t the first Farr solo project, though, with Gary planting the Clyde Park vineyard in 1980. It was subsequently sold in 1994, with attention focused on today’s By Farr site, nestled against the Bannockburn vineyards. Clyde Park was briefly owned by legendary Melbourne restaurateur Donlevy Fitzpatrick before Terry and Sue Jongebloed acquired it, adding and adjusting much of the plantings.
Mulline’s Ben Mullen was the winemaker at Clyde Park for a brief but very influential stint, which saw him settle in the region. Mullen is from the Barossa, but Geelong resonated with him on a deep level.
“Geelong is a region that has amazing and old vineyard sites of pinot noir, chardonnay and syrah, and such diversity within the subregions,” says Mullen. “I really loved the wines that I was producing at Clyde Park, especially being able to build structure and tension into my style, and I wanted to continue that in my own brand.”
That diversity of styles from the subregions, however, is perhaps not something that is well represented and understood at a consumer level. “Geelong is so vast, ranging from Moorabool, Bellarine and the Surf Coast, that it’s hard to generalise,” Mullen says. “Soil and climate vary so much within the subregions. The Moorabool Valley vineyards I source from are old soils, predominately limestone, clay and granite that produce minerality in the wines, where the Bellarine Peninsula vineyards are made up more of sandy loams, clay and some limestone. Those wines are more brooding, but still have amazing freshness and vibrancy. Inland in the Moorabool, we have warm days and cool nights in summer, helping to build tannin and flavour but keeping acids in check. The Bellarine is more of a maritime climate, so Bass Strait and Port Phillip Bay help influence the cooler summer days.”
“Soil and climate vary so much within the subregions. The Moorabool Valley vineyards I source from are old soils, predominately limestone, clay and granite that produce minerality in the wines, where the Bellarine Peninsula vineyards are made up more of sandy loams, clay and some limestone. Those wines are more brooding, but still have amazing freshness and vibrancy. Inland in the Moorabool, we have warm days and cool nights in summer, helping to build tannin and flavour but keeping acids in check. The Bellarine is more of a maritime climate, so Bass Strait and Port Phillip Bay help influence the cooler summer days.”
At Geoff and Joan Anson’s Barwon Ridge vineyard, in the Barrabool Hills, pinot meunier was planted in 2018 from cuttings taken from Best’s ancient stocks, finally bringing that original vine material back to the region. And while that homage to history was an important motivation for the planting, suitability to the region was the key driver. It’s a view Mullen agrees with, along with endorsing another variety planted in the 1840s.
“I would love to see some more pinot meunier being put into the ground and some pinot blanc being trialled,” says Mullen. “Gamay is the big one that is being planted recently. Some great examples are being made within Geelong, so that is really exciting.”
Empire of Dirt’s Natasha Webster works with gamay currently, and she believes its future is very bright. “Gamay is well suited to Geelong. Beaujolais is in the warmest part of Burgundy, and with climate change heating up what is traditionally a pinot noir region, many growers here have planted gamay recently. It is more forgiving to warmer summers, as it ripens later than pinot, which in hot years we are having to pick in February or early March. I think pinot will always be popular here, but gamay has the potential to be a resilient variety for a changing climate. I would also like to see more Italian varieties grown in Geelong, as I think our growing seasons match many of Italy’s, and the ocean influences are comparable.”
“Gamay is well suited to Geelong. Beaujolais is in the warmest part of Burgundy, and with climate change heating up what is traditionally a pinot noir region, many growers here have planted gamay recently. It is more forgiving to warmer summers, as it ripens later than pinot, which in hot years we are having to pick in February or early March. I think pinot will always be popular here, but gamay has the potential to be a resilient variety for a changing climate.”
Webster sees the other regional stalwart red variety as suited irrespective of a changing climate. “Shiraz is a fantastic variety for the region, particularly in Moorabool because it generates real depth of character and a generous, complex palate. A lot of Moorabool exists in a rain shadow, so intense inland heat and low summer rainfall usually means low fungal pressure, which is great, and a high intensity in the fruit characters.”
Marching to their own beat
Geelong has established itself on some fairly familiar pillars both in terms of varieties planted and styles made, but that doesn’t mean that every established maker works to a regional playbook. Ray Nadeson and Maree Collis established Lethbridge Estate in 1996 on a former 19th century Swiss vineyard site. They work with chardonnay, pinot noir, shiraz, pinot gris, Bordeaux varieties… much what you would expect, but the spirit of adventure runs deep at Lethbridge.
Sourcing from both inside the region and around Victoria, Nadeson works with a brace of lesser known Italian varieties – like sagrantino and schioppettino – as well as those more familiar – like nebbiolo and sangiovese – as well as experimenting with unusual blends, extended skin contact on reds and whites and fermentation and maturation in amphora. He even has a 14-year-old solera that he uses to make sparkling wines that are both odes to grower Champagne and strikingly different from them, too.
That creativity is not confined to Nadeson, though. “There’s some amazing experimentation happening in Geelong wineries, and our close proximity to Melbourne means we have an engaged audience keen to explore what we produce,” says Webster. “While bigger companies are maintaining a traditional approach, small producers like myself, Babche Wines, Livewire Wines and Bromley Wines, for example, are not restricted by consumer expectations. We have the freedom to try new methods and use lesser known varieties, while Ray [Nadeson] has always been one to march to the beat of his own drum.”
That freedom is increasingly seeing more smaller makers buying fruit off growers, including from established stars. Both Mullen and Micro Wines’ Jonathan Ross buy shiraz from Bannockburn Vineyards, with Ross seeing it as a special site. “There are not a lot of places in the world where one finds shiraz/syrah planted on clay/limestone soils,” he says. “That, combined with the legacy of the Bannockburn estate, makes these grapes quite special. …the wine reminds me of how generous the Australian wine community is – particularly the current custodian of Bannockburn, Matt Holmes.”
And with that surge in interest in Geelong fruit comes a good degree of community and plenty of diversity. “Since going out with Mulline, I’ve seen it be more and more collaborative,” he says. “I source from a few vineyards where the fruit is taken by multiple small producers. Last year, everyone that sources from the Nurringa Park Vineyard, Portarlington, all got together and tasted what we had made and discussed our approach. There were some really interesting styles and very different wines.”
“There is some real camaraderie between the small producers of Geelong,” agrees Webster. “If we promote each other, we can all succeed and be seen as a strong region with something for everyone.”
2018 Empire of Dirt ‘Ink’ Gamay
This is very regional in feel, with an earthy, darkly mineral overtone. There’s an intense fruit character, with sour forest berries and plum skins, accented with baking spices and a rugged cracked earth note. There’s plenty of flavour at modest alcohol (12.5%), with the freshness of acidity that comes with it racing through the palate, rounded out with fine grape/stem tannins and that classic mineral firmness.
2018 Empire of Dirt ‘Blood’ Shiraz
This opens with ripe black berries, sour plum, dark spices, white pepper and, again, that classic regional minerality, with an earthy, rocky feel working with the spice to give plenty of savoury accents to the ripe fruit notes. There’s a seriousness to the weight and depth, with a decent dose of power, but there’s an impeccable measure of restraint, too, with the wine managing plenty of detail and presence, without slipping into overt richness.
2018 Micro Wines Shiraz
This has an interesting interplay of rugged Geelong minerality and fragrant poise. There’s a lift of ripe berries, bracken, full bloom red and blue florals, traces of worn leather, brown cardamom, white pepper, dried dark plums, bitter herbs, fennel seeds. There’s a slight mineral/saline feel across the palate, and a mineral firmness adding structure, with some furry, grape/stem tannins, too.
2019 Mulline Fumé Blanc
Pale straw hue with a light haze. Subtly fragrant nose, with yellow grapefruit pith, crushed fresh sage, lemongrass, smoky struck minerals and a green herbal note, but it’s more lush than grassy. There’s real texture to this, with viscosity coupled with leesy, phenolic tannins, a gentle briny feel and bright but not aggressive acidity. For sauvignon blanc, it’s aromatically subtle, yet complex, and the mouthfeel and structure layer in even more detail.
2019 Mulline ‘Sutherlands Creek’ Pinot Noir
This is fragrant and on the pretty side of things, with red fruits, cherries, cranberry, redcurrant, with a smoky, struck flint and graphite edge and plenty of spice accenting. There’s bell-clear fruit purity, with the subtle influence of whole bunch adding savoury complexity, the fruit strung out on a fine web of spice, with traces of campfire in the background. The palate is poised and supple, with very fine tannins and bright acidity adding to the sense of lithe effortlessness.