Cullen Vanya Cullen, Brian Martin, Tim Ansell, Jake Ansell & Nick Firth

Top Vineyards

Cullen wines, led by Vanya Cullen is one of the blue chip names in Margaret River, and more specifically the subregion of Wilyabrup where her parents planted the first estate vines in 1971. Her stewardship has taken the farming from one that was always environmentally sympathetic to having now held biodynamic certification for just shy of two decades – as well as being recently assessed as carbon negative. The original vineyard is responsible for the iconic cabernets, ‘Diana Madeline’, and chardonnay, ‘Kevin John’, as well a raft of bottlings ranging from the classically styled to those that walk a more experimental path.

The approach to caring for the land was very much instilled in Vanya by her parents, Diana and Dr Kevin Cullen, but it was with her mother that the resolution to switch to fully organic practices was made. In 1998, all synthetic chemicals were banished, with certification later sought, which was conferred in 2003. Cullen then went a step further, with the vineyard and winery certified biodynamic the following year.

In many respects, the Cullen Vineyard came about by accident, with the property originally intended as a mixed farming and grazing property. Cullen’s parents trialled many different crops, with the intention of planting lupins knocked on the head after a visit from their friend Dr John Gladstones in 1965 who said they were crazy not to plant grapes in their place.

At the time, Gladstones was writing what would become the seminal paper to launch Margaret River viticulture in earnest. At that time, the warm Swan District fringing Perth was the powerhouse region, with Dr Harry Olmo from the University of California commissioned to analyse the climatic effects on grape-growing there. In the process, he identified other areas that he thought had great potential, and indeed might be even more suitable.

Olmo went south, citing the region we now call the Great Southern as prime wine-growing territory, but he eliminated Margaret River from his thinking, noting the high rainfall as a limiting factor. Gladstones picked up that baton using Olmo’s research and methods, but he noted that while high, the rainfall was timed well, occurring in spring and winter, meaning the vines would be well set up to handle the generally warm summers.

The first vines at the home vineyard were planted in 1971, with Dr Tom Cullity credited with establishing Margaret River’s first vineyard (there were scattered vines prior, but nothing with commercial intent) in 1967. In fact, the Cullens and a group of friends had planted trial blocks in 1966, with one across the road from Cullity’s Vasse Felix at what is now Juniper Estate. However, those vines did not survive, being accidently poisoned due to a misunderstanding and subsequently removed.

Today, the 1971 vines supply the cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and malbec for the Cullen flagship red, ‘Diana Madeline’, while a much smaller planting of chardonnay goes to the flagship white, ‘Kevin John’. Sauvignon blanc and semillon are also grown, making a tribute blend for Diana’s mother, ‘Grace Madeline’. There is also a smattering of chenin blanc, planted in 1976, which is made into a dessert wine.

The youngest vines on the original property were planted in 1988, with the neighbouring Mangan vineyard planted in 1995–97. Today, Cullen has 50 hectares in vines in total, with 20 hectares at the Mangan Vineyard, which is also certified organic.

The Cullen Vineyard is also responsible for the new Legacy Series, including a super-premium sauvignon blanc and the ‘Fruit Day Kevin John’ that sees chardonnay fermented in amphora with a whisper of skin contact, then raised in barrel. Vanya has also created an ultra-premium eponymous straight cabernet sauvignon. Aside from the iconic wines, the Cullen range is one that is constantly shifting, with skin-contact amber wines, the occasional pét-nat and preservative-free wines also made in the Supernatural range.

Today, the vineyard is naturally run by biodynamic methods, but Vanya is forever pursuing greater gains, both for her property and for the greater good. Since 2006, she has engaged a consultancy company to assess the impact of the entire operation, which include all upstream and downstream impacts from air miles, packaging and freight to diesel use and even refrigerant gas loss. That assessment resulted in completely offsetting the Cullen footprint by supporting biodiversity projects, including the Yarra Yarra corridor in WA’s mid-north.

Additionally, steps were taken to reduce their use of fossil fuels, including by powering their operation – which includes a restaurant supplied by their biodynamic gardens – partly with solar panels, while supplemental power is supplied through a renewable provider. It was the significant increase of the health of the soil that was having the biggest impact, though. A focused plan to sequester more carbon and improve soil health was undertaken through multi-species mid-row planting and an enhanced composting regimen.

That approach, matched with the offset program, continued before the soils were thoroughly tested, which they now are annually by an independent operator. The increase in soil carbon was dramatic, and it was increasing. Between 2014 and ’19 over 1,800 tonnes were sequestered per annum, increasing the soil carbon content by 1.9%. In 2020, the Cullen operation was not just carbon neutral but carbon negative, sequestering significantly more than they expended wether directly or indirectly.

Today, Cullen is both a pillar of classic Margaret River and a beacon for the future, seamlessly entwining the pursuit of great wine that is reflective of where it is grown with the highest standards of sustainability and environmental responsibility.

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