Feature: Cullen’s wine

This is a story I wrote late last year but am posting today as I just saw that Vanya Cullen has won yet another award for Cullens, the biodynamic, carbon neutral and organic winery her parents established down in Margaret River, Western Australia. I love writing about people’s work, their approach, their success. It’s always inspiring.

Vanya Cullen has lived and worked on her family’s winery for most of her life. Her favourite place is the original cabernet sauvignon block, planted in 1971. “It’s the heart of the vineyard and every time I go there I feel at home. Growing up, we worked on the vineyard and farm every weekend, clearing land, tending the vines and having fun.”

Cullen Wines is now one of the Margaret River region’s most acclaimed wineries. But when Vanya’s parents, Kevin and Diana, planted that first acre on their Wilyabrup farm, it was a different place. Cattle and sheep farming were the main industries, the surf breaks were reserved for locals, and the planting of grapevines was met with deep scepticism.

The initial spark was a thesis, published in 1966 by agronomist John Gladstones, declaring the region ideal for viticulture. At the time, Kevin was working in Busselton as a doctor, Diana was a physiotherapist, and they were busy raising their children, including Vanya, the youngest of six.

Intrigued, Kevin organised the first grape grower meeting in 1966 and initiated a planting on the nearby Juniper Estate, along with a few neighbours. Diana taught herself winemaking from a mix of books and trial and error, and did much of the early work as her husband built up his medical practice. 

The original winery was a settler’s cottage and then a shearing shed, with its stone cladding and wraparound verandah added later. Their first cabernet was presented in a hand-labelled bottle and sold for $2.50. A restaurant soon followed, serving scones, pasties and cheese platters, largely to prevent people from becoming too unsteady while tasting wine.

Today the estate restaurant is a refined space with a panoramic view of the vineyard and a menu that continues the tradition of serving local food, now sourced from the restaurant’s own gardens. “My mother always made people feel very comfortable and at ease, and the cellar door and restaurant still have that feeling.”

Local farmers built the family home in 1976, a solid homestead with a granite rock exterior that stays warm throughout the region’s cold winters. “We always had Christmas here with the family. Mum made the best mince pies and turkey, served with a few burgundies and Bordeaux. There was singing after lunch and Dad loved to play the piano.”

Vanya was the only one of her siblings to go into winemaking. After studying zoology at UWA, she completed a winemaking course at Roseworthy Agricultural College in South Australia, and became assistant winemaker at Cullens in 1983.

Stints in Napa Valley and Burgundy vineyards followed, before she assumed her current role as managing director in 1999. The following year, she was awarded winemaker of the year in the Qantas/The Wine Magazine Awards.

Her work as a wine judge frequently takes her away from the family farm, but provides fresh insights that she brings home. “Wine shows are the best way to get a snapshot of the industry and I’m grateful to have that experience – you always learn something.”

Cullens was certified organic in 2003 and biodynamic in 2004, and is also the first carbon-neutral vineyard in Australia. As with organic growing, biodynamic farming takes place without chemical input and prioritises soil health, and also follows a strict timetable for planting, harvesting and other activities.

These developments were in line with how the farm had always been managed, with minimal chemicals and intense focus on the growth cycle and soil health. The vineyards have never been irrigated and depend on rainfall alone, which results in fewer grapes with a more concentrated flavour.

“My parents left a legacy of caring for the environment. Mum and I went organic to heal the land and then the year that she passed away our vineyard manager went to a biodynamic conference and it just felt right to try that, too. We trialled an area of chardonnay in 2003 and it went well so the whole vineyard was converted to biodynamics that year. Great wines made sustainably – you can’t get better than that.”

The elegant final product has not gone unnoticed. Nigella Lawson is one of the winery’s better-known fans, and recently mentioned steaming a label off a bottle of Cullens Amber and framing it.

“I feel incredibly happy about Nigella’s comments. The amber wine she likes in particular is a relatively new one for us and expresses the vineyard in a way that is unique.”

First published in The Australian, October 12, 2018