Understanding the Vines
She has just collected the Halliday ‘Winemaker of the Year’ Award 2020 and Australian Woman in Wine ‘Winemaker of Year’ Award 2019. Fergal Gleeson speaks to winemaker of the moment, Vanya Cullen.
2019 marks Vanya Cullen’s 30th year as Chief Winemaker for Cullen Wines. Vanya is one of Australia’s best known winemakers has been it’s most vocal advocate of biodynamic winemaking and sustainable agriculture. She has just collected the Halliday ‘Winemaker of the Year’ Award 2020 and Australian Woman in Wine ‘Winemaker of Year’ Award 2019.
Early Days in Margaret River
Her parents, Busselton based GP, Kevin and physiotherapist, Diana Madeline were two of the pioneering winemakers of Margaret River, establishing Cullen Wines in 1971.
“We grew up on the beach. Dad would catch dhufish,” Vanya recalls. “I remember as a kid cycling around with Caroline Juniper (of Juniper Estate) chewing lollies and both thinking it was great that our parents had planted a vineyard.”
However the winery created plenty of chores for the young Cullens. “We were always working in the vineyard or in the cellar. Mum and dad were workaholics. But mum always made the work seem alright by preparing a lovely picnic and a thermos!”
It was not inevitable that Vanya would follow her parents into Cullen Wines. She studied music in Perth and Adelaide. However her father Kevin booked her in the postgraduate diploma in oenology at Roseworthy alongside her music studies as he wanted one of their children to know about wine.
Her house is full of music instruments. There’s a piano, a harmonium, a guitar and ukulele all of which she plays “in a fashion” she says. There was a plan to give up wine at 50 and go back and finish her music degree.
There was lots of music at her recent 60th birthday party shindig. “Like me the choices were eclectic!” she laughs. Everything from Jerry Lee Lewis and Billy Joel to Hare Krishna, Bach, Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. Though it would seem music studies will have to wait!
Vanya returned to winemaking at Cullen Wines in 1983. There were vintages working overseas in the 1980’s which provided insights. Her time in New Zealand led to experimentation with trellising systems and how they effect flavour. Vanya’s time in Napa Valley coincided with the early days of Opus One, founded by Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Robert Mondavi. It allowed her to observe how a Bordeaux ‘first growth’ makes wine. Her third overseas vintage was in Burgundy where she got experience working with natural yeasts for fermentation.
The passion for nature and biodynamic winemaking runs deep. Her parents were environmentalists campaigning again the flooding of Lake Pedder in Tasmania and against mining in Margaret River. Her father saw the effects of chemicals on potato farmers first hand in his practice. Kevin died due to motor neurone disease which Vanya believes may have been caused by his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam where he served as a doctor during the war.
Cullen Wines was carbon negative this year, improving on it’s previous carbon neutral result. The process involves planting trees to offset the carbon used in wine production.
Vanya and her mother converted Cullen Wines to organic becoming fully certified in 2003. This was enhanced by Cullen Wines becoming biodynamically certified in 2004.
Biodynamic winemaking can sound “kooky” with it’s practices such as burying organic material in cow horns to develop the natural sprays and coinciding activities around lunar movements. Vanya has been subjected to some scepticism for her advocacy of biodynamics.
I spoke to biodynamic Burgundian winemaker Pascal Marchand recently. When he started biodynamic winemaking he was laughed at and thought of as a “hippy in the woods”. No one laughs anymore. Burgundy now has the most biodynamic vineyards in the world.
Vanya feels that Australia has reached a “reluctant acceptance” of organic and biodynamic winemaking. “It’s pleasing that we now reached a tipping point where for whatever reason people are moving to organic and biodynamic practices,” she says.
She acknowledges it has been a lonely place.
“It’s not about me. It’s about the earth. Not putting toxic chemicals into the earth that people eat. People understand how probiotics creates gut health. This is similar. It’s about the creation of balanced aligned soils and healthy vines. Then you don’t have to add anything to correct the wines because they are coming from a balanced place.”
Cullen Wines have fitted seamlessly into the trend for natural wines as evidenced by her release of a petillant naturel ‘Rose Moon’, the Malbec & Petit Verdot blend ‘Red Moon’ and ‘Amber’, a white wine. “There is a problem with the lack of definition of ‘natural wine,’ she says. “Some people just buy grapes from everywhere and you are supposed to like it because it’s a natural wine. All our wines are natural but ‘Red Moon’ and ‘Amber’ are supernatural.”
They are totally different from the iconic classic wines like ‘Diana Madeline’, recently awarded best Cabernet blend by the Halliday Companion and ‘Kevin John Chardonnay’.
In 2012 Cullen Wines released Margaret River’s most expensive Cabernet named ‘Vanya’, which has been awarded the Halliday Companions best Cabernet in two of the last four years. The new releases of ‘Vanya’ sell for $500, a considerable sum, but it’s worth noting that there are more than 25 wineries in Napa Valley releasing more expensive Cabernets. It is also less than half the price of first growth Bordeaux. They are exquisite wines.
“Mum loved the Cabernet bled which is why “Diana Madeline’ used the classic Bordeaux varietals Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. I loved single varietal Cabernet. After 9 years of being fully biodynamic I thought now we have a wine that is good enough. These decisions are made at the tasting table and in the vineyard. There are no rules!”
Cullen Wines have just released a ‘2016 Vanya’ and two versions of ‘2017 Vanya’ – ‘Full Moon’ and ‘Flower Day’. “It would have easier to blend them into one wine to sell but they are so different I wanted to honour nature and show the difference,” she says.
“We are a young region and still delineating sub regions. There’s ‘Bordeaux’ and there’s ‘Pauliac’. It’s a point of interest. It’s about identifying what it is that’s great,” Cullen says.
A milestone year like her 30th anniversary naturally causes some reflection. “It’s been a love story about the earth, nature and friends. At times it’s been really difficult. But I feel blessed. Mum and dad gave something to the world. They were people of integrity. It’s a love of all those things!”
What next for Cullen Wines? “Understanding the vineyards and making them better. Keep evolving the wines and improving them. Like the holy grail,” says Vanya. “You never get there! You always believe that the best is yet to come. But you must enjoy the journey!”
Now that you know about the winemaker, it’s time to visit the winery!
Images courtesy of Cullen Winery and Tim Campbell