It was only in the 1960s that vines were first planted in Margaret River in Western Australia – a district that is now regarded as one of Australia's leading premium wine regions.
The first two wine producers in the region were Vasse Felix and Cullen Wines – and Cullen is today regarded as one of the pioneers of Australian organic and biodynamic viticulture, as well as being the first vineyard and winery in the country to be certified carbon neutral and be naturally powered.
Founders Kevin and Diana Cullen, whose names are honoured by the winery's flagship red and white wines, handed over the reins to their daughter Vanya, who made her first vintage in 1983 and is regarded as one of the pre-eminent global experts on biodynamic wine farming.
Diana and Kevin Cullen planted a trial vineyard on their Wilyabrup property in 1966 and, pleased by the results, planted a further 17 acres of vineyards in 1971, vowing to use minimum chemical intervention right from the start.
Today, Cullen Wines produces around 20,000 cases of premium wines, which can be found on wine lists of some of the world's greatest restaurants.
|Cullen vines and restaurant|
Vanya Cullen, a qualified zoologist and keen surfer, was named Australian Winemaker of the Year in 2000 and Woman of the Year by UK-based wine magazine The Drinks Business in 2008, becoming the first Australian to receive the award.
Cullen Wines has been run according to biodynamic principles since 2003 after having adopted organic methods in 1998.
“The role of the winemaker is to be a custodian of the land,” Vanya Cullen says.
The on-site restaurant at the winery also serves only biodynamically-produced foods with many of the vegetables coming from the property's own potager.
“Put simply, biodynamic viticulture is a philosophy combining the maintenance of sustainable soil fertility and the recognition of the link between plant growth and the rhythms of the cosmos,” she says.
“It is a method of farming that treats the vineyard as a living system, which interacts with the environment to build a healthy living soil that helps to nourish the vines and general environment.”
It is a message that she spreads relentlessly – and many would argue that Cullen is today one of the most influential women in the world of wine.
|Qantas tasting panel Steve Pannell, Vanya Cullen and Tom Carson|
She has judged wine shows throughout Australia and is one of three winemakers on the Qantas tasting panel. In 2011 she was named “Green Personality of the Year” for her commitment to the wine industry and for demonstrating that you can operate a successful business while looking after the environment.
Whether Vanya has time to talk to a visiting journalist may depend on the position of the moon in relation to the planets. Planting and picking on the right days of the biodynamic calendar are paramount for her.
“Biodynamics relies on a series of preparations based in mineral, plant and animal substances rather than the traditional potentially toxic chemicals and sprays.” she says. “In the Cullen vineyards, this involves firstly the enhancement of the soil structure through the addition of homeopathic preparations, specially prepared composts and various fish and other emulsions and also the use of nitrogen-enhancing cover crops.
“The resulting increase in humus in the soil leads to greater microbial activity and improved aeration and retention of moisture around the roots of the vines.
“While we embrace the beneficial effects of using new technology in the winery, we remain acutely aware that certain traditional methods still produce the best outcomes, including: enhanced expression of fruit, minerality and integration of flavours; lower alcohol, lower sugar and higher acidity; expression of terroir from vineyard to bottle and elegant wine styles that are better balanced.”
Cullen's tasting notes make sure everyone knows her philosophy, with lines like “harvested over full moon fruit days.”
Whatever your thoughts on organics and biodynamics, however, the proof is in the bottle.
“It is impossible to single out any particular [Cullen] wine from the top echelon,” says James Halliday in his 2015 Wine Companion annual, the Australian wine bible. “All are superb.”
Cullen Wines recognised Kevin’s pioneering contribution by naming its premium chardonnay “Kevin John”, twinning it with the Diana Madeline, the flagship cabernet blend named in honour of his late wife.
While these two wines represent the pinnacle of the company's production, other red wines produced include a more affordable Bordeaux-style blend called Mangan, while the range also includes two outstanding single-vineyard sauvignon blanc-semillon blends and a preservative-free malbec.
Cullen Wines: www.cullenwines.com.au