The ‘mad doctor from Perth’ who made Margaret River
By David Prestipino, September 22nd 2017
Whilst we don’t necessarily agree with the title of his article in watoday.com.au, we have shared his story below which includes mention of the integral role Dr Kevin Cullen played in the early days of Margaret River, and the respect youngest daughter Vanya Cullen is afforded as one of the great wine makers of the region.|
James Halliday and Vanya Cullen at the 2016 Cullen Award for Excellence
‘When Dr Tom Cullity arrived in Margaret River in 1967 to plant the region’s first commercial vineyard, the locals were not too happy.
Rumour had it the “mad doctor from Perth”, who some locals referred to him as, was setting up a nudist colony or wife-swapping cult on his 20-acre bush block.
But all the 41-year-old was doing was planting cabernet, shiraz and riesling, and inadvertently kick-starting a wine region and wine style now revered around the world.
“(Back then) it was a poor area – dirt poor,” Cullity told an interviewer three decades on.
“There was hardly anybody there. It was a closed community.”
Fifty years later, Margaret River is now one of the world’s most famous and prestigious wine regions, and Vasse Felix – where Cullity planted those vines – is a star of the show, in no part thanks to him and other pioneers like Kevin Cullen, who had discussed a joint venture with Cullity before the two embarked on separate winery ventures.
The same year Cullity planted the first grapes in Margaret River, the area was scientifically identified by UWA agronomist Dr John Gladstones to be ideal for grape growing.
Now, 20 per cent of premium wine sales in Australia come from the 100-odd cellar doors in Margaret River and, while each vintage presents its own quirks and challenges, the consistent quality of wines, year after year, compared with other wine regions around the world, is remarkable.
No other Australian wine region can match this feat, as evidenced by WA winning 13 of the past 14 capital city cabernet trophies, from just three per cent of Australia’s total cabernet production, and eight of the past 10 capital city chardonnay trophies, from just 2.1 per cent of Australia’s production.
The Queen of Margs… chardonnay
Most grape varieties now thrive on the region’s mediterranean climate, with chardonnay the perennial queen of Margaret River, and cabernet king.
Cullen Wines chief winemaker Vanya Cullen said the secret to making good chardonnay from Margs was to, essentially, leave it alone.
“It’s about making that wine with a sense of place … in its best form the flower, the fruit and the earth, and what comes from that is the minerality,” she said.
Vasse Felix’s chief winemaker Virginia Willcock said the strength of Margaret River was evident in the stark contrast in style of the region’s chardonnays.
“When you travel through [Margaret River] and taste chardonnays from many different producers, you have such an array of style,” she said.
“From the elegant, tight lines of refined oak treatment, always complex… and you go right through to the more powerful, very full bodied, beautiful, deep rich chardonnays.”
James Halliday will attend Gourmet Escape to celebrate the likes of Vanya Cullen.
Why cabernet is king
If chardonnay is queen, Margaret River winemakers are unanimous on who rules the region … cabernet.
“More than any other grape variety, cabernet wants to be here.. you can feel it,” Woodlands winemaker Andrew Watson said.
It’s one of its great homes in the world,” adds Cullen, whose winery was the first in Australia to be certified fully biodynamic.
The secret to cabernet’s reign lies in the paper Dr Gladstones produced all those 50 years ago, which identified Margaret River’s unique microsoils and proximity to the ocean as ideal growing conditions for cab.
“We have the heat, the sunlight to be able to perfectly ripen cabernet, and get it past that green spectrum but it’s not too hot, so we’re still retaining elegance in our wines,” Ipso Facto winemaker Kate Morgan said.
“It’s one of the last ripening in the cooler end of the growing season, and that seems to allow the fruit to retain lovely levels of perfumes with lovely levels of tannin ripeness,” Domaine Naturaliste winemaker Bruce Dukes said.
Indeed the distinctive, distinguished, herbal influences of Margaret River cabernet are evident to the naked eyes of those who live in and visit the region.
“If anyone’s driven down a dirt road in Margaret River, that smell of dust and earth is beautiful and I think with the soils that we grow our cabernet in, you can almost see a little bit of that gravel road,” Vasse’s Willcock said.
In fact, Vasse Felix decided to honour Cullity’s legacy by releasing a special wine under his name 50 years later… an elegant blend of the grapes he planted in the original vineyard block, replacing the Heytesbury as the winery’s top red.
Also celebrating the 50-year milestone is Margaret River’s favourite foodie event Gourmet Escape, which has developed a blockbuster wine program for its November event to mark the occassion.
World-renowned wine critics Jancis Robinson and James Halliday are just two of several big-name wine personalities who will venture down south in November to raise a glass in honour of Cullity, Cullen and co, who have all helped grow Margaret River into the wine mecca it is today.