The soul of Western Australia in a cosmic cabernet
By Victoria Moore, Wine correspondent
26 January 2018, telegraph.co.uk
If anyone can make you believe in biodynamics, it’s Vanya Cullen. Even when she’s feeling a bit churned up – which she was last time I saw her – she is such a comfortable, Mother Earth, presence (and her wines are so good) that anything seems possible. I arrive in the midday sun and we sit on the shady veranda of her Western Australia winery and talk about feminism, the Wardandi people, family rows, the importance of looking after the land, and how hard life must have been in this beautiful wilderness, three hours’ drive (on today’s roads) south of Perth, back in the late Forties when there was no running water and it was “populate or perish”.
We also chat about elements of the biodynamic approach, which is all about reconnecting plants and soil to the power of the cosmos. At Vanya’s table, wines with names that refer to actual planetary positioning (example: “Moon opposite Saturn Harvest”) appear as reasonable as they are delicious. It helps that she keeps a very good table. Shortly before his death A A Gill wrote longingly of “a long al fresco lunch among the grapes and the bees” at her vineyard restaurant in Margaret River.
The planets aligned 50 years ago, when Diana Cullen first made her Margaret River wines.
“He was a very funny man, Adrian,” says Vanya, as plates of potted rabbit with cucumber, and lemon verbena smoked trout, dandelion vinaigrette and artichoke purées arrive. “The first time we met I said, ‘Would you like a glass of wine?’ He said, ‘No, darling, I’m an alcoholic.’” If Gill never knew the joyful integrity of a Cullen Wine, he evidently appreciated the food, and an atmosphere built by two generations of singularly impressive pioneers.
Vanya is the youngest of six children born to Dr Kevin John Cullen and his wife Diana, who came to nearby Busselton soon after the Second World War. I ask where the Russian name comes from. “My mother trained as a physiotherapist and was thinking of going to Russia to study natural childbirth techniques. She never did but she did learn some Russian. Don’t ask me where she found a Russian teacher in Busselton but she did.”
Busselton looks out on to the Indian Ocean and is famous as the home of the longest wooden jetty in the world (at over a mile long), and a visiting population of humpback whales. It also has a significant place in the medical world. If asthma runs in your family, or you suffer from depression and diabetes, you probably have reason to be thankful for the findings of the Busselton Health Study. It is one of the most important and longest-running epidemiological research programmes there has ever been, and it was initiated by Dr Cullen, the local GP, in 1966.
Somehow, while busily organising data, treating patients, and raising their family of six, Kevin and Diana also found time to research the idea of planting vines to make wine on their farmland, 25 miles away in Wilyabrup. Winemaking was a weekend activity for them at first. As the wines began to pick up prizes at shows, Diana moved across full-time. In 1989, Vanya joined her and the two of them ran Cullen Wines together until Diana’s death in 2003.
“There was a very empty place in my heart when she passed away,” says Vanya. “The move towards biodynamics was probably an evolution of that. I sort of went inside out rather than outside in. And it’s felt good. People kept asking, ‘So how are you going to grow the business?’ and I said, ‘I’m not, I’m just going to make better wine.’”
Cullen Wines are made only from grapes grown on the estate – 49 hectares (121 acres) of vineyard in Wilyabrup, an area sometimes referred to as the “Pauillac of Margaret River” because the land has such an affinity with cabernet sauvignon. Wilyabrup cabernet is known for its depth and ability to engage with its supple, quiet strength.
The grape is usually thought of as the king of Margaret River so it’s quite a surprise when Vanya says: “My mother hated cabernet sauvignon. I remember the 1979 vintage was a big, tough, tannic monster. She said, ‘Get rid of it,’ so I took all the cases back to my cellar and just enjoyed it.” But it turns out that what Di – the daughter of a suffragette and the first woman in Busselton to wear trousers, according to Vanya – hated was pure cabernet sauvignon. “She liked cabernet blends. I like the strength of the pure grape.”
I’m often asked what I feel is my greatest achievement and for me it’s about sustainability
Curious, now, we try a 1978 cabernet sauvignon that Vanya magics out of the winery cellar. It’s astonishingly good, vital and complex, even before you allow for the comparatively primitive state of winemaking and viticulture here in the Seventies; absolute proof that Margaret River deserves its place as one of the world’s classic winemaking regions.
Vanya’s contribution to the evolution of wine at Cullen Wines is detail, and a push to unite still further the wine with the land on which it’s grown. She experiments, but never throws the baby out with the bathwater. For instance, there are amphorae and concrete eggs in the winery. Vanya does make an amber wine but she also uses small portions of wine fermented in amphorae to give texture to some of her other blends.
I am here to take part in the celebrations for Margaret River’s 50th vinous anniversary, a birthday that is inevitably a bit of a reckoning point. “It does make you reflect on the past,” says Vanya. “It’s the land that makes the wine, that’s the thing and the land is so old and has all that history in it of those people who are the traditional custodians. I’m often asked what I feel is my greatest achievement and for me it’s about sustainability. It’s such a beautiful thing giving to the land and then at the harvest you get back.”
Does she feel that people are looking after the land? “Not in the Australian wine industry, no. They say they are but…” The proof is always in the pudding, of course. And Cullen Wines have something. An elegant classicism, yes, but also soul.
I recommend the Mangan MMPV 2016 if you’re after a red – or the white I’ve included in Wines of the Week.
Cullen Wines Mangan Vineyard sauvignon blanc-semillon 2016 Margaret River, Australia (12%, Noel Young Wines in Cambridge, £20.95)
A white wine that offers edge and refreshment, but which also swirls with subtle flavours and an incipient richness. Made from 57% sauvignon blanc, 38% sémillon and 5% verdelho, with a small portion fermented in barrel, it’s reminiscent of mown hay, lemon zest, grapefruit juice and fennel.
Purchase online here