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History

In the battle for the heavyweight crown of Australian wine, most pundits would have the championship between Penfold's Grange and Henschke's Hill of Grace. Grange's longevity, consistent quality and international reputation would probably earn it a narrow nod, though personal preference is the ultimate arbitrator.

So often linked, and both brilliant wines, they differ in many ways – think big budget corporate winemaking opposed to a small, high quality and family-run operation. Grange is almost always a Shiraz Cabernet blend, relying largely on the Barossa but also sourcing its fruit from numerous regions - even on occasion venturing past the borders of South Australia into neighbouring states. It is, and always has been, aged in American oak. Quantities vary but there are suggestions that in some vintages production has been as high as 15 000 cases.

 

Hill of Grace is a single vineyard wine, hailing from the eight-hectare vineyard at Eden Valley in the hills surrounding the Barossa Valley; it is 100 per cent Shiraz, and these days sees mostly French oak. Quantities are a fraction of that of Grange, because, although the actual vineyard also has mataro, semillon and riesling, HoG comes only from the ancient shiraz vines, some of which date back around 150 years. The first Grange, experimental though it might have been, was 1951; the first HoG was 1958.

 

At this juncture, I would like to propose a third contender It doesn't come from the ancient vineyards of South Australia; it isn’t a Shiraz (a suggestion close to heresy in Australia); and it is made under biodynamic principles. Cullen's, in Margaret River in the Western Australia, makes a number of superb wines but none better than their Diana Madeline, a 'Cabernet and friends' blend. Production is at Hill of Grace levels – between 1000 and 3000 cases, depending on the vintage.

 

Those who may argue against the credentials of DM could cite the concerns above – not South Australian, not Shiraz and nor does it have the international reputation enjoyed by both Hill of Grace and especially Grange – but they are hardly relevant. More legitimate would be that this is a wine which has offered less than thirty vintages. Consider the first decade ('81 to '90) as the 'decade of establishment', which came immediately before the 'decade of emergence' (1991 to 2000), and now we have just seen the 'decade of stardom' (2001 to 2009). For me, we saw enough in the nineties to know a new star had arrived in the Australian wine firmament, and this last decade has more than confirmed the greatness of the wines. They have earned endless plaudits from every local critic and will surely do so from those outside Australia in time.

 

Kevin and Diana Cullen moved to the West Australia the late 1940s, when it must have resembled the last frontier. Kevin was a local doctor in the small town of Busselton and established the Busselton Health Survey, which has attracted worldwide interest from the international medical community. He and Di also had an interest in farming and purchased land in the Margaret River region for sheep and cattle. For the next twenty years, the region, several hours south of Perth, was seen as agricultural land and, for those prepared to make the journey, one of Australia's most exciting surfing destinations. It was an odd mix – farmers, surfers and the occasional hippie. The Cullens were not the first medicos in the region; in fact, if you had to get ill in a wine region, Margaret River was definitely the one to pick: Tom Cullity set up Vasse Felix in 1965, followed by Bill Pannell at Moss Wood and the Langans at Xanadu. Peter Pratten then founded Capel Vale soon after. All of them were doctors.

 

Studies in the sixties by the famous scientist, Dr John Gladstones, suggested the region might be suitable for viticulture, not least because of the maritime climate, low frost risk, ample sunshine and equable temperatures. He felt it compared to St Emilion and Pomerol. Gladstones was following the work of the American geologist, Dr Harold Olmo. It was enough to tempt the Cullens, at Gladstones' direction, into planting an experimental plot – a mere quarter of an acre. In 1971, this was followed by a further seven hectares of Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling. It would be nice to think that this was an inspired decision but, in reality, these were the only varieties they could source at the time. The Riesling has long gone, even though it provided the winery with some of their earliest successes in the show system, but the Cabernet proved fortunate in the extreme. The Cullens have now expanded their vineyards to 28 hectares. 

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Vineyards

For a very long time in Australia, Coonawarra was King. Cabernet Sauvignon was the noble grape and nowhere did it half as well as Coonawarra. Then, in the 1990s, Shiraz began its inexorable climb to the top of the tree. If that wasn't enough to spoil a Coonawarra winemaker's day, that upstart place full of hippies and surfers in the far corner of Australia was suddenly making Cabernet that the critics were placing on a par with those from the famous cigar-shaped strip of terra rosa soil.

 

Margaret River has now established itself as Australia's premier location for classic Cabernet – and it has patches of superb Chardonnay, as well. Some will argue that it has every claim to be the finest region for the variety outside Bordeaux, but that will always be an argument for late nights. Their climates are quite similar, with Margaret River's Mediterranean climate and low rainfall over the summer period providing an even accumulation of warmth. It can be too hot (2012 is very likely to fall into this category) or too cool and wet, the latter affected the 2006 harvest, but generally it has the unfair advantage of too many absolutely superb years. I asked Di’s daughter and senior winermaker Vanya if that ever got boring. “Oh God no”, she gasped, horrified at the thought. The soil is dominated by gravel and sandy loam over granite. Whether simply through the power of suggestion or something more serendipitous, the tannins in Margaret River Cabernet are often described as 'gravelly'.

 

The region leapt from curiosity to 'flavour of the month' when nearby Cape Mentelle picked up successive Jimmy Watson trophies (Australia’s most desirable wine trophy) for their Cabernet in the early eighties (the 1982 and 1983 in the Melbourne Wine Shows of 1983 and 1984, respectively). Suddenly, a district seen as a fringe curiosity became the name, and wine, on everyone's lips.

 

The early Cullen wines were made by Mike Peterkin of Pierro - yet another doctor. Early success saw expansion and Di Cullen left her physiotherapy practice to become a full-time winemaker. She took over in time for the 1981 vintage. The early wines were straight Cabernet, making their debut with the 1975 vintage. In 1978, a Cabernet Merlot blend was also made. The straight Cabernet was discontinued after the 1981 vintage, as it was felt it was often a little too hard. Reserve wines were also made from 1988 to 1994, but the practice was discontinued after that vintage.

 

Vanya (named after Chekhov's character), who had attended Roseworthy College, was only the second woman in Australia to become a full wine judge. She is considered to have one of Australia's finest palates and took over as senior winemaker in 1989, after stints with Robert Mondavi and Joseph Drouhin. In 2000, she became the first woman to be named 'Australia's Winemaker of the Year'. Sadly, Kevin Cullen passed away in 1994 and Di followed in 2003.

 

The vines that now provide the Diana Madeline – the wine was so dubbed with the 2001 vintage, as a tribute to Vanya's mother – were planted in 1971 (with some subsequent plantings in the 1990s from the Mangan Vineyard, used because they mature sufficiently to provide top-notch fruit), using what are known locally as the 'Houghton clones'. Cullen's is located in the Willyabrup subregion of Margaret River, which features the granitic soils typical of Margaret River. The old vines have sent their roots down seven metres into the granitic soil, moderating the tougher years. The vines are on Scott Henry trellising. Vanya's belief is that this assists in providing darker fruits and more supple tannins, as well as a “better ripeness at lower alcohol levels”, all of which helps to instil “a feeling of place” into the wines.

 

Cabernet is the dominant variety, with varying amounts of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and even occasionally some Malbec and Petit Verdot, all of which are vinified separately and then matured in a mix of new and used French oak for a year and a half, as a general rule. A small amount, usually around 10 to 15 per cent, sees partial barrel fermentation while the remainder of the fruit enjoys extended maceration. The oak is usually about 30 per cent new (again, it varies from vintage to vintage), with Vanya preferring the tighter grained French oaks. Her preference is for barrels from the Louis Latour cooperage, although she is also fond of those from Taransaud.

 

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Winemaking

Vanya believes that the vines now have significant age to provide a much greater depth of fruit, describing the style of DM as “about freshness and complexity, structure and suppleness”. She believes that the soil, in warmer years, imparts ironstone nuances to the wines. In cooler years, this comes across more as a seaweed character.

 

Vanya is one of Australia's strongest proponents of biodynamics, which she sees as “the combination of working with the soil, the plants and the cosmos”. Certification was granted in 2003, with the first vintage following a year later– they had been fully organic since 1998. She believes that it achieves “greater individuality of site through working with nature rather than against it", and that it improves the level of oxygen in the soil, allowing for better dispersal of the root system. Furthermore, Vanya finds that the “vines are more balanced” and that this alleviates the need for thinning. There is better ripeness when alcohol levels are lower. This also allows her to pick earlier, sometimes finishing before neighbouring vineyards have even started. Operating under the theories of Rudolph Steiner, Vanya makes her own compost. Preparations of 500 (cow manure buried under female cow horns over the winter and used “when the moon is in opposition to Saturn or on a descending moon” - seriously), which is sometimes combined with fish emulsion, and 501 (ground silica, again buried under female cow horns but this time over summer) are applied twice in the autumn and twice in the summer, with extra 501 if there is a problem with insects or poor ripening, though Vanya has found that biodynamics strengthen the vines making them more able to resist insect attack on their own.

Causurina tea is applied to prevent downy mildew and botrytis - two litres for every hectare is usually sufficient. Cullen's use an under vine weeder, which controls the South African garden weevil; tthe weevil has no known local predators and the weeder disrupts its breeding cycle. Not surprisingly, Vanya is delighted with the result, describing it as “this is how we see the vineyard being sustainable – the old vines will produce consistent, balanced, quality fruit for many years to come”!

 

Vanya has also set up beehives for pollination (and for some of the delicious honey ice-cream that is occasionally available at the restaurant) but even that had unforeseen difficulties. It seems the bees showed no interest in the vines and had to be “trained” with chardonnay blossom essence. The restaurant also benefits from the biodynamic and organic garden that allows the kitchen team to select ingredients on a daily basis. Few producers anywhere take such a holistic and committed approach, not only to their vineyards and wines but to their entire operation.

 

The noticeably finer tannins in recent years are attributed to the move to biodynamics, however Vanya believes that it is the use of basket presses, since 2007, which has taken the tannin structure to an entirely new level. What she believes is important, though, is not so much setting up an “intentional direction” but rather the outcome. Her view is that “the most important decision my family ever made was the choice of site”.

 

There has been no fining of the reds since 1999 and native yeasts have only been used since 1996. No wine has had any acid addition, which is almost compulsory in Australia, since the 2005 vintage. 

 

What was extraordinary about the tasting of these wines was the freshness evident through the entire range, and the longevity – twenty years is no challenge at all for these wines. Indeed, it seems almost necessary. It confirmed that Margaret River is not only one of the world's finest regions for Cabernet-based wines but that Cullen's is surely the leading proponent of the style. It is difficult to imagine any producer from Coonawarra or Napa Valley, or any but the very best of Bordeaux, being able to put forward three decades of Cabernet, with such brilliant quality, year after year.

 

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7 different wines with 43 vintages

People

  • Vanya Cullen

    Winemaker
    "this is how we see the vineyard being sustainable – the old vines will produce consistent, balanced, quality fruit for many years to come”

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Wine Moments

Here you can see wine moments from tastingbook users.    or    to see wine moments from your world.

 Ken Gargett, Wine Writer (Australia)  tasted  1 wines  from  Cullen Wines . In a tasting of  23 wines 

Hill of Grace 2012 / So how did one of our most iconic wines fare in a great year? If anything, it exceeded the enormously lofty heights expected of it. Technically, 85% French oak, the remainder American. 58% of all oak was new. 18 months in the oak before the separate parcels from the vineyard were blended. Great intensity, complexity, immaculate balance, extraordinary length. Black cherries, aniseed, bacon fat, animal hides, soy sauce and an eerily smoky note that weaves amongst the flavours. So silky, you feel that you’d slip if you tried to get a hold of it. This is undoubtedly a great HoG, but only time, and lots of it, will tell if it is the greatest of all. It is a contender. 


Score: 99/100


Best drinking: how long have you got? 30 years? 40, 50? 


Alc: 14.5%

1m 19d ago

 Erin Larkin, Wine Writer (Australia)  tasted  1 wines  from  Cullen Wines . In a tasting of  4 wines 

Amongst the hustle, bustle and honour of our week down south, we were treated to a cabernet vertical at Cape Mentelle.


 This included the 1983 vintage: winner of the 1984 Jimmy Watson trophy – clearly well deserved and in pristine condition: 19.5 pts. Winemaker Evan Thomson and Technical Director and Head of Winemaking and Viticulture Frederique Parker Perrin took us through a flight of carefully selected vintages which were all in textbook condition. The wines showed us an evolution in style towards an elegant and long lived expression of cabernet. With such a dynasty to uphold, the current day winemakers are refining and perfecting a proven course of production- not reinventing the wheel.


Together they shed invaluable insight into their vineyards (most specifically the iconic Wallcliff vineyard from which the grapes for the cabernet are solely sourced), and the differences in growing areas in Wilyabrup. Their comments on the choice to include the 1995 due to the first time use of bird nets meant the winemakers were able to pick the grapes when they chose, and not forced to out of protection – precious information that would have taken weeks to dig out of books and past articles. The tasting formed the basis of an illustrative, informative and thrilling afternoon – and confirmed Cape Mentelle’s position as one of Margaret River’s foremost cabernet producers.

4m 23d ago

 Thomas Girgensohn, Wine Blogger (Australia)  tasted  1 wines  from  Cullen Wines . In a tasting of  13 wines 

Wynns John Riddoch Magnum 1996 / There is still a lot of the dense blackcurrant fruit in this 1996 Wynns John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon. It is a pity that Magnums are priced at a premium in this country, and as a result are not overly popular. The cork on this wine was in great condition and the wine at very high shoulder. Well stored, Magnums mature at a slower pace, and primary fruit can still be present at close to 20 years, while secondary characters are well developed.


This wine is dominated by its firm, dusty and dry tannins. The structure of this wine is still excellent, but it needs red meat to go with it. The tannins are actually very similar to an aged Barolo, and so is the colour of this wine. The mouthfeel is reasonable, but falls off at the finish a little bit.


This is a classic Coonawarra wine, holding up well, and still showing the terra rossa infused vibrant fruit.


Score: 93/+++

6m 1d ago

 Erin Larkin, Wine Writer (Australia)  tasted  1 wines  from  Cullen Wines . In a tasting of  5 wines 

“If you’ve ever been down to the Denmark wine region, you’ve probably driven down the wonderful Scotsdale Road, and chances are you’ve stopped in at Duckett’s Mill for cheese. The fruit for this riesling is from the vineyard directly next door to Duckett’s Mill. Winemaker and owner James Kellie has made this a streamlined and elegant wine… racy and lithe, this is a spiced and refreshing riesling with a racy acid back bone and burst of bright fruit on the palate. Lime pith and white pepper. Green apple skins and a swoosh of cleansing, tightly coiled acidity. It deservedly won a Gold medal at the 2015 Qantas wine show. A cracking bargain – perfect with white meats through summer. 92 points drink now or med-long term cellar.”

1y 3m ago

 Wallace Shawn / Wine Investing Consult, Wine Dealer (Luxembourg)  tasted  2 wines  from  Cullen Wines . In a tasting of  28 wines 

“Aussie tasting with almost 30 wines - the best one was Torbeck Run Rig 1998 - 98 points / A substantial wine, traditional in many ways but amazingly up to date as well. Very dark and bright in colour. A wide, ripe and open nose with wild mushrooms, blackberry, cherry, pepper and cherbs aromas. Full-bodied and well-balanced with silky tannins and exotic fruit that goes on and on. This Aussie is a grand, sumptuous and concentrated and will not get any better with time. Which is good, because it is hard to resist now. ”

1y 4m ago

 Pekka Nuikki / Founder of the Fine Wine Magazines, Pro (Finland)  tasted  1 wines  from  Cullen Wines . In a tasting of  26 wines 

“Ducru Beaucaillou 1996”

4y 8m ago

 Edward Cuvée, Pro (Finland)  tasted  1 wines  from  Cullen Wines . In a tasting of  8 wines 

“Not my kind of reds... But a nice blind :)”

4y 9m ago

 Pekka Nuikki / Founder of the Fine Wine Magazines, Pro (Finland)  tasted  1 wines  from  Cullen Wines . In a tasting of  9 wines 

“Nothing Spwcial here except the company:)”

4y 9m ago

 Ken Gargett, Wine Writer (Australia)  tasted  15 wines  from  Cullen Wines . In a tasting of  17 wines 

“The Cullen's vineyard for these varieties was planted in 1976. The Margan a bit later, in 1995. The early wines are mostly from the Cullen vineyard. And I’ll happily concede that, although we expect superlatives for Vanya's chardy and cab merlot, I was amazed at how good many of these were. Vanya believes the biodynamics promotes earlier ripeness – it suits. This one was still tight with herbal notes. It does have maturity. Slight floral fragrances. A hint of oatmeal. An attractive textural style. Has absolutely amazing length. Nicely balanced. Lingers beautifully.”

4y 9m ago

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