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.