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Monday 14 June 2021

A remarkable 50-year wine journey of inspiration and innovation

When local doctor Kevin Cullen and his physiotherapist wife Di met with their friend Dr John Gladstones in the 1960s to discuss the possibility of a wine business in the sleepy surfing haven of Margaret River they were on the first steps of a magical, inspired and innovative journey. 

Earlier this month their daughter Vanya Cullen and her team celebrated 50 years of excellence that has encompassed a movement to organics and then biodynamics, early adoption of screw caps, a carbon-neutral winery and a largely self-sufficient restaurant.

Cullen Wines is today globally recognised as a beacon of eminence with the Kevin John Chardonnay and Diana Cullen Cabernet blend regarded as being among Australia's icon wines. 

Under the slogan "quality, integrity, sustainability" Cullen is now firmly established as an icon.

A celebration dinner and three days of memorable tastings marked the milestone. 

In many ways, though, not a lot has changed at all over half a century. The wines remain a work of art, with inspiration coming from the instinct of Vanya and winemaker Andy Barrett-Lennard. 

"The wines remain artisanal - there is no recipe," says Vanya Cullen. "Each year's wines depend on what the fruit looks like when it makes its journey from the vineyard to the winery." 

Instinct, emotion and the beautiful setting - as well as the biodynamic calendar - all play a large role in what emerges in bottle. There is also an essence of hospitality.

Yet before their conversation with Gladstones, Kevin and Di Cullen had planned to plant lupins, not grapes on their land at Wilyabrup. 

No one in Margaret River really knew much about grape growing back in 1971. Kevin Cullen said the work was "1% inspiration, 99% perspiration". The business, now a global brand, did not break even until 1994, the year Kevin Cullen died. 

The Cullens had six children, while Vanya is the figurehead all play some role in the business. Former winemakers including long-serving Trevor Kent were part of the 50th birthday tastings and lunches/dinners in the Biodynamic Wine Room. 

Today, Cullen is the only biodynamic and carbon positive winery in what is now a booming wine region. A remarkable 90% of the food served in the restaurant is grown on site. A worthy legacy. 

Those of us lucky enough to attend the tastings - I was honoured by be invited - worked through myriad wines that have been made biodynamically since 2004 and carbon positively since last year. The first "orange" wine - Amber - emerged in 2014. 

The use of amphora and biodynamically made barrels are among the latest innovations and the wines remain universally savoury, textural and stylish across the board; wines of balance, poise and layering. 

Lucky tasters got to sample semillon/sauvignon blanc blends back to 1995; Amber vintages, Mangan vineyard reds, early cabernets back to 1977, cabernet merlots and Diana Madelines 1995-2019; Vanya cabernet sauvignons, chardonnays and Kevin John vintages from 2002 to 2020.

As is typically the way with Cullen, the tastings were beautifully structured and timed to allow maximum appreciation. Detailed tasting notes; another time, another place.

Across the cabernet blends and Diana Madelines there are different blends, different oak regimes, different vintages and closures, but a symmetry of style; and among the Kevin Johns a familiar energy and texture and the constant vineyard influence.  

Maybe just open a bottle of Cullen and toast a half century of excellence. 




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