By Fergal Gleeson
2019 marks Vanya Cullen’s 30th year as Chief Winemaker for Cullen Wines. Vanya is one of Australia’s best known winemakers has been it’s most vocal advocate of biodynamic winemaking and sustainable agriculture.
She has just collected the Halliday ‘Winemaker of the Year’ Award 2020 and Australian Woman in Wine ‘Winemaker of Year’ Award 2019.
Early Days in Margaret River
Her parents, Busselton based GP, Kevin and physiotherapist, Diana Madeline were two of the pioneering winemakers of Margaret River, establishing Cullen Wines in 1971.
“We grew up on the beach. Dad would catch jewfish,” Vanya recalls. “I remember as a kid cycling around with Caroline Juniper (of Juniper Estate) chewing lollies and both thinking it was great that our parents had planted a vineyard.”
However the winery created plenty of chores for the young Cullens. “We were always working in the vineyard or in the cellar. Mum and dad were workaholics. But mum always made the work seem alright by preparing a lovely picnic and a thermos!”
It was not inevitable that Vanya would follow her parents into Cullen Wines. She studied music in Perth and Adelaide. However her father Kevin booked her in the postgraduate diploma in oenology at Roseworthy alongside her music studies as he wanted one of their children to know about wine.
Her house is full of music instruments. There’s a piano, a harmonium, a guitar and ukulele all of which she plays “in a fashion” she says. There was a plan to give up wine at 50 and go back and finish her music degree.
There was lots of music at her recent 60th birthday party shindig. “Like me the choices were eclectic!” she laughs. Everything from Jerry Lee Lewis and Billy Joel to Hare Krishna, Bach, Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. Though it would seem music studies will have to wait!
Vanya returned to winemaking at Cullen Wines in 1983. There were vintages working overseas in the 1980’s which provided insights. Her time in New Zealand led to experimentation with trellising systems and how they effect flavour.
Vanya’s time in Napa Valley coincided with the early days of Opus One, founded by Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Robert Mondavi. It allowed her to observe how a Bordeaux ‘first growth’ makes wine. Her third overseas vintage was in Burgundy where she got experience working with natural yeasts for fermentation.
The passion for nature and biodynamic winemaking runs deep. Her parents were environmentalists campaigning again the flooding of Lake Pedder in Tasmania and against mining in Margaret River.
Her father saw the effects of chemicals on potato farmers first hand in his practice. Kevin died due to motor neurone disease which Vanya believes may have been caused by his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam where he served as a doctor during the war.
Cullen Wines was carbon negative this year, improving on it’s previous carbon neutral result. The process involves planting trees to offset the carbon used in wine production.
Vanya and her mother converted Cullen Wines to organic becoming fully certified in 2003. This was enhanced by Cullen Wines becoming biodynamically certified in 2004.
Concluding section next week….