Meet the Maker - Vanya Cullen, Cullen Wines
Meet the Maker - Vanya Cullen, Cullen Wines

If you’re ever so fortunate to get the chance to meet 2022 ‘Viticulturalist of the Year’ recipient, Vanya Cullen and walk her vineyard rows in Wilyabrup, well, you may have just ticked off a bucket list in life. Cullen is one of the most picturesque vineyards in the world,

If you’re ever so fortunate to get the chance to meet 2022 ‘Viticulturalist of the Year’ recipient, Vanya Cullen and walk her vineyard rows in Wilyabrup, well, you may have just ticked off a bucket list in life. Cullen is one of the most picturesque vineyards in the world, and a meeting with Vanya is an understated yet immersive experience witnessing such authenticity, grace and her intense love of the natural world. Tasting her wines where they are made is a lesson in understanding the importance of ‘place’. A pure interpretation of nature that can only come with years of wisdom. One could describe it as akin to foraging from Oprah Winfrey’s organic avocado garden as she shares stories of her famous interviews sprinkled with uplifting worldly advice. Perhaps Oprah should interview Vanya Cullen next...

Vanya has so much wisdom coupled with an incredibly unique lived experience, and one so intrinsically linked to her vineyards in Margaret River’s Wilyabrup. The Cullen vineyard itself is worth the destination. Keep in mind where it’s located. Western Australia’s coastal region of Margaret River is somewhat in the middle of nowhere. Probably closer to the crash site of MH370 than any major city. Whether the legendary Vanya is there or not, the sustainable restaurant, to see the landscape and of course taste Cullen wines make for an unforgettable visit.

Celebrating 50 years last year, the history of Cullen Wines reads a little bit like the quintessential story of Margaret River itself. Kevin and Diana Cullen, a pair of farmers struggling with the future of their livestock business, decided to look back into their family trees - only to discover they have a winemaking heritage in Australia which stretches back over a century. Suddenly, their prime plot of lush Margaret River land begins to look a lot like it could be a beautiful collection of vineyards… and a key player in the burgeoning Aussie wine scene that the region has taken to world-beating levels of excellence.

However, the Cullen family were never ones to take the easy route, and understood that hard work, a close relationship with the land, and a sustainable approach were always going to bring the best results. Custodian, winemaker, viticulturalist and visionary daughter Vanya Cullen understands the importance of her role. She is a emotionally intelligent winemaker who explores finding the best in her land - applying biodynamic farming as her principle approach, and discovering that this organic method was the one which simply works. She is not dogmatic about principles, and neither is she nonsensical about biodynamics - but, the common denominator is understanding, and caring for the land. Biodynamics, or ‘BD’ is a sort of homeopathic esque ‘pseudoscience’ yet ultimately is undeniably advantageous in the quality of her wine and the beauty of the flourishing flora and fauna.  One cannot argue this applied philosophy only brings out the very best, and perhaps a lot of it is a learned devotion inherited from her parents Kevin and Diana.  As a winery at the peak of its powers, the fine ‘French’ varietals grown on their beautiful Wilyabrup vineyard continue to be a testament to a truly bold and singular vision. And long may it continue.

We had a wholesome chat with Vanya, who kindly offered her time despite being flat chat busy in the middle of vintage 2022. Vanya isn’t about self promotion. She has a very urgent message for us all, and like our #NoPlanetNoPinot campaign, she too wants our Good Pair Days community on board, to wake up to the climate crisis we are in. We are ringing the alarm too...

What is it that makes Cullen, so inimitable and special?

Look, its a lot of things! It isn’t just about wine. Cullen is connected to the earth, and the wines are very much ‘of the land’. Our greatest achievement is being a sustainable winery, so you could say we are ‘good’ for the earth. Cullen is about community, connection to Wadandi country, and caring about our part of the planet. We have had 51 years of producing wine at Cullen, and we create wines that are among the purest in the world. They are authentic, as the wines are connected to nature. We don’t ‘add’ chemicals. Not to our soils, not in our winery. They are just incredibly pure, and delicious! And a lot of people comment, they don’t ‘get sick’ drinking our wine. People simply need to taste them to understand.

What is your ‘dream’ grape varietal. To make, and to drink?

Cabernet Sauvignon. We just harvested recently, and when the fruit came in it was a conjunction of Venus, Mars and Saturn. Unbelievably beautiful fruit. I must say, it is a dream variety. Of course, many wine drinkers love Burgundy (Pinot Noir). And perhaps in another lifetime I could make great Pinot in Tasmania?! But in Margaret River, the research by Dr John Gladstone in the 1960’s showed how well Cabernet Sauvignon was suited. I have to say, this concept isn’t static. It is that wonderful ‘manure’ of nature. It’s constantly changing, and every year, every season is different from one year to the next. Cabernet is very Cullen. I think there is potential room for a new clone of Merlot, which could perhaps help the region. People often ask about ‘other’ grape varieties... but the reality is, it’s not going to matter if we don’t address the elephant in the room. We are all facing a huge existential crisis with the climate. This is the challenge. And we all need to act now!

We all saw the news over summer with the bushfires in your region. Looks utterly devastating. Can you talk about it? How does this impact Cullen, yourself, and the wines... and what can we do to help?

Climate change is affecting everybody, and I will repeat: We need to act now. Because it is already too late. Luckily, we didn’t have any smoke here at the vineyard so the wines will be fine from any fear of ‘taint’. The dreadful thing about that fire, was someone intentionally lit it. I have grave concerns for the ongoing occurrence of these natural disasters. It is only going to get worse. The inaction of the governments in both WA and QLD, somehow managed to have increased carbon emissions.

So, what can we do to help?

Plant trees! Back in 2007 we had been paid $25,000 a year to undergo planting of trees. We did studies of how much carbon we are sequestering in the soils. What’s interesting is, we are not only carbon neutral, we are carbon positive. We have organic soils with stable carbon, and recently registered for a carbon farming project. There will be a map for wine growers, but we are just working out the methodology. Local wineries such as Voyager and Vasse Felix are now in the process of converting to organic farming. But the whole industry needs to speed up. Whatever we do, we need to get the carbon from the atmosphere and back into the soils. This project is a really positive thing, we are carbon positive - but everyone has to join the race for zero (emissions). The wine industry can do our bit. We need to save the earth.

Can our Good Pair Days wine community come to visit you?

Of course! We have a great little restaurant and cellar door. I have to admit, I am considering seriously reducing my travelling. Going to put my money into planting trees.

Cullen Wines Location:

4323 Caves Road Wilyabrup WA 6280

Who is your celebrity crush?

I think vignerons of Burgundy. People like Anne-Claude Leflaive (who has sadly passed on) and Aubert de Villaine. Visiting them in France, for me is like going to the holy grail and meeting the Gods. I have deep respect and admiration for the elders past and present of the indigenous cultures of our land, which was looked after for 60,000 years (until we came along and messed it up) They are the true heroines and heroes, people of the Widandi -  salt water people. Our country in Wilyabrup is in fact women’s country, as it historically was an easy place to forage and to live. There is a lot to learn about caring for the land.

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