“Mum used to say ‘quality, not quantity'”, says Vanya Cullen, managing director, and chief winegrower at Cullen Wines, in the Margaret River sub-region of Wilyabrup, Western Australia.
Promised to pioneers as the land of milk and honey, Margaret River was anything but that in the early years right after the Second World War, as ancient, unforgiving soils wrecked havoc with the high hopes of the men and women who’d moved there to establish farms for growing primary agriculture produce.
“Many walked off the land in the Depression after the banks wanted their money back” explains Vanya, “and it’s only because of the wine and tourism industries, where things have changed economically and dramatically for the region”.
These ancient soils may not have been best suited to primary forms of agriculture, but, for tertiary vocations, such as grape growing, it was pretty much perfect.
Thanks to the pioneering work of Dr John Gladstones, after he identified Margaret River as the best place for grape growing in WA, in particular cabernet sauvignon, the appellation’s fortunes began to favour the brave, and the intuitive vignerons who had stayed. Now, the Margaret River is a thriving winegrowing region, which is producing some of Australia’s most iconic wines.
“I would say that cabernet sauvignon is the greatest variety in Margaret River, without a doubt”, says Vanya, “always was, and still is”.
The first vines to be planted on the site, which was eventually to become known as Cullen Wines, were planted in 1966 on a 1/4 acre known as Juniper Estate, by Vanya Cullen’s pioneering parents, Dr Kevin John Cullen, and his wife Diana Madeleine Cullen. It was a trial block of cabernet sauvignon.
According to Vanya, “It was Dad’s dream to make great red wine, and as a doctor, he had seen all the effects of chemicals with the farmers. So, he wanted to care not only for the environment, but also himself and his family by practicing minimal chemical inputs in the vineyard”.
The vineyard was established in 1971, and in ’76, plantings of sauvignon blanc, semillon, chardonnay, merlot and pinot noir ensured that Cullen Wines could make the most of these ancient and unforgiving soils.
“The journey from minimal chemical inputs to certified organics to certified biodynamics has been about the transparency of the site”, says Vanya.
Subscribing to the adage that great wines are made out in the vineyard, Vanya has placed a great deal of importance on caring for the soil, which is the life and soul of any produce grown anywhere in the world. It was a difficult transition, moving from chemical inputs to organics, and then, eventually, to biodynamics, but according to Vanya, the vineyards have never been more full of life and vitality.
“It was an intuitive decision (moving to organics)”, says Vanya, “planting cover crops, putting on composts, and making a healthy living system for the vines to grow in, and we noticed, in the first year there was quite a dramatic improvement in vine health”.
Having established organic management practices in the vineyard, and becoming certified in 2003, Vanya and her vineyards eventually discovered biodynamics.
“We started just doing (biodynamics) with a trial on our chardonnay”, says Vanya, “and the difference between the block that was farmed with biodynamics compared to the organic site, was significant in that we had better indigenous yeast fermentation and the wines themselves were brighter and fresher, and were of an overall better quality”.
“The difference with biodynamics”, explains Vanya, “is in the sense of life and liveliness, because it’s about connecting with life, so that the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts, and you don’t really get that when you just farm with organics”.
Since moving to biodynamics to manage the Cullen vineyard, Vanya has noticed a number of tangible differences, not just out in the vineyard, but also in the wines as well.
“In the past, before we had healthy soils”, says Vanya, “if we had a heat wave, we’d notice a dramatic drop in acid. Now (with biodynamics), we’re not seeing that because the vine roots are in a very healthy place, so we don’t need to add any (acid) back in the winery”.
“There is also a transparency of site and detail in the wines”, continues Vanya, “and now that we’ve been using biodynamics for nine years, we are making the best wines that we’ve made, because the vines are healthier than they’ve ever been”.
Vanya Cullen is a beacon of hope for environmentally sustainable viticulture in the Margaret River, and in Australia, but the wine industry itself seems a little blasé when it comes to any real policy on environmental sustainability.
A quick search of the Winemakers Federation of Australian (WFA) website (using the search tool in the bottom right hand corner) for the keyword ‘biodynamic’ yields not a single result. Zero. Nothing. Meanwhile, typing in the word ‘organic’ supplies you with a single search result, entitled, ‘Wine and Health‘, an article which elucidates the seeker on the various health risks associated with alcohol consumption, and where the word ‘organic’ appears only once, underneath a heading for asthma, which informs the seeker of the, usually, lower sulphur dioxide levels associated with organically labelled wines.
“I don’t think Australia has any sort of real policy on sustainability, or organics and biodynamics”, says Vanya, “it’s very much a sideline part of the industry”.
At the recent 2013 Savour Australia conference, which is, “the biggest and most comprehensive Australian wine forum ever undertaken”, who’s objective is to, “challenge the commonly held perception of Australian wine and uncover the business case for Australian wine”, there was a section dedicated to sustainability within the wine industry, which was “about water”, according to Vanya.
“When I asked (Savour) if there would be any talks about sustainability”, says Vanya, “I was told that there would be someone from Treasury (Wine Estates) talking about water”.
How is it that one of Australia’s most exceptional wines, according to Langton’s, is a wine which is grown sustainably, and biodynamically, and yet these keywords don’t rate even a passing mention on the wine industry’s representative body’s website, or at their big comprehensive wine forum?
“There’s no money to be made out of being organic, or biodynamic”, explains Vanya, “there’s only one (organic/biodynamic) auditor in the whole state of Western Australia, because there’s simply no funding”.
“The people that are biodynamic and organic are doing it because they want to make better quality wine that way”, says Vanya, “… and people will ask me ‘well, how do you do it?’, and the answer is, bit by bit. You don’t have to do everything at once. You just keep going, and never give up and have a philosophy about where you’re going and how you want to be in the world”.
D// – The Wine Idealist
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* This is the last Wine Idealist narrative for 2013. I will be taking a short two week break over the Christmas and New Year celebrations to eat, drink and be merry with my friends and family. Thank you so much to everyone who has visited thewineidealist.com over the last 12 months. I look forward to bringing you many more stories about natural, organic, biodynamic wines from Australia and New Zealand in 2014. Have a very Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!