"One of the pioneers of Margaret River which has always produced long-lived wines of high individual style from the substantial and mature estate vineyards. The Chardonnay is superb, while the Cabernet Merlot goes from strength to strength; indeed, I would rate it Australia's best."
James Halliday (2006)
Diana Cullen created the styles which are still made at Cullen today. She was a meticulous person with natural talent and style. For her, cleanliness was next to godliness and she had great success right from the start. In her first year of winemaking, Di won a trophy at the Perth Show for her wooded Sauvignon Blanc. She pioneered the use of quality oak in white wine and blended Merlot with Cabernet Sauvignon at a time when only varietal Cabernet would sell.
Vanya Cullen, daughter of Diana and Kevin, took over the senior winemaking responsibilities in 1989, and it has been her job, with the team at Cullen, to fine-tune the styles that Di created. A very important shift in this has been the closer liaison and communication between the vineyard and the winery. In this sense, they are making the wine in the vineyards and any refinements to the Cullen style now comes from the vineyard.
Cullen Estate Vineyard (72.5 acres) – Cullen’s primary fruit source, comprising mature vines planted in 1971, 1976 and 1988. Varietal plantings as follows:
Chardonnay – 18.4 acres
Sauvignon Blanc – 19 acres
Semillon – 3 acres
Cabernet Sauvignon – 27 acres
Merlot – 3.1 acres
Cabernet Franc – 1 acre
Malbec – 1 acre
Additional fruit is sourced where necessary from the following vineyards which are owned and operated by Cullen family members in line with the organic principles of the Cullen Estate vineyard.
Mangan Vineyard (50 acres) – adjacent to the Cullen Estate and planted between 1995 and 1997 to Petit Verdot, Merlot, Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.
Ellens Ridge Vineyard (37 acres) – around 5 miles south of the Cullen Estate, planted between 1997 and 1999 to Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.
In 2004 the Cullen Vineyard became certified A Grade Biodynamic by the BFA of Australia and the Mangan Vineyard and Winery followed in 2008. The winery also farms a biodynamic vegetable garden, which supplements the organic and biodynamic produce in the Cullen Restaurant.
The Margaret River region enjoys a mild Mediterranean climate dominated by maritime influences. The presence of the ocean, three miles from Cullen, means that this is the dominant influence on the weather patterns there. The northern Wilyabrup area, where the vineyard is situated, is characterized by warmth and ample sunshine. There is some exposure to the north and northeast winds and some tendency for diurnal east-west air convection cells to form due to the lie of the land.
On the Cullen Estate vineyard, the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay vines are planted in the Forest Grove soils. These consist of gravelly, granity, sandy topsoil for approximately 1 – 2 feet, laterite and then clay at about 3 feet. This is considered to be the best soil for premium grape production in the Margaret River region and is particularly suitable for Cabernet. The Semillon is planted on sandy soil over clay at about 4 feet.
Viticulture by Variety
Sauvignon Blanc has yielded between 0.5 and 3.2 tons/acre and Semillon from 1 to 3.8 tons/acre. The first Cullen Semillon Sauvignon Blanc, made in 1979, was a blend of Semillon (80%) and Sauvignon Blanc (20%). The proportions of the two varieties may vary from year to year depending on the quality of each variety.
Chardonnay requires cooler temperatures for dormancy. When Margaret River has warm winters, the vines do not go dormant and thus have very poor budburst and a reduced yield. Earlier bud burst makes new growth on the Chardonnay vines vulnerable to damage from spring storms and so these have greater susceptibility to powdery mildew and Botrytis. Crop level has been between 0.5 and 2 tons/acre. The Chardonnay is netted each year as protection from marauding birds. Normally, increased plantings will reduce bird problems in an area. Surprisingly, the opposite has been the case in Wilyabrup in recent years.
After experimenting with the original Sunraysia, Scott Henry and Vertical Shoot Positioning (VSP) , it was found that that the VSP was best for Chardonnay. The skins of the Chardonnay berries are thin and the vigor of the vine medium to light (unlike the Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc in particular). In some cases, without the protection of adequate leaf cover, the berries become sunburnt.
Clone 1 (IC698I27), locally known as the Gin Gin clone, with its characteristic hen and chicken bunches on the vine, is the most widely used Chardonnay clone in Margaret River. The yields from this clone have always been low (even without crop reduction from storms, hail or birds) at around 1.6 tons/acre and this is one of the reasons for the intense fruit concentration of the Cullen Chardonnays.
Since 1999, fruit has been included from the Ellens Ridge vineyard of Mark Hands and Ariane Cullen. The 8 acres of Chardonnay planted there in 1997 shows southern Margaret River flavors such as dried pear, grapefruit and peach. The estate vineyard fruit, on the other hand, tends towards citrus, lemon and quince.
The cornerstone of the viticultural practices at Cullen is organic management of the vineyard and the use of Scott-Henry trellises to give maximum exposure of the vines to sunlight. Organic management and eventually biodynamic management is seen as a way to nurture the old vines and keep them in good health, so as to produce the best quality fruit.
Continual Quality Trials
Sensory trials based on tasting the grapes and wines were carried out over a ten year period with the Lyre, Scott Henry and standard Sunraysia T trellis systems. Juice flavor profiles were assessed in 1993, a high cloud year and a difficult vintage for reds. The analysis of composition of the grapes grown on the three trellises, i.e. sugar, pH, and acidity were the same, but the flavor profiles and total phenolic levels were significantly different.
The Scott Henry trellis produced riper dark fruits and better quality tannins than either the Lyre or T -trellis. Wines were made from the three batches using the same winemaking approach and were tasted five years later when the differences appeared more significant. The wine made from fruit grown on the Scott Henry trellises was bright and vibrant, while that from the T-trellis showed unripe flavors and green tannins. The anthocyanins and total phenolic levels were almost double with the Scott Henry batch, which is better for quality.
As a result of these trials, all of the Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot on the Cullen estate vineyard are grown on the Scott-Henry trellis.
The mild Mediterranean climate means that, if the berries of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot are exposed to the sunlight early enough, they toughen up and do not suffer sunburn or phenolic bitterness in the skins. This exposure has given finer grained tannins and less green flavors and harsh tannins in the fully ripe red grapes.
Yields and Harvest Dates
With few exceptions, crop levels have been constant at around 2 tons per acre. The Cabernet Sauvignon has ranged between 0.5 and 2.9 tons per acre, Cabernet Franc between 1 and 4.3 tons/acre and Merlot 0.5 and 4.5 tons/acre.
In the first 28 years at Cullen, the beginning of the Cabernet Sauvignon harvest has ranged from the first week in March until the last week in April.