Vanya Cullen

Vanya Cullen was in South Africa last month to judge in the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show. That was her third visit to SA and she had some encouraging things to say about evident improvements in South African wines, especially Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc.

Vanya Cullen’s mother used to say the best time of her life was as a young woman in wartime Melbourne. Which isn’t to say this feisty physiotherapist, mother of six, doctor’s wife, cattle farmer and from the age of 59, self-taught winemaker, didn’t have a good time after 1945. It’s more that in those days she lived every day as if it were her last.

That intensity and the awareness of the need to maximise opportunity are shared by Vanya, her youngest and only winemaker amongst her children. “The others are all doctors, lawyers and a teacher, which left me to the winemaking,” she says modestly, belying her prodigious talents and reputation. Not to mention her training in zoology and singing.

The wines of Cullen Margaret River, Western Australia, now produced biodynamically, are widely celebrated. The Diana Madeline Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot, named in honour of her mother who died in 2003, has been accorded the highest possible ranking, Exceptional Classification, in Langton’s 2005 Classification of Australian Wine. (Langton’s specialist wine auctioneers are associated with Christie’s.) The other flagship wines include Mangan, a blend of Malbec, Petit Verdot and Merlot, as well as a Pinot Noir, a Sauvignon Blanc Semillon and a Chardonnay. All enjoy similarly iconic status.

Vanya, who is CEO of Cullen Wines and a former Qantas/Wine magazine Winemaker of the Year, is considered to have one of the finest palates in Australia, if not internationally, explaining her participation on many of the world’s leading judging panels. Australian wine critic Huon Hooke calls her wines “carefully thought out” and “intelligently refined”. The New York Times describes her as “one of the best women winemakers in the world”, although why it was necessary to qualify her standing this way is surprising, given her enviable renown as a winemaker full stop. 

She was in South Africa last month to judge in the Old Mutual Wine Trophy Show, her third visit to the country. Her first visit was in 1994 as a panelist in the inaugural South Africa versus Australia Wine Shield Test, which proved a humiliating defeat for this country but also galvanised local producers to keep pace with international developments in wine. Her next time was in 1999 to assess wines for the SAA on-board selection.

In her understated way, she avers that “tasting the world’s best wines gives you the opportunity to benchmark” and she has some encouraging things to say about evident improvements in South African wines.

“There have always been great wines produced here, Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon in particular, but I’m excited by the good Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc I’ve just been tasting.

“South African Shiraz has come of age. The planting of improved material in the right places has produced some very good wines. Those of 2004 and 2005 show ripe fruit, nice, clear flavours and none of the virus-infected characteristics I encountered on earlier visits. In style they fall somewhere between the Rhône and Australia. You get a sense of the heat in which they are grown from the sweetness of fruit and black peppercorns.”

She also praises the Bordeaux blends that exhibit a combination of New and Old World in both fruit flavours and structure, and sees sound potential in many of our reds but is less positive about the Merlots. “Amongst the wines in the class we judged there was only one very good one. The tannins were generally very hard – a fault of the clones planted.”

The Sauvignon Blancs express distinctive fruit definition of grass and tropical flavours, she says, “but I don’t know that I could pick out any of these wines in an international line-up of Sauvignons as discernibly South African. Controversially, the best wine in its class was wooded, not a style normally associated with South African Sauvignon.”

She has been producing wines biodynamically since 2003, a step, she says, that was a natural progression from organic cultivation and winemaking practiced at Cullen before. “It’s a case of working with nature rather than against it. Even when you farm organically, you are applying a philosophy of killing things to keep other things alive, as opposed to keeping living things in balance.”

Although she says it takes a full five years for the inherent vibrancy to kick in, the switch has already produced noticeably healthier vines, better quality fruit and wines that “are more lively and individual”. Yields have also increased, with Cabernet increasing by 0,5 to 2,5 tons an acre.

“Biodynamic wines are quite gentle. You don’t get that monster extraction apparent in conventionally produced wines. We have begun pulling back on oak to keep the balance. Nowadays we use oak as you would a light sprinkling of salt and pepper to coax the inherent flavours in food.”

She has become vegetarian and tries to eat biodynamic food whenever possible, with the restaurant on the winery also preparing dishes from biodynamic produce.

“Junk food makes you aggressive and tired.” Considering her intensive schedule and that she is in such high demand as a judge, there’s no place for either.

This article was first published in the Nederburg E-letter, June 2006. Reproduced here with permission from Distell and as part of the brand's sponsorship agreement with WineNews.