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Towards the voice of the vineyard: Cullen Wines’ 40th Anniversary Chardonnay vertical (1997-2010)

Cullen Wines Annual Chardonnay tasting took place last weekend. The blind tasting, which was the brainchild of the late Dr Kevin John Cullen, pits leading Chardonnays from around the world against one another.

Dr Cullen felt that the lessons learned from these comparisons would help Cullen Wines optimise the quality of their Chardonnay.  So he’d have been thrilled to know that, for the first time in its 26 year history, the very first vintage to bear his name on the label, Cullen Wines Kevin John Chardonnay 2007, lead the field of twenty-one wines, all from the 2007 vintage.

Asked if she was happy for her wines to be referenced to those of Burgundy, Chief Winemaker Vanya Cullen said “you have to have a benchmark of what’s a great wine and then you understand where your wines are at, but the individuality comes from the site.  What can you create from your site that is individual?” 

At Cullen Wines, Vanya believes that this individuality – “the voice of the vineyard” – has increased as the vines have become older and viticultural and vinicultural practices have become more connected with nature through biodynamic farming and low intervention winemaking.  For the Chardonnay, she says, the outcome has been a greater emphasis on the dried pear notes (so typical of cooler southern Margaret River wines) over the citrus notes of old.

Cullen Wines is one of Margaret River’s pioneering producers and, though they have long excelled in their field, it seems to me that the wines just get better and better.  There’s an uncommon level of detail, lift and life to more recent vintages which, combined with an exquisite balance, increasingly sets them apart from the pack.   Verticals of the Kevin John Chardonnay and Diana Madeline Cabernet Merlot tasted at Cullen Wines’ 40th anniversary party in July left me running out of superlatives.

Ask Chief Winemaker Vanya Cullen about it and she’ll tell you that the ever upwardly spiralling quality of the wine is “about everything.” Take the Kevin John Chardonnay, the focus of this report.  Chardonnay has a reputation for malleability, for being the winemaker’s grape, but Cullen has progressivley eased off in the winery.

Following trials between 1993-95, Cullen says “we stepped off the bridge,” introducing natural ferments in 1996.  A beneficial side effect of natural ferments (which take longer than inoculated ferments) is lower concentrations of diacetyl, a compound which lends itself to more buttery styles of Chardonnay.  Cullen prefers a fresher style and it’s worth noting that all the wines shown in the formal vertical (2002-2010) were made without acid addition.

In 2008, as part and parcel of Cullen’s ultra-kid gloves approach to grape handling, the winery acquired a vibrating sorting table and basket press.  In Cullen’s opinion, the basket press has been instrumental in “bringing forward a sense of terroir rather than the winemaking layer over the top of it.”  And that sense of terroir has, of course, been cultivated in the vineyard through organic then biodynamic practices, which Cullen reckons have given the vines and, it follows, the wines, better balance.

You’ll find my tasting notes below and, if you’d like to know more about the history and evolution of Cullen Wines, including the background to their conversion to organic then biodynamic viticulture, click on this link – Ahmed On the Vine Cullen– for a copy of an in depth feature I wrote for The World of Fine Wine in 2007 after I’d spent two weeks cellar ratting at Cullen Wines.  The feature concludes with notes on verticals of the flagship wines which I tasted with Vanya Cullen back in March 2007, which make for an interesting comparison.

1997 Cullen Chardonnay (magnum)

Vintage: This year saw ample spring rainfall in the region, however damage to the Chardonnay from strong winds in October just as the vines were budding caused drastic crop reductions.  We enjoyed a mild, warm ripening period, but were hit by unwelcome rainfall early in March.  Crops of Chardonnay were once again reduced to pitiful quantities due to high winds in October and hail in December.  Generally speaking crops were low and the vintage started, then stopped.  Being an older, lower yielding vineyard, the rain did not affect the crop and the Indian Summer which returned in late March (so typical of Margaret River), provided excellent final ripening for the Cabernet Sauvignon.

(This wine was presented at the welcome dinner in magnum, so no technical/winemaking information provided).

Showing beautiful development and complexity with its fenugreek/spicy nose and hints of moss which follow through on a rich and nutty palate with creamy praline and hints of brazil nut to its dried pear fruit.  Supple, delicious and very much alive.  A vintage which has never failed to impress.

2002 Cullen Chardonnay

Vintage: The cool even temperatures during summer have resulted in the production of a wine which exhibits a perfect balance between fruit flavours and acid and has great suppleness. The intensity of the fruit was also enhanced by the very low yields of only 1/4 ton to the acre. The fruit was picked at levels ranging from 12.6 to 14º Baumé to ensure that the flavours of the wine were complex.

Winemaking: The fruit for this wine was fermented using wild yeasts, with 60% of the wine undergoing malolactic fermentation. All of the wine was matured for 9 months in new French oak.

Wine Analysis

Alcohol: 13.9

pH: 3.35

TA (g/L): 6.7

Bottled under cork, it looks significantly more developed than the subsequent wines, even though the vintage was relatively cool.  Yellow with gold flashes, it shows dried pear and savoury, autolytic notes; a touch of oxidation here. A magnum of 2002 from the previous night showed better, as were its rather delicious “dregs” on Sunday night!

2003 Cullen Chardonnay

Vintage: A classical Margaret River vintage with vines showing good health leading to excellent physiological ripeness particularly in Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. Yields of white grapes were generally down especially Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Rainfall throughout the growing season was less than average but did not cause any problems in terms of vine stress. In fact, vine health was so good that they kept on growing after veraison, which is unusual.

Winemaking: All fruit for this wine was fermented with indigenous yeasts. The wine spent 4 months in new French oak.

Wine Analysis

Alcohol: 13.6

pH: 3.46

TA (g/L): 6.2

A warmer year and this bursts with sweet ripe nectarine and rock melon fruit on nose and palate.  Though impressively concentrated and rich with hints of nougat and white chocolate in the mouth, the finish is long and lingering, with good underlying freshness.

2004 Cullen Chardonnay

Vintage: There was an excellent growing season with good rains finishing in November. As a consequence there was outstanding vine health and above average crops. The cool summer temperatures slowed ripening a little with fruit condition staying intact due to the dry conditions throughout January and February. Varieties such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc showed good balance and flavour as a consequence of these cool and dry conditions.

Winemaking: 70% of this wine was fermented with wild yeasts in new French oak for 5 months. 30% of the wine was allowed to undergo malolactic fermentation.

Wine Analysis

Alcohol: 13.5

pH: 3.33

TA (g/L): 6.49

A paler hue, with green glints, the 2004 is more finely honed and lifted with spicy toast hints to the nose.  Positively youthful, a vibrant thread of lemony acidity brings line and length to the subtly textured palate, with its layers of lemon butter, toast and praline.  Just lovely.

2005 Cullen Chardonnay

Vintage: The dry and cool growing season produced fruit with very good natural acidities, good colour and flavour. This was especially true for the Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Yields were slightly below average due to smaller bunch weights rather than less bunch numbers in both red and white varieties. The abundance of Marri blossom kept bird damaged fruit to a minimum. Harvesting was completed before the rain fell on the 30th March. We forecast outstanding red and white wines with elegant flavours and composition with the Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon varieties starring. This was our second biodynamic vintage and we are very pleased with the perceived increase in fruit brightness.

Winemaking: The fruit for this wine was whole bunch pressed and fermented with wild yeasts in 100% new French oak. The wine was matured in oak for 9 months.

Wine Analysis

Alcohol: 14.1

pH: 3.21

TA (g/L): 6.65

100% new French oak brings sheen and poise to the 2005 Chardonnay, which shows an intense concentration of lifted rock melon and preserved lemon fruit, with hints of lemon butter and toast.  Powerful, muscular even and, though showy now, I reckon this svelte wine still has much to reveal.

2006 Cullen Kevin John Chardonnay

Vintage: The 2006 vintage was the coolest vintage since 1982 and started with having the coolest December on record. This meant that everything was more than one month behind in ripening time and this could have potentially created problems with ripening. However we believe there are some outstanding wines, particularly with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc Semillon.

Winemaking: This wine was fermented entirely with wild yeasts. The wine was matured for 6 months in French oak barrels of which 50% were new.

Wine Analysis

Alcohol: 13.3

pH: 3.25

TA (g/L): 6.5

I’ve always been utterly charmed by this wine from the cool 2006 vintage.  Lemony and floral on nose and well-defined palate, it may not have the same charge of fruit as its predecessors, but there’s no shortage of intensity or persistence to its fresh, lifted and lingering blossom and honey finish.  Beautiful levity with its dancing acidity.

2007 Cullen Kevin John Chardonnay

Vintage: The 2007 vintage commenced with the harvesting of the first Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes on 26 January, which was the earliest start ever recorded at Cullen Wines. This contrasted markedly with the previous year, when vintage did not commence until 12 March, which represented the latest recorded start to a vintage at our winery!

The early 2007 vintage was brought on by more rapid growth of the vines than is usual in the spring growing period. Although the warm weather during this period was reflected in temperatures that were 2.5º C above average, the temperature during the day never became excessive.

The strong health of the vines at the end of winter in 2006 enabled them to capitilise on the stimulus provided by the warmer spring weather, ensuring a good start for their growth in the 2007 vintage.

In addition, the two bursts of good rainfall at the peak of the growing season in November were accompanied by lightning. This electrical activity had the effect of converting nitrogen to nitrates and gave the vines a highly beneficial shower of natural liquid nitrogen fertiliser at just the right moment and thereby boosting their growth.

The period immediately leading up to vintage was blessed by moderate temperatures and very few really hot days.

Winemaking: The fruit for this wine was whole bunch pressed and transferred directly into 55% new and 45% used French oak barrels where it underwent fermentation from indigenous yeasts. The wine was matured for 10 months in barrel and yours truly lees stirred it for two weeks!

Wine Analysis

Alcohol: 13.4

pH: 3.12

TA (g/L): 6.5

While the 2006 sports a fine thread of lemony acidity, in this warmer vintage, perfumed rock melon and dried pear fruit is streaked with lipsmacking, limey acidity, making for a hi-definition, surprisingly tight and racy Chardonnay.  With its snappy lime, savoury, leesy edge and lick of sweet cinnamon, it mercilessly tickles and teases the taste buds right through a long, mouthwatering finish.  Wonderful joie de vivre!

2008 Cullen Kevin John Chardonnay

Vintage: The substantial rainfall and moderate temperatures that prevailed during the spring and early summer of 2007 were ideal for encouraging growth and fruit development. However, the excessive rains and winds that were experienced on occasions during September and October did lead to some splicing of the vine leaves and a reduction in the volume of fruit.

The warm temperatures in January, which only advanced the time of harvest slightly from the norm, proved ideal for optimising the final development of the fruit. The berries of all varieties were small and produced highly concentrated juices. There is every indication that 2008 will be an outstanding vintage for both white and red wines.

Winemaking: This Chardonnay was whole bunch pressed and natural yeast fermented in 100% new French oak. All of the wine went through malolactic fermentation and was matured in oak for 8 months.

Wine Analysis

Alcohol: 14.1

pH: 3.13

TA (g/L): 7.2

Though it shares the rock melon and dried pear for the 2007, in comparison, the 2008 Chardonnay seemed a little subdued.   Needs time to come into its own?  One to review.

2009 Cullen Kevin John Chardonnay

Vintage: The 2009 vintage at Cullen Wines was so outstanding that Vanya has referred to it as the Mozart vintage because all of the white and red wines produced in this year are in perfect harmony and balance. Good rainfall in the Spring of 2008 resulted in excellent development of the vines and the provision of underground moisture for the lead-up to vintage.

A small amount of rainfall in January 2009 was followed by little or no rainfall and no unduly hot weather in the following two months, during which the vast majority of fruit was harvested. A dream vintage for a wine maker!

Winemaking: The fruit for this wine was whole bunch pressed in our new basket press, and fermented in oak using wild yeasts. The wine was matured for 9 months in new French oak.

Wine Analysis

Alcohol: 13.7

pH: 3.1

TA (g/L): 8.48

I wrote up this outstanding vintage as my (white) September Wine of the Month.  Here’s what I said.  When I visited Cullen during the 2008 vintage, they’d just taken delivery of a new vibrating sorting table and basket press.  I tasted an experimental batch of Chardonnay that’d gone through the basket press.  It looked wonderful – seemingly more muscular and mineral, less fruity, than the pneumatic press component.  Back then, Vanya Cullen reckoned that the lower juice return from the infamously measly, miserly yielding Gin Gin clone meant it wasn’t economically viable to use the basket press for the Chardonnay.  But clearly Vanya was just as mesmerised by the basket press component as me because, in 2009 and 2010, the Chardonnay has been 100% basket pressed.  Inevitably the price has gone up, but let me tell you, from an already vertigo-inducing high base, Cullen Kevin John Chardonnay has just got even better.  The 2009 shows spicy cinnamon oak hints on the nose with perfumed, slinky pear on a lithe palate with zesty, lemon citrus acidity.  It finishes long and limpid and, though possessed of a cool restraint, it has tremendous underlying fruit intensity – that muscularity – well supported by oak, used for structure not seasoning. An utterly compelling Chardonnay with a long life ahead – at least 10 years based on this vertical.

2010 Cullen Kevin John Chardonnay

Vintage: The Cullen Wines Team couldn’t believe their good fortune as the weather conditions in late 2009 and early 2010 began to unfold and it became clear that 2010 was going to produce the fourth outstanding vintage on the trot. The good rainfall that fell in November helped the vines through some hot weather and prudent shoot and foliage trimming, aided by the numerous benefits of biodynamic viticulture, resulted in an increase in yields, but without any loss of quality.

The Marri blossom in the late summer and early autumn of 2010 was profuse and consistent, which kept the silver eyes occupied and thus only some of the most vulnerable vines needed netting. The summer was slightly warmer and drier in 2010 than in 2009, resulting in the production of slightly richer wines in the more recent of those vintages.

Winemaking: The fruit for this wine was whole bunch basket pressed and run to new French oak where it underwent fermentation with wild yeasts. The wine was matured for 6 months in barrel.

Wine Analysis

Alcohol: 13.3

pH: 3.13

TA (g/L): 8.03

Though very tight on nose and palate, the 2010 vintage exudes concentration from every pore.  Sleek and muscular with a steely backbone of grapefruit to its cinnamon edged dried pear fruit, it’s a tightly coiled Chardonnay with surely many years ahead. Imposing.
Click here for my video interview of Vanya Cullen’s reflections on the 40thAnniversary tasting and here for my notes on the 2011 wines plus a video in which Vanya expresses her opinion about the 2011 vintage in Margaret River.

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