Cullen – vertical tastings of the flagship wines

I love tasting and writing about wine but a part of me yearns to get my hands dirty and get involved in a spot of winemaking myself – an impulse I’ve indulged every few years.  I could not have been happier when Vanya Cullen of Cullen wines, Margaret River, agreed to take me on for two weeks this March – great wines and my first vintage experience at a biodynamic winery!  My timing was perfect – a fast and furious vintage, so plenty to do, plus a truly outstanding vintage for Margaret River and, indeed, most of Western Australia.

Just missing the corks!

Just missing the corks!

And their wines are among Australia’s greatest, achieved through dry farming some of Margaret River’s oldest vines for low yields, working biodynamically and, in the winery, gentle handling at every stage with minimal intervention.  Having presided over the sorting table for some days, I can tell you that the quality of fruit coming off the vines is pristine, so why not let it do the talking?   As Vanya Cullen puts it, the wines are making themselves with no yeast or acid additions.

Issue 16 of The World of Fine Wine magazine features my in depth interview with Vanya.  Below you will find highlights of a vertical tasting of the flagship Diana Madeline Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blend.

NB Between 1981-87, winemaking was lead by Di Cullen; 1988 was a joint Vanya and Di production and Vanya has lead the winemaking since 1989, since 1996, most ably assisted by Trevor Kent.  The vineyard was certified organic with effect from the 2003 vintage and biodynamic with effect from the 2004 vintage.

Cullen Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot (known as Diana Madeline with effect from the 2001 vintage):

2004: expressive and enticing cassis nose with violets, cedar and cherry.  Plenty of depth and breadth of flavour with glossy cassis and baked cherry notes amply supported by well integrated oak and rich, ripe tannins.

2003: a heft of blackcurrant, with chocolate and touch of gentleman’s club (cedar/cigarbox/tobacco) on the nose.  The palate is already very expressive, with blackcurrant, chocolate and those cedar/tobacco notes; present yet supple tannins – nice line/purity.

2002: earthy nose with blackcurrant and blackcurrant bud.  The nose has a lick of boot polish/linseed/earthiness; nice core of fleshy damson and mulberry fruit.  Good vinosity/persistence with an elegant frame of fine-grained tannins.

2001: cassis nose with a lick of boot polish; a lovely saturation of fleshy, ripe blackberry and plum fruit seamlessly wed to sleek, fine grained tannins; very complete with elegant, vinous texture; understated powerhouse.

2000: more developed nose with boot polish and a slightly bloody note;a sapid palate with cassis and a cool, mineral undertow; very enjoyable now.

1999: a dark nose with cassis, hints of prune and earthy boot polish.  The palate has a lovely seam of well-defined cassis and mulberry fruit underscored by beautifully textured, ripe tannins; terrific balance, with a persistent, long finish.  Excellent.

1995: a lovely purity of cassis and mulberry with hints of boot polish on the nose.  Really complete on the palate with excellent balance and structure.  Shows plush cassis, succulent blackberry and plum amply supported by supple tannins. Long, persistent finish.

1994: a gravelly, savoury nose.  The palate is sharply defined with blackcurrant and berry fruits balanced by persistent acidity and firm, tightly-knit tannins; long finish, very intense wine.

1992: a vibrant, well-structured palate with a lovely seam of persistent acidity to its spicy, tobacco-edged blackberry/currant and damson; nice polished tannins.  Excellent.

1991: showing very well now with fine-grained tannins, good balance and depth of flavour – cedar-edged blackberry/cherry fruit.

1989: Lifted cassis and mulberry, lead pencil with a mineral undertow; lovely vinosity/persistence.  Very complete, understated yet intense wine.

1988: Developed, slightly bloody nose; a flavoursome, generous palate shows warm earth, cassis and blackberry framed by supple tannins.  Well balanced, pleasurable wine.

1986: Very well-mannered, succulent, juicy wine with blackberry, plum and cherry fruits.

1984: Tightly structured wine with firm tannins, mouth-watering acidity and liquorice spice to its dark berry fruit.

1982: Still very vibrant wine with a tight core of juicy cassis and blueberry, hints of boot polish and attractive bay leaf wed to a firm backbone of tannin.  Imposing.

1981: Touch tarry with boot polish and some leafy notes; big tannins make for a relatively robust wine with flavoursome black fruits.

Cullen Chardonnay

2005: sweet floral nose with vanilla bean/white chocolate; the palate shows smoky oak/vanilla bean under which lurks a very textured, layered palate of great depth and complexity with honey and nougat characters to its dried pear and mouthwatering melon fruit.  Yet to be released, so expect the oak to have become more integrated by the time it hits these shores.

2004: a smoky, struck match nose leads onto an intense palate with citrus, limeflower and white peach, balanced by mouthwatering acidity; a long, lingering finish shows nougat and honeysuckle and a mineral undertow.

2003: a super-expressive, flamboyant style with more tropical fruit – dried pineapple, citrus core; mouthwatering finish – dead flavoursome.

2002: leesy, creamy malo nose with lots of vanilla bean.   Poised oak informs the structure as does a lively seam of acidity –  lifted and lively palate with citrus (lemon/grapefruit) and pear. Long and intense.

1999: Developed, Burgundian style with subtle toast, spice and honey; long, persistence with excellent balancing acidity.

1997: Terrific purity and concentration of white peach, pears and grapefruit – a real mouthful but all about the fruit (not oak, malo etc) – great structure – wow! Great to see it holding up so well since I tasted it on my first visit to Cullen in 2004.

Rich, ripe style with pears and white peach poached in cinammon and saffron – a little low on acidity so drink up.

Cullen Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon

2006 Mangan*:
pungent, thistle/artichoke nose with asparagus around a tight, citric core on the palate.  Good persistence and length with mouthwatering acidity.    *Fruit from the younger, neighbouring Mangan vineyard has previously been incorporated in the estate wine.  In 2006, it was felt that the two vineyards did not marry, so instead 2006 sees two single vineyard wines.

2006: the older vine estate fruit has a broader, more textured palate than the Mangan with pungent artichoke and more delicate lime blossom; long, fine and pure finish with a mineral undertow carried by classy, delicately smoky oak.

2005: floral, lifted nose with lime blossom. Super intense, almost painfully intense concentration of flavour – fabulous depth and concentration of flavour with a pronounced mineral, fine, flinty edge to its long, tight finish.  Terrific.

2004: lemon/lemon curd nose with a smoky oak note.  The palate is quite funky with a core of lemonlime fruit – a more semillon-oriented spectrum of flavours with lovely texture and depth of flavour…long with a hint of struck match.  Very complete.

2003: a pungent thistle/artichoke nose.  Lanolin and waxy semillon characteristics cut with Sauvignon’esque pea pod in the mouth enhanced by subtle bath salts/floral hints – complex texture and flavour spectrum.

2001: bouquet of developed petrol/kerosene notes; in the mouth this is very tight with spicy, pungent coriander seed and a smoky herbal core; mouthwatering, mineral finish.  Very good.

2000: intriguingly different with a sweet, slightly developed note and a little more girth with flavours of warm stones, lemon/lime peel…

1999: a really good depth of flavour, lovely mouthwatering acidity, those warm stones again – mineral hints with bath salts (very Alsace) – secondary floral notes…Very good.

1998: Deep colour – gold glints and, like an Aussie Riesling it shows roses lime cordial/lime blossom getting into more developed pot pourri spectrum.  Limpid, mineral, mouthwatering palate – very reminiscent of an Alsace Riesling.

1996 (Reserve – 100% new oak for SB and 50% new oak for Sem): very Graves – floral, blackcurrant bud nose with distinct whiff of gunflint.  Pronounced minerality on a  chiselled palate with lively, racy acidity, intense blackcurrant bud core.  Very well-balanced, long and persistent.

Sarah Ahmed
The Wine Detective
March 2007

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