Cullen Wines Kevin John Chardonnay & Diana Madeline Verticals (2010-2015)
Vanya Cullen was in town last week and presented an insightful vertical tasting of Cullen Kevin John Chardonnay (2010-2015) and Cullen Diana Madeline (2010-2015). It pretty much picked up where I left off at this prestigious Margaret River estate’s extraordinary 40th anniversary tasting so, with this post and the 40th anniversary verticals of Cullen Kevin John (2007-2010) & Cullen Diana Madeline (1981-2010), you could call it game, set and match! Until the next releases….And that would be the fun in wine.
Indeed, looking ahead, Cullen reported that 2017’s notoriously long (3 months versus 1 month for the previous 3 years) vintage produced “really good quality and quantity.” Although the weather was very changeable, there was very little disease, she added. This year was also marked by the retirement of Trevor Kent, Cullen’s right-hand man, though the vintage did its best to hang onto him! Stepping into the long-time Production Manager’s big shoes is winemaker Andy Barrett-Lennard, who recently returned to Cullen having started out at the cellar door in 2011.
The viticultural and winemaking team continue to find ways to tread lightly. In addition to being certified biodynamic, Cullen is now naturally powered through wind and solar energy. A key aspect of treading lightly is biodynamic certification, which Cullen also attributes with amplifying “the very loud voice of the vineyard.” Or I should say vineyards. In addition to the original 28ha Wilyabrup vineyard planted by her parents, Kevin John & Diana Madeline Cullen, Cullen Wines recently acquired the 21ha Mangan vineyard (planted 1995 and 1997) from Cullen’s brother Rick (which is located just over the road).
Where “nature is the most important thing,” creating more connection with it by looking after the earth and “farming with that sense of aliveness in the vine” is intrinsically linked with making the best quality wine for Cullen. Observing that the brain of plants is in the roots and bacteria and funghi make up the soil’s intelligence, it is clearly a badge of pride that her Vineyard Manager Matt Dermody describes the vineyards’ “very silky and light soils” as ‘an internet highway under the ground.’ And that you can smell the soils, “especially in the Cabernets.”
Looking skywards is important too where Cullen has observed that the planetary aspects influence her wines. “Full moon fruit and flower days are good for power,” which is why Cullen aims not only to harvest on those days where possible, but also to age the wines in barrels whose biodynamically cultivated trees have been certified as harvested on fruit and flower days (since 2013). Wines harvested when the moon is opposite Saturn have “wonderful vibrancy,” she adds, while fruit harvested on leaf days has less vitality. Though, she says, it sounds simple to harvest on fruit and flower days she points out, “it takes lots of work to caretake the land into the glass.”
Let me say that the latest 2015 releases of Cullen Wines Kevin John and Diana Madeline look terrifically promising. My out and out stand out vintage both for the Chardonnay and Diana Madeline was 2012, whose spectacular quality endorsed in spades Vanya Cullen’s decision to push the envelope yet further and produce the first vintage of Cullen Wines Vanya (to all intents and purposes, a single varietal Cabernet Sauvignon). I am wildly jealous of you if you have any of these wines in your cellar. If not, seek them out! According to Wine-searcher.com, Exel Wines have Diana Madeline 2012 at £51.72/bottle and Hedonism have the Kevin John 2012 at £68.70, which is also listed on Berry Bros & Rudd’s Broking Exchange.
Cullen Kevin John Chardonnay
“Loving the clarity they give to the wine,” recently introduced ‘treading lightly’ practices include the use of 600l barrels as well as barriques (since 2013). Small concrete egg (since 2012) or amphora fermented (since 2013) components also find their way into Kevin John Chardonnay. Though Cullen says barrels are most consistent, she likes an element of amphora-fermented (on skins) Chardonnay “for a touch of carbonic and textural definition,” while the 675l concrete egg also lends texture and length because you have “a lot more flocculation [of yeast]” on account of its shape. “The amount they contribute is vintage and yield dependent” she adds, perhaps just 3%. Small batch Chardonnay trials are currently underway to explore the impact of not using bentonite.
Of course, ‘small batch’ is a relative statement when talking Kevin John, of which her UK importers, Liberty Wines, (doubtless others) can never get enough. When Cullen clarified what she meant by good quantity in 2017 she meant a sober 2t/ha, versus the incredibly low 1.4t/ha of 2013-15.
By way of background, Kevin John is sourced from among the region’s oldest Chardonnay vines, which were planted in 1976 and 1988 to 100% gin gin clone. Prone to poor flowering, gin gin clone yields tend to be low, especially if spring is windy. And, because of the gin gin clone’s tendency to ‘hen and chicken,’ (large and small berries in a bunch), classic Margaret River Chardonnays like Kevin John have powerful fruit wed to a tight citric backbone.
Fruit power rather fell out of fashion for Australian Chardonnay and I asked Cullen about her take on current trends. Though she acknowledges “a swing towards a more sophisticated wine in a French style, with matchstick,” the winemaker reckons “you’ve got to be very careful how far you go with a style… some went a bit skinny and green.” In her opinion, while Australian Chardonnay “is amazing at the moment because of the spectrum of wines that exist, the best wines are land wines, which have that fruit expression from place rather than a heavier winemaking hand.” For her, citing Giaconda and Bindi by way of example, “you never get a better wine than a wine with real fruit.”
Here are my notes on the wines, of which the 2015, 2012 and 2011 were my standouts:
Cullen Kevin John Chardonnay 2015 (Wilyabrup, Margaret River)
Vintage: strikingly similar harvest to 2014 in terms of weather and yields. Similar rainfall, dry from October to March. One difference was the Marri blossom which did not flower until after harvest, this created a lot of bird pressure.
The time of harvest was almost identical to 2014, however the wine styles are different. 2015 wines are characterised by lots of perfume, purity and great elegance whereas the 2014 wines are about fruit power and purity. 2015 had some hot days, cool nights, a small amount of rain, and although the yields were low (1.47t/ha) it has produced outstanding wines. Harvest finished on the 11th of March. The Chardonnay was harvested on 23rd January & 2nd-5th February.
Vinification: Following harvest, the Chardonnay grapes were whole bunch pressed and fermented with wild yeast in French oak barriques and 600l barrels (73% new). The wine underwent natural malolactic fermentation prior to receiving five months of oak maturation.
Tasting note: A very fresh, snappy nose immediately puts me in mind of the 2007 vintage, a favourite. An impression which is very much reinforced by a racy palate with great vivacity, line and length. With a serrated quality to the acidity (note the elevated TA), it is ever so mouth-wateringly, juicily persistent, with lime and floral notes to the fore, perfumed rock melon going through and a subtle backdrop of sweet vanillin oak. Gorgeous purity and levity, with delicious flinty nuance and freshly grated lime/lemon zest lift to the finish. Scintillating now and, if the 2007 is anything to go by, will retain great energy and poise well into the mid-term. 13%, pH 3.14, TA 6.3g/l, RS 4.2g/l
Cullen Kevin John Chardonnay 2014 (Wilyabrup, Margaret River)
Vintage: Although the weather leading up to and during the vintage was warm, the fruit produced by all varieties in the vineyards of Cullen Wines in 2014 was exceptional. There was no rain in January, February and until the end of harvest in March. The resulting low yields, fantastic pH and great acids levels translated into wines of great flavour and style.
Vinification: Following harvest, the Chardonnay grapes were whole bunch pressed and fermented with wild yeast in French oak barriques (100% new “because the fruit was so powerful,” said Cullen). The wine underwent natural malolactic fermentation prior to receiving eight months of oak maturation.
Tasting note: True to Cullen’s observation that 2014 is “more about fruit power,” it is broader in the mouth, with ripe rock melon, white peach and fig, with spicier (toasted spices), creamier oak and oatmeal notes. A bold, muscular Chardonnay which (strangely, given I am not a meat eater), my notes describe as marbled. What I mean is that there’s plenty of ‘meat’ or fruit, but it is has a vein of acidity and other (non-fruity) threads of flavour which make for a complex, well balanced whole. I’d be in no hurry to drink this. 13.5% pH 3.45, TA 4.9g/l, RS 1.8g/l
Cullen Kevin John Chardonnay 2013 (Wilyabrup, Margaret River)
Vintage: Although the weather leading up to and including vintage was warm, the fruit produced by all varieties in 2013 was exceptional. There was also higher than average rainfall in November and December 2012. The Chardonnay was harvested on fruit and flower days from 11th to 13th February, rather than the full moon and fruit days as in previous vintages. There were also no super moons in the 2013 harvest.
Vinification: Following harvest, the Chardonnay grapes were whole bunch pressed and fermented with wild yeast in French oak barriques. The wine underwent natural malolactic fermentation prior to receiving nine months of oak maturation. 30% of the barrels were new and the remainder were one year old.
Tasting note: lighter in style and less flamboyant, but I like the way it sits zen-like on the mid-palate, like a round pebble, gently exuding power – ripples of white flowers, with rock melon and dried pear as it opens up. Going back, those floral, lily-like notes are pronounced and beguiling. Eminently drinkable now. 14% pH 3.21, TA 5.6g/l, RS 1.1g/l
Cullen Kevin John Chardonnay 2012 (Wilyabrup, Margaret River)
Vintage: The 2012 vintage was a great vintage for Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, despite some challenging conditions in the vineyard. The growing season for the 2012 vintage was wet, which was followed by the hottest January for many years. This resulted in an early harvest, and picking took place between the 30th January and 8th February.
Vinification: Following harvest, the Chardonnay grapes were whole bunch pressed and fermented with wild yeast in French oak barriques. It was then barrel fermented with native yeasts in French oak barriques and matured for approximately 7 months in one- third new and two-thirds seasoned oak barrels.
Tasting note: The 2012 is a benchmark vintage for Cullen on account of its fruit expression and voluptuousness, which she attributes to “lots of full moon fruits days before harvest.” Wow, the 2012 combines the 2015’s raciness (in fact the TA and pH point to higher natural acidity still) with 2014’s fruit power to great advantage. Snappy acidity, really vibrant, licks at the heels of the concentrated but lithe rock melon and white peach, super-charging the palate, which has terrific length – great resonance and reach. Waves of flavour build to a crescendo, with lingering back-palate nougat/dried honey notes. Philippe Petit-like swagger, stamina and balance. 13% pH 3.12, TA 7.17g/l, RS 3g/l
Cullen Kevin John Chardonnay 2011 (Wilyabrup, Margaret River)
Vintage: A very dry and warm spring (only 111mm of rain from September onwards), combined with a consistently hot summer, led to the fruit ripening within a relatively short period of time and thus harvest was finished by 9th March. This was the earliest finish to vintage on record. The vintage conditions in 2011 resulted in the production of white wines that have great flavour and elegance.
Vinification: The fruit was picked in excellent physiological condition at a range of sugar levels. The elegance and complexity of the wine was enhanced by the use of basket pressing, which has the benefit of treating the fruit in a gentle manner. The fruit was whole bunch pressed and fermented with wild yeast in French barriques, with 33% undergoing natural malolactic fermentation. The wine matured for seven months in oak barrels, of which 32% were new and the rest one year old.
Tasting note – thanks to the full moon and a perigee (when the moon is at its closest to the earth), fermentations were fast, hence the reduced malo (just 33% in this year). And yep, I could taste it when I looked at barrel samples in 2011 (my report here) and once again, on tasting the mature, complete article. Cullen Kevin John 2011 has the pacy, racy, pulse of energy of the ’15 and its levity. I think it was no mistake that Cullen referenced her love of Leflaive Burgundy when we tasted this acid-streaked, grapefruity, floral wine. Despite the va va voom acidity, with its dancing, joyous finish, it is uncommonly pretty for Kevin John but, make no mistake, it has terrific intensity too. Like the 2015, scintillating; really incisive. 13.5% pH 3.12, TA 7.17g/l, RS 3g/l
Cullen Kevin John Chardonnay 2010 (Wilyabrup, Margaret River)
Vintage: The warm dry summer of 2009/10 led to good yields of very high quality Chardonnay fruit that resulted in the production of a slightly richer wine than the excellent 2009. Indeed, 2010 represented the fourth consecutive outstanding vintage at Cullen Wines. Harvest took place from the 11th to the 26th February.
Vinification: The fruit was picked in excellent physiological condition at a range of sugar levels. The elegance and complexity of the wine was enhanced by the use of basket pressing, which has the benefit of treating the fruit in a gentle manner. The fruit was whole bunch pressed and spontaneously fermented in French barriques, two thirds of which were new. The wine underwent partial malolactic fermentation prior to ageing for a further five months in barrel.
Tasting note: a very pretty nose, applely, with bay leaf and flowers which follow through on the attack. The mid-palate features riper, tropical pineapple notes and a hint of tinned peach, which comes through on a finish with lively, slightly elbowy green apple acidity. Good fruit power if not quite as assured or complete as some of the other vintages. 13.5% pH 3.08, TA 7.6g/l, RS 1g/l
Cullen Diana Madeline
Cullen Diana Madeline – originally known as Cullen Cabernet Merlot – has long held iconic status in Australia. It was named after Vanya Cullen’s mother whom she says “always loved blend and introduced Cabernet Franc and Merlot to Margaret River.”
It is made predominantly from Cabernet Sauvignon, and complemented by Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc. The fruit is sourced from Cullen’s estate vineyards: Cabernet Sauvignon comprises 11 hectares and was planted in 1971; Merlot comprises just under 2 hectares and was planted in 1976.
Over lunch we tasted Cullen Vanya 2012 which, once again, bowled me over. This relatively new, top tier Cabernet Sauvignon (with a splash of 3% Petit Verdot) comes from the original Cabernet Sauvignon block too (see my original tasting note here) and, said Cullen, takes her back to the land every time she drinks it. Explaining its genesis she told us while her mum loved the Bordeaux blend, she loves Cabernet Sauvignon. Having worked for so long at Cullen and, “being stubborn like mum,” in 2012 the Cabernet struck her as “different and special” enough to warrant vinifying solo. Thus far, Cullen Vanya has only been released in 2012 (though Matthew Jukes’ pointed questioning suggested another vintage is in the works). It and Diana Madeline highlight why Wilyabrup has been dubbed the Pauillac of Margaret River, such is the pedigree and finesse of this estate’s Cabernet in particular.
The aim for both is, says Cullen, produce medium-bodied, elegant wines, which means keeping the alcohol by volume to 14% or under; 13.5% is the best we can do, she said. To me, Diana Madeline is typical ‘drier’ in flavour profile than its Australian contemporaries and, in this sense, closer to Bordeaux. Here are my notes on the wines, of which the 2015, 2013, 2012 and 2011 were my standouts:
Cullen Diana Madeline 2015 (Wilyabrup, Margaret River)
Vintage: The growing season for 2015 Diana Madeline was favourable with good spring rains and a warm, dry ripening period. Strikingly similar harvest to 2014 in terms of weather and yields. Similar rainfall, dry from October to March. One difference was the Marri blossom which did not flower until after harvest, this created a lot of bird pressure. The time of harvest was almost identical to 2014, however the wine styles are different. 2015 wines are characterised by lots of perfume, purity and great elegance whereas the 2014 wines are about fruit power and purity. 2015 had some hot days, cool nights, a small amount of rain, and although the yields were low it has produced outstanding wines. Low yields of 2.47 tons per hectare produced a concentrated elegant wine, bright in colour, pure in fruit flavour concentration, with the classic Cullen Vineyard Wilyabrup cassis, violets, chocolate and ironstone. Harvest finished on the 11th of March.
Vinification: It is a blend of 87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Merlot, 1% Malbec and 1% Cabernet Franc. 100% from the Cullen Vineyard. The primary fermentation took an average 12 days. Skin contact time average of 22 days. Aged for 17 months in barriques, of which 66% were new.
Tasting notes: a very bright crimson hue; paler than the other wines in the line-up, with a pinkish rim. The nose is fresh, perfumed and immediately beguiling, with strikingly pure, dancing red cherry to the nose, which follows through on a vivid, well-focused, medium-bodied palate with fresh, bright acidity and plentiful but fine graphite tannins (a stealthy underlay), with ironstone/terra cotta nuances. Going back fleshier black cherry, satsuma plum, black berry and currant notes are building, with complexing riffs of cedar, balsamic and black tea. Youthfully atomised in present form, but with the perfect framework to show off its enticing kaleidoscope of flavours and aromas with time. Terrific promise. 13% pH 3.6, TA 5.8g/l, RS 0.27g/l
Cullen Diana Madeline 2014 (Wilyabrup, Margaret River)
Vintage: The growing season for 2014 Diana Madeline was favourable with good spring rains and a warm ripening period. There was no rain at all during January until the harvest in March. Low yields produced a concentrated wine that is bright in colour and pure in fruit flavour concentration.
Vinification: It is a blend of 89% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Petit Verdot, 3% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc & 2% Malbec. The fruit was carefully sorted before natural primary and malolactic fermentation. The varieties were vinified separately. Primary fermentation took an average of 35 days, with the average skin contact lasting for 49 days. The wine was then aged for 17 months in French oak barriques, 60% of which were new. No acid or yeast were added, producing a wine which has a great sense of place.
Tasting note: Harvested later, which shows in a much deeper hue and darker, more ‘masculine’ profile, with cedar, blackcurrant, a hint of blackcurrant bud/stalk and incipient meat pan juices. With time in glass this brooding wine shows fleshier, rich black cherry and cassis, with violets, tobacco, radicchio, pencil shavings and bitter chocolate to the finish. A mellow touch of meat pan juices too. Poised, very polished tannins maintain length and line. Brimming with power, it could not be more different from the 2015! 13% pH 3.6, TA 5.8g/l, RS 0.27g/l
Cullen Diana Madeline 2013 (Wilyabrup, Margaret River)
Vintage: Yields were down in 2013 due to hail and storms at flowering. However, although the weather leading up to and including vintage was warm, the fruit produced by all varieties in 2013 was exceptional. Low yields of 4 tons per hectare produced great concentration of flavour. Indeed, the quality of the harvest was even better than 2012, which was widely regarded as exceptional! Harvest took place on 20th February and 7th March, around the new moon and on flower days, rather than the full moon and on fruit days as in previous vintages. There were also no super moons in this year’s harvest. During vintage, the birds fortunately stayed away. Vanya points out that the only problem in 2013 is the shortage of the sensational fruit that was produced!
Vinification: a blend of 73% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot & 7% Cabernet Franc. The grapes were grown biodynamically and hand harvested. The fruit was carefully sorted before natural primary and malolactic fermentation. The two varieties were vinified separately. Primary fermentation took an average of 35 days, with the average skin contact lasting for 49 days. The wine was then aged for 17 months in French oak barriques, 60% of which were new. No acid or yeast were added, producing a wine which has a great sense of place.
Tasting note: a really elegant Diana Madeline, vibrant and complex with a highly engaging dry/juicy, profile thanks to its parrying, powder puff fine charge of chalky tannins and persistent, juicy acidity, which bring great impetus to the finely-honed palate. The medium-bodied palate sports persistent, perfumed, juicy cassis and mulberry fruit, with layers of cocoa, kelp, minerals (iron filings), cedar and graphite. Terrific poise. 13% pH 3.61, TA 5.5g/l, RS 0.46g/l
Cullen Diana Madeline 2012 (Wilyabrup, Margaret River)
Vintage: The growing season for the 2012 harvest was wet and the potential for disease was high. The hottest January for many years following the wet conditions resulted in an early harvest. Yields were classic and picking started on the 31st of January and finished by the 11th of March. The Cabernet Sauvignon Diana Madeline block was hand harvested with stunning quality on the full moon fruit days of the 7th of March to the 9th of March. 2012 was a particularly great vintage in particular for the Cabernet Sauvignon.
Vinification: The fruit – a blend of 76% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Merlot & 7% Cabernet Franc – was carefully sorted before natural primary and malolactic fermentation. The varieties were vinified separately and aged for 19 months in French oak barriques, 38% of which were new. No acid or yeast were added.
Tasting note: for Cullen, this was “one of best vintages ever for perfume, very fine tannins and fruit power.” It was a fast and furious vintage in which the team processed 20t of Cabernet over 3 days. “Everyone was over it by the end, but the full moon rising over the Diana Madeline block when the last fruit came in had the hairs up on the back of your neck,” she said, describing the full moon as “a blessing.” Aspects of this wine remind me of the 2015, the atomised, perfumed finish, with a hint of black tea and the fine but prodigious, powdery tannins – the golden thread which entwines the cassis, juicier black berry, cedar, dark chocolate and earth notes, spinning out the longest and finest of finishes. With outstanding balance and finesse, the 2012 has the precision and poise – a containment – that speaks of many, many years ahead. 13.5% pH 3.59, TA 5.3g/l, RS 0.35g/l
Cullen Diana Madeline 2011 (Wilyabrup, Margaret River)
Vintage: A very dry and warm spring combined with the hot summer, led to the fruit ripening within a short period of time and thus led to an early and condensed harvest. It was also a vintage of super moons! The vintage conditions in 2011 resulted in the production of wines that have great flavour and elegance.
Vinification: The fruit – a blend of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot, 4% Malbec, 3% Cabernet Franc & 1% Petit Verdot – was carefully sorted before natural primary and malolactic fermentation. The varieties were vinified separately and aged for 19 months in French oak barriques, 48% of which were new. No acid or yeast were added.
Tasting note: – like the Chardonnay, the 2011 Diana Madeline is finely drawn, with great line and length thanks to its fresh acid drive and al dente tannins. There’s a trace of earth and tobacco to the nose, terracotta too, which follows through in the mouth together with lively black currant and juicy black berry and satsuma plum with incipient kelp. The fruit and minerals sluiced finish is long and elegant – sheer if you like – with rolling acidity. Broachable, but still lively as you like. 12.5% pH 3.59, TA 5.6g/l, RS 0.63g/l
Cullen Diana Madeline 2010 (Wilyabrup, Margaret River)
Vintage: The 2010 season produced wines which were abundant in fruit and had excellent balance. In accordance with biodynamic principles, the grapes were hand harvested on fruit days from the Cabernet Sauvignon vines, which are now 39 years old. Harvest ran from 1st to 28th of March.
Vinification: This blend of 77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 6% Petit Verdot, 4% Malbec & 3% Cabernet Franc was picked at Baumés ranging from 12.0 ° to 13.7° and carefully sorted before fermentation with indigenous yeasts and malolactic bacteria. The varieties were vinified separately and aged for 19 months in French oak barriques, 51% of which were new. No acid or yeast was added.
Tasting note: it has a tough gig (gigs even) to follow but, like the Chardonnay, the 2010 vintage seemed more developed than the other wines. It lacks the vibrancy, concentration and definition of fruit of the subsequent vintages, showing a markedly spicy profile with vegetal notes to its earthy plum and warm terracotta to the mellow finish. 13% pH 3.59, TA 5.3g/l, RS 0.54g/l