St Hugo brand home in the Barossa Valley.

When we were together at Roseworthy Agricultural College in the early 1980s, I would often find myself queuing up for lunch at the dining hall and chatting with fellow student Vanya Cullen. In those days the college was populated by mostly indolent farm boys more interested in getting pissed and enjoying freedom for the first time.

The oenology and wine-marketing students tended to be different with more worldly ideas and bigger ambitions. Many of Australia’s important winemakers and movers and shakers were gleaned from the intakes of the early 1980s. This was in no small part the result of a revolutionary oenology department headed up by Dr Bryce Rankine and comprising, amongst others, Dr Richard Smart, Dr Peter Dry, Dr Patrick Iland, Bill Baker, David Bruer and Andrew Yap.

Margaret River winemaker Vanya Cullen presides over a singular legacy.

On most weekends ‘plonkies’ would visit wineries or practice blind wine tasting. In those regular queue-ups and occasional gatherings, Cullen would talk about her family, student work and ambitions. Drawn to nature and the arts, she was always different and destined for a big life in the unfolding fine wine scene.

Her parents, Dr Kevin and Diana, were progressive thinkers, environmentalists and nurturers of six children. Cullen recalled, “As children we were always out and about on weekends, at the beach or working on the farm. It was an outdoors, nature-based existence.” That rambunctious Margaret River life – peppered with music, literature, scientific inquiry, discussions and arguments – resulted in a remarkable family of achievers in business and medicine. Cullen’s destiny would take a markedly different trajectory.

After her studies and overseas vintages, she returned to Margaret River and joined her mother as joint winemaker. By the 1990s, the two had become an inseparable and effective team, making some of the region’s finest wines. Although differing opinions were frequent, the move towards sustainable and biodynamic farming became a leitmotif of Cullen wines.

By 2005, the beautiful and consistent Cullen Diana Madeline Cabernet Merlot, named in honour of her mother who died in 2003, was classified ‘Exceptional’ by Langton’s. Only a handful of Australian wines have been recognised in this way and it reflects the wine’s stature among collectors. The exquisite Cullen Chardonnay, based on the marvellous California-sourced and Australian selected Gingin clone, was rebadged Kevin John (after her father) with the release of the 2006 vintage.

Cullen took the winery further down the biodynamic pathway, believing strongly in the philosophies of Rudolf Steiner, the power of the land, the influential phases of the moon and the necessity of keeping the ecosystem microbiologically healthy. When the natural wine movement appeared on the scene, her belief system neatly collided with its aims. Cullen’s team, headed up by winemakers Trevor Kent and then Andy Barrett-Lennard, have loyally travelled down the same pathway, enabling a remarkable body of work. At a 50th anniversary celebration held in May 2021, her achievements, team spirit and courage of convictions were all to be seen. Most great winemakers are craftspeople, but the spirituality, artistry, bravery and intent behind her wines take the Cullen experience to another level.

Amongst a dazzling array of the classic and avant garde, there are two historic wines that epitomise the zeitgeist of their times and represent important way points in Australia’s fine wine journey.

2004 Diana Madeline Cabernet Merlot was the first biodynamic wine under this label and represents the ideal of “achieving greater individuality of site through working with nature rather than against it”. This move set Cullen apart from many local producers, but her results inspired many winemakers to follow suit.

2020 Cullen Legacy Series Kevin John Chardonnay, “harvested on a fruit day, pressed to concrete egg for ferment before maturation in a new Biodynamic Flower puncheon”, marks an arrival point where extreme winemaking meets classicism, ultimately proving the point that the vineyard is the reference for all fine wine. It is a paradox where familiarity and strangeness integrate harmoniously.