Cullen Vanya Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon: Legitimate Claims On The Title ‘Most Elegant Wine Ever Made In Australia’
by Ken Gargett
I’ve always enjoyed reading interviews with authors talking about how their characters took control of their novels and led them in ways they did not expect. This article seemed a little bit like that to me: it was going to be on the general glories of Margaret River, a brilliant wine region in Australia’s southwest.
Then it became a look at two very special annual events, the 36th Cape Mentelle Cabernet International Celebration and the 33rd Cullen’s International Chardonnay Tasting.
Then up popped a couple of unique wines in the Cullen tasting under the Legacy program.
And perhaps we’ll get to all of these in time, but a tasting of the current Cullen wines threw up a wine that stole the show for me and demanded a starring role.
In the pantheon of our finest reds, the usual suspects take pride of place: Penfolds’ Grange, Henschke’s Hill of Grace, et al. Cullen’s Diana Madeline Cabernet Sauvignon and Rockford’s Basket Press Shiraz are always contenders. Bass Philip’s Reserve Pinot Noir is perhaps a little left field, but worthy of consideration. Brokenwood’s Graveyard is the shining star from the Hunter Valley. Clonakilla’s Shiraz Viognier. The list really does go on.
There are also numerous one-off or tiny limited release possibilities that are almost impossible to find and often extremely expensive, though with Grange at $900 a bottle, the horse might have bolted on reasonable-pricing being a significant criteria.
For me, Cullen’s Diana Madeline Cabernet Sauvignon has established a track record of superb wines over many, many years and is surely entitled to be considered our leading Cabernet Sauvignon. The current 2016 ($135) is worthy of a place in any cellar.
In recent vintages, another Cullen Cabernet Sauvignon has joined the portfolio: the Vanya.
Diana Madeline is named after the mother of current winemaker, Vanya Cullen. Diana and her husband, Kevin John (he of the equally exceptional Chardonnay), founded the estate in the earliest days of the region and planted Cabernet back in the very early 1970s. And, yes, Vanya’s mum did like Chekov.
The first release of “the Vanya” was the 2012, which I must confess sadly eluded me. I did, however, have the chance to see both the 2015 and 2016. There was no 2013 or 2014, and the 2016 is about to arrive. It is likely that there will also be a 2017 – a vintage continuing to exceed initial expectations.
Surprisingly, there will not be a 2018 Vanya despite many thinking it the finest vintage ever experienced in Margaret River. But then, we mere mortals should never doubt the decisions Vanya makes – she has more than proven herself.
Cullen has gone the biodynamic and carbon neutral route, and this wine reflects all that. Wild yeasts, no additions of acid or malolactic culture, and no fining. The fruit was harvested on a full moon, fruit day, from the family’s most venerable aged vines. The crop level was 2.5 tons/ha. Fermentation is in 300-liter terracotta vessels (amphora), with ten months on skins and then just five months in oak, two-thirds of which were new.
Production was very small, just 1,700 bottles. And 2016 gave up even less.
Unlike the Diana Madeline, the Vanya is 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon (the 2012 had three percent Petit Verdot). Vanya aims “for the purity and power of Cabernet.” She believes that the amphorae “give silky tannins and elegance, reminiscent of Barolo or a SuperTuscan.”
Vanya is very keen on the sub-regional aspects of Margaret River – a discussion for another day – and so Wilyabrup (the sub-region from where many of the original pioneers hail) appears on the label.
The price of $500 a bottle sets a new level for Margaret River, but in international terms it is more than reasonable.
Cullen’s Vanya: just how good is it?
Is it worth the money? Does it take Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon to new heights or is it just a well-crafted exercise in marketing?
For me, this wine sets a new standard for Australian Cabernet Sauvignon. It is truly stunning. A world-class wine that immediately takes a spot on the bucket list for any serious wine lover. Anyone with this wine in the cellar has some wonderful experiences ahead of them.
The 2015 Vanya is beautifully fragrant, silky, with spices. Almost like a Cabernet cake. Great balance, finesse, and length. There is a prettiness, backed by steel. Red fruits, tobacco box, florals, notably violets. There are the finest, velvety tannins.
Not a hiccup to be found in this wonderfully seamless wine, which maintains its intensity throughout. There is no real evidence of oak to be found, and it offers an almost surreal complexity. The wine reflects the finesse of the 2015 vintage, and for me 99 points (and even that seems churlish).
This wine has legitimate claims on the title of “most elegant wine ever made in Australia,” although good luck getting that past half the wine makers in the country.
The 2016 also reflects its vintage conditions, more powerful and muscular. Another superb wine but at this stage, still a little reticent. Red fruits, especially red currants, and tobacco leaf.
Again, immaculate balance and seriously impressive length, although at this early stage perhaps not as long as its predecessor. It does have plenty of power and there is a long future ahead. I rate it a 97.
For more information please visit www.cullenwines.com.au/product/2015-vanya-cabernet-sauvignon.
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Also published on Medium.