Winemaker of the Year

James Halliday by James Halliday
Presented by Harvey Norman
Anyone with interest in wine will know the name Cullen, with the legendary Margaret River winery recognised as one of Australia’s best labels. Cullen red wine the Diana Madeline is a benchmark cabernet blend that’s loved by collectors everywhere, and the winery also focuses on chardonnay, each year hosting an International Chardonnay Tasting that people travel from all over to attend. This family winery has been helmed by Vanya Cullen for the past 30 years, during which time she has achieved certified biodynamic and carbon-neutral status for the brand and introduced several exciting wines. Read on to hear what James Halliday has to say about his Winemaker of the Year.

James Halliday on his Winemaker of the Year

I fell in love with Margaret River the first time I visited it in 1981, gathering information for a book I was then writing on the wines of Western Australia. The book was published the following year with a short acknowledgement paragraph: ‘My thanks to the vignerons of WA who made this book possible … and in particular to Diana and Kevin Cullen who gave unstintingly of their time and hospitality.’ I stayed at the Cullen house that time, and many times after; after each stay, Di (as she was known) would write me a long letter, when it should have been the other way round.

Diana and Kevin’s daughter Vanya originally enrolled in general science at the University of Western Australia, choosing zoology the next year and also taking a music unit, before going to the University of Adelaide in 1981 to study music (so I didn’t meet her on that first trip). But Kevin enrolled her in the postgraduate diploma in oenology at Roseworthy alongside her music studies.

Vanya says, ‘He booked me into Roseworthy because he wanted someone in the family to know about wine, and because I was the youngest [of five brothers and sisters] it was a done deal.’

Blockquote Section Icon
Vanya’s commitment to improving Cullen Wines while leaving the world a better place is reflected in the winery’s carbon-neutral and naturally powered status.

She returned to work at Cullen in 1983 but added vintages in New Zealand (1983), Napa Valley (1985) and Burgundy (1987). The pieces on the chessboard moved rapidly at home. Kevin and Diana had shared the winemaking until 1981, when Diana assumed full responsibility; Vanya took over as senior winemaker in 1989 and became managing director in 1999.

‘Wines are made in the vineyard’ became a battle cry in the 1980s, but it took on a new meaning with the arrival of biodynamic viticulture, and no one has been more committed to its theory and its application than Vanya. As an early mover, she had to deal with brash naysayers, such as myself, and did so with the grace she inherited from Di.

Cullen has always been first among equals with its wines, but the Margaret River region is richly endowed with its percentage of 5-red-star wineries – to simply stay where you are is to imperil your very existence in this highly charged world. It’s one of the reasons for Vanya’s willingness to travel halfway around the globe if there’s an event that she believes will be of benefit to Cullen or the broader wine landscape. Her commitment to improving Cullen Wines while leaving the world a better place is reflected in the winery’s carbon-neutral and naturally powered status.

Vanya turns 60 this year, and many around the world will raise a glass to her and Cullen Wines.

Previous ‘Winemaker of the Year’ recipients were Robert Diletti (2015), Peter Fraser (2016), Sarah Crowe (2017), Paul Hotker (2018) and Julian Langworthy (2019).

This extract is from the 2020 Halliday Wine Companion guide, published by Hardie Grant and available at all good bookstores.

Sign up to view these tasting notes and ratings

By becoming a member of Wine Companion, you'll have access to the largest database of wines in Australia.