Thursday, May 24, 2012

Comfortably Cullen

As mentioned in a previous post, I'd asked around a bit, from folks more knowledgable about Margaret River than me, for a couple "don't miss" wineries. It was uncanny how different contacts from completely different circumstances - and even parts of the world - kept recommending the same names. We hit Leeuwin Estate last night and Moss Wood was scheduled for tomorrow, but I'd set up a meeting this morning at Cullen Wines, one of the local faves that was completely new to me.

It took no time whatsoever for the four of us to conclude that there'd be no regrets with this visit. We were greeted with a comfy seat and a glass of Cullen's most recent release of the Mangan Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc Semillon as we waited for our affable host and the winery's brand ambassador, Stuart, to get things in motion for us.

As we took a bit of a tour through the adjacent vineyard, Stuart provided some of the history of the winery - from stories of the region's development to tales of the principals, Dr. Kevin Cullen and Diana Cullen, and how they started out by planting a trial acre of vines in 1966 and were so pleased with the results that those initial vines were followed by additional 18 acres' worth in 1971 and a second vineyard in 1995 - with those first plantings garnering the most quizzical of comments from locals back then.

For me, I think Stuart's recitations became even more interesting when he started talking about Cullen's take on winemaking from its certified biodynamic stance. I've heard all the tales of sustainability and science meeting the mystical, but this was the first chance I'd encountered with an actual first hand demonstration and an ability to see some of the practices right in front of me.

The Cullens had never really been big on pesticides - even during those early years - but when, during the mid-90's, they started experiencing lower yields, higher volume of pests and a general degradation of the soil, the winery started moving towards an organic and biodynamic approach. The estate vineyard was certified biodynamic in 2004 and they are now also Australia's first carbon neutral winery.

Often the first snippet of biodynamic info, that anyone hears of, is that of how cow horns are filled with various preparations - including cow manure, quartz crystals or different botanical plants - and then buried in the vineyard for specified time frames. Once the horns are retrieved, homeopathic sprays and composts are made with the aged contents. Each of the preparations is believed to have particular benefits in maintaining the health of the soil.

Accidentally or not, we had a first hand encounter with some of the emptied cow horns when we had to duck into the first shed we could run to when the skies opened and we were hit by a bit of downpour while in the vineyard. Those horns might have already been emptied but the smell of that shed sure gave everyone confirmation that something potent was going on with the contents.

I freely admit that the whole mysticism and preparations and only picking and planting on fruit or flower days versus leaf and root days intrigues me, but seeing the actual cow horns and special machinery used to mix the preparations helped clarify things somewhat.

Stuart freely admitted that not everyone shares Cullen's enthusiasm for biodynamics but he notes that other wineries have certainly taken to dropping by to see what they do at Cullen. He added that it certainly doesn't hurt the winery's reputation that its wines continually pull in the wonderful reviews that they do. As an example, Stuart proudly advised that the 2007 vintage of their flagship Chardonnay, the Kevin James Chardonnay, was chosen as Decanter magazine's Best Chardonnay in the world.

Biodynamics and quality aside, there was no certainly no denying Boo's outright lust for the big pile of compost sitting behind the winery's vegetable garden. That was some nice looking dirt. I have no doubt that Boo would have gladly emptied one of suitcases and filled it with compost to take home with us for his gardens. Impractical and impossible, yes - but incredibly desirable all the same.

By now, I gather Stuart was willing to put up with a bit of our antics and never-ending questions. He even expressed his love for the new concrete fermenter that the winery was trying for the first time. The egg shape of the fermenter is designed such that the heating and cooling, that naturally occurs, keeps the wine and air flow circulating without any need for the wine to be pumped or punched down. The egg, in case you're wondering, is not part of the biodynamic concept. It originated in Beaune, France and there's even one in the Okanagan Valley now that's creating quite a stir.

With our walkabout concluded, we returned to the cellar door and willingly tasted our way through a healthy handful of Cullen wines. It was at this point that the green dragon - jealousy - reared its ugly head. Both Margarita and Merlot Boy bought a case to have shipped back to their homes. I had to put on my "pity poor me" hat and limit my purchase to a single, measly bottle. I will, however, look forward to the day when we open up and dive into that bottle of 2010 Diana Madeline - Cullen's flagship Bordeaux blend. Having already garnered scores of 97, 98, 96, 5/5 and a miserly 93, I'm thinking we're in for a bit of treat - but the question will be just how long can we keep our paws off of it to allow a little ageing.

To finish off our visit, the gang decided to take advantage of a coveted reservation for lunch at the Cullen Restaurant - a welcomed suggestion from our B&B hosts at Burnside Organic Farm. Naturally, that meant we cracked open one of the wines that particularly intrigued us during the tasting.

1128. 2011 Cullen Mangan Vineyard Verdelho (Margaret River - Australia)

To say that we enjoyed this bottle would be understating the moment a bit. Margarita bought an entire case of the wine - and, as a rule, she's more of a red wine gal. There's not a lot of it made. Actually, there aren't exceedingly large quantities of any Cullen wines - a grand total of about 20,000 is the vintage average. However, you can only buy the Verdelho at the cellar door.

Refreshingly crisp, with nice fruit and spice on the palate, it matched up beautifully with the warm weather and our superb meals. Risotto, prawns, veggie and cheese platter, salmon or garden salad - it didn't matter because everything was delicious and deliciously paired. All the produce came from the winery's garden out back and you could taste the freshness. If we didn't have other wineries still to take in, we could have just bought another bottle of wine and carried on for another hour or two.

Easily one of the most enjoyable meals - and some of the best food - of our entire trip.

Would I recommend a visit if you happen to be in the area? To quote young Stuart, "Kenoath." I'd never heard the phrase before, but a delicate translation might be,"Damned Straight." It shouldn't take too much of your imagination or linguistic skills to figure out where the "ken" part comes from. The "oath" bit brings in a little truth under oath.

I'll be watching for and will hopefully come across Cullen wines down the road. The sooner, the better, methinks.

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