Mother and daughter winemakers Di and Vanya Cullen are creating great wines in Western Australia. Tim Atkin meets the duo...

In Margaret River, Western Australia, the industry has produced two remarkable winemakers. Di and Vanya Cullen are true originals, and successful too. Di was made a Member of the Order of Australia last year in recognition of her services to Australian wine, while her daughter Vanya won the prestigious 2000 Qantas/The Wine Magazine Australian Winemaker of the Year Award.

Neither Cullen has much time for vinous sexual politics. ‘Of course this industry is dominated by men,’ says Di, the first woman in the area to wear trousers in the late 1950s, ‘but it doesn’t bother me.’ Vanya thinks that gender has little or nothing to do with the way people make wine.

Both share a passion for excellence. ‘Neither of us is interested in making second-rate wines,’ says Di. ‘Before Vanya took over, I would rather pour a bad barrel down the drain than include it in the blend. It used to drive my husband mad.’

Vanya, a talented musician and sculptress, says she’s more emotional than her mother, but her standards are just as exacting: ‘I don’t see the point of making dull wines, flabby wines or wines without texture.’Cullen Wines has come a long way since 1956, when Di and her late husband Kevin bought a block of land in Margaret River.

‘Kevin wanted to buy a quarter of an acre to build a fishing shack, but land was so cheap that he ended up with 100 acres [40.5 hectares].’ It wasn’t long before he took an interest in wine. Kevin helped pioneer Western Australia’s planting of vines in the late 1960s and early 1970s after reading a paper by Dr John Gladstones, comparing Margaret River’s climate to that of Bordeaux.

The early days

In the early days, the Cullens lived and worked in Busselton and made wine at the weekend. Kevin was a doctor, Di a physiotherapist specialising in childbirth techniques. In 1958, keen to read a research paper that had not been translated into English, she decided to learn Russian. That was how Vanya got her name. ‘I know it’s a man’s name in the Chekhov play, but I liked the sound of it.’

As well as learning Russian, working as a physiotherapist and bearing six children, Di taught herself to make wine. ‘It wasn’t a vocation, it was just circumstance,’ she says. ‘I read books and I talked to people in the industry here, most of whom were helpful.

Then we travelled to France, South Africa and the United States and talked to yet more people.’ The way she describes winemaking, it sounds easy, but Di worked hard to acquire new and unfamiliar skills. She got a lot of help from local dairy farmers who were glad of the work in a depressed region. ‘Their meticulous approach was based on cleanliness, which was just the training I needed.’

The Cullens planted 7.3 hectares of Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling and Gewürztraminer in 1971. Of the three grapes, it was Cabernet Sauvignon – the patrician variety of the Médoc – that did best, proving Dr Gladstones’ theory about the suitability of Margaret River’s maritime climate. The Bordeaux-style wines produced at wineries such as Moss Wood, Cape Mentelle, Vasse Felix and Cullen have emerged as some of Australia’s finest (and subtlest) reds.

Over the years, the Cullens pulled out the Riesling and Gewürztraminer and replaced this with Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Chardonnay, bringing the total to 28ha. In the process, they have created one of the best small estates in the country, producing elegant, individual wines that combine depth and concentration with remarkable finesse.

Vanya remembers planting some of the original vines as a young girl back from boarding school. While her older brothers and sisters followed professional careers as doctors, lawyers and teachers, Vanya trained as a winemaker at Roseworthy College in South Australia after doing one third of a music degree. It was by no means an automatic choice, according to Di. ‘I can’t imagine what I’d have done if she hadn’t been willing to take over, but I’m glad she did. She’s got a better palate than I have, more imagination and she’s a better all-round winemaker.’

A family business

Cullen Wines is still a family business. Di gets in at 7am every day to do the accounts, pour tasting samples and answer the phone. Vanya spends her time in the vineyard and winery, as well as travelling all over Australia as one of the country’s most respected show judges. The stated aim is to stay small and produce 18- to 25,000 cases of premium wines.

‘I’m really lucky to have been given this vineyard as a result of my parents’ foresight,’ says Vanya. ‘I’m too busy to plant any more and I’m happy with the wines the way they are.’ The 1998 Cabernet/Merlot, which is one of the greatest red wines ever made in Australia, bears her out.

Vanya sometimes feels as if she’s married to her mother: ‘I admire what she’s done and who she is. Even if she weren’t my mother, I’d find her one of the most interesting people in Margaret River.’

At the moment, Di looks remarkably fit for someone in her late 70s. She’s just done a business course, loves playing on the stock exchange and remains a dynamic presence within the business. ‘It would be different without mum here,’ admits Vanya, ‘but she’s going to be around for a while yet. She could easily outlast me.’