The ‘Wandering Palate’ examines the evolution of white wine consumption in Asia with an inclination towards chardonnay.
As wine consumerism trends evolve in Asia, it is interesting how some of the fashions that profoundly affected the world wine stage in the past have completely eluded the wider Asian market.
You may recall the ABC (anything but chardonnay) syndrome. Well this is practically irrelevant in the Asia market, unless you want to change it to ‘another brilliant chardonnay’, as that is exactly the state of play with the Asian palate embracing the lustre of the variety.
Whilst the propensity towards richer, full-bodied reds remains, white wines are gaining popularity, particularly in terms of pairing with food and the prevalence of seafood, poultry and pork dishes here. Observing that local palates are less-enamoured with crisp, aromatic whites that have edgy acidity, there appears to be a clear preference for the richer, nutty-savoury, buttery flavours and oily-textures of chardonnay.
At same time, the rest of the wine-drinking world is also rediscovering chardonnay’s brilliance bringing about a renaissance and marked change in style with much leaner and refined wines expressive of their regional characters, by comparison to the formulaic, oak-dominant commercialized wines of 1980s that lead to the demise of the chardonnay’s popularity.
Whilst the allure of status and long history associated with the spiritual home of chardonnay, Burgundy, France appeals to the label-conscious, the complex hierarchal-appellation system is intimidating to many consumers. Furthermore, excessive prices and inconsistencies in quality associated to random-oxidization currently plaguing white burgundy has engendered a progression to more user-friendly ‘new world’ wines; California, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Chile and Argentina all vying for a slice of the action.
Australia is arguably at the forefront in terms of price/quality rapport with an abundance of chardonnay producers over-delivering both in quality and approachability at all price points. At the premium end, I personally feel Australia’s benchmark chardonnay producers are comparable to any top-echelon white burgundy in terms of quality, having recently written on the subject at Australia Benchmark Chardonnay Producers.
Having identified some twenty benchmark Australia premium chardonnay producers, all of equal merit, I recently tried the 2007 Cullen Kevin John Chardonnay from this iconic Margaret River vigneron, and even if it looks somewhat like following the herd, I am going to join the chorus of just about every wine writer in Australia proclaiming this is the best chardonnay in the country presently.
Actually, I will go one step further having earmarked this as my Australian white wine of the year, but also in terms of the world of chardonnay and certainly new world chardonnay, it does not get any better than this. Moreover, the Cullen property as a whole and the biodynamic ideologies that managing director and winemaker Vanya Cullen has implemented exemplify the artisan Australian winemaker crafting a truly genuine wine of profound quality, character and an emphatic sense of place; that is expressive of its terroir in wine nomenclature.
The Cullen’s pioneered the Margaret River region, Vanya’s parents Kevin and Diana planting the first vines in the region in 1966. Climatic studies of the region drew favourable comparison to Bordeaux or more specifically Pomerol and whilst clearly a maritime climate, greatly influenced by the cooling sea breezes of the Indian Ocean, these vines enjoy a exceptionally pristine environment, naturally nourished by the purest rainfall carried on the prevailing winds from Antarctica. Ideal long, dry radiant summers drive the vine roots deep imparting excellent structure, the cool sea breezes enhancing naturally high acidity giving the wines good tension, the hallmarks of cool-climate viticulture and the essence of Margaret River wines.
It must have been daunting for Vanya Cullen to step in to her parent’s shoes, both extraordinary people, more so her mothers in terms of the wine industry. Di Cullen, one of the most accomplished and awarded winemakers in Australia, indeed the first woman to win a trophy at the Perth Royal Wine Show with her oak-matured sauvignon blanc.
Vanya has proven herself more than admirably perhaps best exemplified in her achieving Qantas/The Wine Magazine Winemaker of the Year, the third recipient of this prize, and the first woman and Western Australian to receive Australia’s most coveted recognition as a winemaker.
However, it is the exceptional quality and harmonious balance of the Cullen wines that manifest her talents most. The entire Cullen range is faultless but perhaps the 2007 Kevin Judd Chardonnay stands out as sublime; a remarkable wine of almost inconceivable balance between intensity of flavour and phenomenal poise and elegance.
Picked at optimum physiological ripeness around the full moon and only on fruit days, in accordance with the biodynamic practices, the structure of this wine is most impressive with outstanding acid levels, the pH being only 3 and the acid at a whopping 10g per litre. Consequently no acid adjustment was required (acid adjustment is the norm in Australia) and whilst this may be in part a reflection of the favourable vintage conditions in 2007, the very fact that Cullen’s have not had to acid adjust for several years now is compelling evidence that their biodynamic approach to viticulture is fundamental to improving wine quality, naturally.
Of equal significance is the fact Cullen’s 20 to 30 year-old vines are dry-farmed, that is no water is applied through irrigation, (again, a rarity in Australia) with lower yields facilitating enhanced ripeness and concentration of flavour, whilst hand-harvesting ensures the fruit arrives at the winery in optimum condition.
In essence, Cullen’s is a paradigm of the adage, “wine is made in the vineyard”. In Vanya Cullen’s own words, “the wine (2007 Chardonnay) virtually made itself, requiring neither the addition of artificial yeasts nor acid”; whole bunch pressed, the juice was transferred directly into French oak barrels, where it was matured for 10 months, with minimal movement, fining or filtration.
My tasting note on Cullen Kevin John Chardonnay 2007
Lifted perfume of ripe peach and apricot, notes of stone fruit kernel and raw almond, intriguing musky scents and a wonderful sweet-tangy interplay of white honey and orange zest enhanced by cinnamon spice, the bouquet building in intensity, indeed captivating. Much tighter and leaner palate than anticipated zinging with grapefruit and tangerine turning spicy and lively with fresh ginger and clove, beautifully integrated, barely perceivable oak and so harmoniously structured with a caressing creamy yet slippery texture, luring you to a more gentle white peach and custard mid-palate only to be checked by penetrating tangy-lemon intensity and incredibly long finish with breathtaking purity and poise to remind you this wine has a decade to travel. A wine of seamless balance and elegance enhanced by its profound purity of fruit and coiled power.
To my mind, Cullen’s epitomizes the artisan wine producer in Australia, harnessing the inherent qualities of a pristine environment along with a no comprise approach to making wine that best reflects the vineyard site and regional characters. It is the antithesis to the commercial, brand orientated wines that have degenerated Australia’s reputation as a quality wine producer. Furthermore, the sceptics of biodynamic ideologies could learn a great deal from the Cullen model in comprehending that there is nothing hocus pocus about caring for the environment and one’s property as a whole, focusing on lower yields and natural complexities.
Equally as a business model, the Cullen property is fully and harmoniously utilized agriculturally and as a tourist destination. Margaret River is of course a prime holiday destination for many Australian’s and nearby Asian countries with wine tourism, restaurants and exceptional local produce central to the regions attraction.
A visit to Cullen’s is a must with the property encompassing a cellar door and restaurant with all food prepared using fresh, biodynamic and organic produce sourced from their own garden and select local producers. For the ultimate vineyard experience, you can also stay at the original Cullen homestead with sweeping panoramic views over the picturesque Margaret River vineyards and countryside.
For more information on Cullen wines and visiting the property, go to www.cullenwines.com.au
If you would like to learn more on biodynamics, leading Australian wine writer Max Allen has an excellent website dedicated to the subject, visit www.redwhiteandgreen.com.au
Also, the Wandering Palate has written on the subject many times, follow the link for one of the more interesting pieces, Biodynamic Evolutionary …one of France’s finest winemakers explains the philosophy behind his art to a fascinated Curtis Marsh.
Frankly, I would not hesitate in putting a minimum six-pack of Cullen Kevin Wood Chardonnay 2007 in the cellar, but make sure you try one now and as a barometer od price, at S$108 in Singapore, worth every cent – available in:
Hong Kong, Watson Cellars www.watsonswine.com
Taiwan, Adelaide Pacific Trading Co. Ltd www.finewine.com.tw
Korea, Sooseok Trading Co. Ltd email: email@example.com
Japan, Farmstone Co. Ltd email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Singapore, Hai Choo Wines and Spirits www.hcwines.com
Malaysia, Asia Euro Wines & Spirits email: email@example.com
Indonesia, Commodore Trading email: firstname.lastname@example.org
India and Maldives, Sonarys Co Brands (Sansula) email: email@example.com
Philippines, Philippine Wine Merchant email: firstname.lastname@example.org