Margaret River’s most expensive wine (and why it’s still a bargain)
One is grown on a charming fully-biodynamic estate that bears the name of its owner (Cullen The Vanya, $500); the other on a plot of land not much bigger than your traditional Aussie quarter-acre bought by an American who initially wanted to grow avocados (Cloudburst Cabernet, $350).
These heftier prices tags only hit the west in recent years, on a handful of new-to-market wines given ‘icon’ status from Margaret River wineries Voyager Estate, Vasse Felix and Cullen. Others have or are attempting to follow suit.
The trio of pioneers are among the oldest wineries in the region and decided to make these new ‘icon’ wines to truly capture the brilliance of their vineyards in the region and because, after 40 years, it was time to raise the bar.
Vasse Felix Tom Cullity – $180
The first winery in the now world-famous wine region was Vasse Felix, whose owner Tom Cullity chose cabernet and malbec among his first plantings in 1967 based on extensive research by Dr John Gladstones.
Dr Gladstones’ government-commissioned research paper found the region’s Mediterranean-style climate similar to famed Bordeaux and ideal for growing cabernet.
Three years ago, Vasse replaced its now defunct Heytsebury range with a pricier, more premium cabernet – the Tom Cullity. Winemaker Virginia Willcock said at a recent tasting vineyard sub-plots from the estate’s original plantings were given Gran-Cru type care and status.
She said she believed similar releases of new flagship wines at fellow pioneers Cullen and Voyager in recent years had come at the right time for the region, with the world now awake to the gloriously elegant and bright cabernet grown there.
Vasse Felix owner Paul Holmes a Court said the impact of Margaret River cabernet on the rest of Australia’s wine regions and those around the world could not be understated.
“Margaret River is one of the great wine regions of the world, and no doubt the very best in the world in terms of value for cabernet,” he said. “The Tom Cullity is the very best cabernet we can produce … we now have a bottle of wine that encompasses the very best of what we do at the winery, that we can take around the world and say, ‘hey, this is as premium as Margaret River cabernet gets, what do you think?'”
Voyager Estate MJW – $180
Previously called the Tom Price, Voyager changed the name of its new pinnacle red to MJW, after estate founder Michael John Wright.
It was championed recently by daughter and winery owner Alex Burt at their 40th anniversary celebrations.
The wine comes from a selection of the very best barrels from two vineyard blocks that formed part of the estate’s original 1978 plantings and blended with a small component of estate-grown petit verdot for aromatic complexity. It is a masterclass in the great purity of fruit, texture, complexity and fine structure found in the very best plots of cabernet in the region.
Cullen The Vanya – $500
The honour of WA’s most expensive wine belongs to Cullen, who named their ultra-premium cabernet The Vanya ($500) after long-time winemaker and winery director Vanya Cullen.
While the price sets a new benchmark for WA wine, it is more than reasonable on a global scale.
The wine is produced only in vintages, and it is widely regarded by critics here and abroad as the best cabernet ever made in WA. The first release of the Vanya in 2012 came with much fanfare but there was no vintage in 2013 or 2014, while the 2016 is about to arrive.
With Cullen intent on the biodynamic and carbon neutral route, the wine reflects all of this and more; wild yeasts, no acid or malolactic culture and no fining, while the fruit is harvested on a full moon from the estate’s most esteemed old-age vines.
Fermentation is in 300-litre amphora vessels, which Ms Cullen believed added elegance to the tannin structure, while production is less than 1700 bottles.
Cloudburst Cabernet – $350
The move by Margaret River’s regional pioneers to create an icon wine well above $100 – most wines in Margaret River rarely fetch three figures – might also have been spurred by the arrival in Margaret River of laid back American Will Berliner.
Berliner purchased a minuscule plot of land across the road from Cullen in 2004 with the intention of growing avocados, before he realised what he had.
So he instead planted chardonnay, cabernet and malbec and sold them for upwards of $300, gaining cult status and raised eyebrows from many established surrounding wineries along the way.
Berliner adopted biodynamic principles once he decided to stomp headfirst into winemaking, using cabernet cuttings from Cullen and Moss Wood that were closely planted to bring out the “inherent flavour of the land”.
His minimal intervention philosophy even determined the use of local Wandoo timber rather than the recommended arsenic-treated pine posts for trellising. While nearby winery Woodlands helped Will with the winemaking early on, the American has taken sole responsibility for the past three vintages while still cultivating his vineyard entirely by hand, including hand weeding and mulching. There’s a lot of love and a lot of care and the result can be tasted in the pure cleanliness and ethereal complexity of the wines.
“My aim from the start was to make the most exceptional wine possible. It was never about scale, nor about money, and so Cloudburst is driven by very different considerations than my neighbors,” Berliner said.
These new icon cabernets by Margaret River’s pioneering wineries may be viewed by some as a response to Berliner beating them to it, but their releases are in line with the appreciation wine lovers around the world now have of the region, which produces more than 20 per cent of Australia’s premium wine from only four per cent of its plantings.
“By making these iconic cabernets, we are effectively building Margaret River into one of the great wine regions in the world … effectively positioning us as one of the great wineries of the world,” Vasse’s Holmes a Court says.
“The wines are befitting for a region that has surprised all and sundry with its capacity to continually gift winemakers with fruit that turns into some of the best cabernet in the world.
“They not only open doors for Vasse Felix and the other pioneers of the region but get people around the world wanting to try other cabernets from Margaret River.”
WA’s Rich List of wines
Cullen The Vanya ($500)
Cloudburst Cabernet ($350)
Cloudburst Malbec ($300)
Cloudburst Chardonnay ($250)
Vasse Felix Tom Cullity ($180)
Voyager Estate MJW ($180)
Woodlands Matthew Cabernet ($160)
Howard Park Abercrombie Cabernet ($150)
Woodlands Russell Cabernet ($150)
Cullen Diana Madeleine ($135)
Moss Wood Cabernet ($130)
Howard Park Abercombie ($110)
5 of the world’s most expensive wines:
$US15,900 : Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grand Cru (Cote de Nuits, France)
$US10,600 : Egon Muller Scharzhofberger Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese (Mosel, Germany)
$US2900 : Screaming Eagle Cabernet (Napa Valley, U.S.)
$US1500 : Teso La Monja Tempranillo (Toro, Spain)
$US1067 : Penfolds Bin 620 Cabernet-Shiraz (Coonawarra, Australia)
David writes about sports and lifestyle for WAtoday.