Andrew Thomas grew up in McLaren Vale but has been…
Riesling is one of my favourite white wines, especially those from the Clare and Eden Valleys.
Both regions have remarkable diversity even within small geographic regions.
Kerri Thompson is very committed to riesling and makes some amazing styles with fruit from two small vineyards in Watervale.
She has just celebrated her tenth year in business with her own label ‘Wines by KT’. Going out on your own is hard work.
I’m not sure many people who enjoy wine realise how hard our winemakers work just to stay in business.
Kerri has just opened a cellar door in Auburn, the historic gateway to the Clare Valley.
Here’s her story
Years ago I enjoyed your Peglidis riesling, what’s the 2016 like ?
Thank you, I actually showed it at a Masterclass the other night for Wine Australia, they were hosting a group of mainly UK wine bloggers, writers and masters of wine.
It was a Clare versus Eden Vally tasting and I showed the new 2016 Peglidis.
I’m really happy with the 16’s, given that the season was a strange one – they’ve come out this side looking really good.
We looked at some great wines including an old Crabtree; the oldest was the Henschke Julius 97.
Other highlights were an older Paulett’s and a Yalumba Pewsey Vale 2004 Contours – just gorgeous and a bloody bargain.
It was great to be able to beat the drum and say “We’ve got some really complex wines here”.
Obviously my business is in its infancy so I’ve got great respect for those guys who have been doing it for years.
I was involved with Wine Australia and their brand champions program ten years ago, we travelled to the UK and there was a real optimism and excitement and then there was the GFC. The export markets died and everyone has just been trying to get their nose above water ever since.
It takes special people to be involved in collaborative things during difficult times, but it is so important, it’s what will make us stronger as an industry.
What was your early life like – how did you come to have a career in wine ?
It’s a bit out of left field for me because I have no family in the wine community whatsoever.
My grandma Melva grew up on a farm in the mid north – a little bit further east of Clare, near Robertstown.
I grew up in Adelaide but spent a lot of time up on the family farm in my youth. I suppose that sort of agricultural side was always with me.
When I was at high school and working out what to do next, I knew I wanted to do something that involved travelling.
I was reasonably good at chemistry at school and somebody said to me “you should check out Roseworthy Agricultural college because they have Science based courses that are a little bit different – and they have this thing on wine.”
I just thought, “That sounds exciting – so went out there and loved it”.
I was the last group to go through Roseworthy as a full course. I finished in 1993, with a degree in Oenology from Adelaide University.
I found university really difficult. I was the youngest of the group most people that went were mature age students.
I was 17 when I started, so the Uni helped me get a fake ID and everything so that I could go to all the tastings – that wouldn’t happen now. I went through with some really fabulous people like Steve Flamstead, from Giant Steps in the Yarra. Steve’s just won winemaker of the year in the Gourmet Traveller awards.
I also remember Dave Bignell from Oakridge , Sarah Pigeon from Wynns, Jeremy Scarborough from the Hunter and a couple of other Hunter crew.
My first vintage was actually at Quelltaler with Tim Adams in 1993, my last year at University.
What were your first years like in the wine business ?
I started working at Wirra in McLaren Vale where I was surrounded by really positive people, like Trotty and Ben Riggs.
It was a real family.
We would sit around the table at lunch time, share lunches, talk all things wine and politics and taste different wines.
I honestly thought that that is what everyone did. It was such an amazing and unique experience.
They also allowed me to travel a bit while I was working there so that’s when I spent some time in Italy and France.
I remember working in Chianti.
I worked for a great producer called Isole e Olena, the wine maker’s name is Paulo de Marchi – he is a fantastic wine maker.
At the time they were just gaining notoriety in the States with the Wine Spectator. It was mainly with sangiovese but Paulo was very liberal thinking and had planted things like cabernet, syrah and chardonnay.
The Italian’s are so traditional and he was viewed as really avant-garde and a bit of a threat.
He is now a rock star in the States .
I was so fortunate to get this position which was all hooked up through some connections with Negotiants when I was working at Wirra.
Paulo is still with Negotiants in terms of distribution in Australia.
I remember being a part of that environment, it was like an extension of Wirra in the sense that it was still a family owned company.
Fabulous wine quality with real passion and energy driving it.
I just remember getting off the plane at 21, thinking this is what I want to do. I had studied Italian through high school but couldn’t speak it well so I did an intensive course in an Italian school in Florence for about a month before going up to the winery.
I met ‘rock star’ Paulo, and he says, “ I want you to make the Chardonnay for me this year because you Australians are really good at making Chardonnay”.
Oh my God – what a responsibility, I thought this is sink or swim, I’ve got to say yes because these opportunities don’t come past often.
That was in the mid 90s when Aussie chardonnays were quite big though I had never really liked them like that.
One of the beauties of youthful inexperience was that I had no idea about this expectation – I just knew what I liked.
I’ve been friends with Paolo every since and he still talks about it – he says that it was one of the best chardonnays they’ve ever made.
Looking back it is a wine that I’m incredibly proud of, considering I had no idea of what I was doing. Paulo was so willing to let a young outsider from the other side of the world take over one of his wines. I’m not sure I would be so trusting.
I then worked for Leasingham for a number of years. Leasingham was owned by BRL Hardy, or Constellation. In terms of my winemaking experience – I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing now had I not had the experience of working with those mentors – fantastic winemakers – people like Steve Pannell, Peter Dawson, Tom Newton and sparkling winemaker Ed Carr.
I learnt so much – again it was a real sink or swim experience and I suppose being an ambitious character – you just make it work.
What led you to starting out on your own ?
The catalyst was when Bunny Peglidis rang me to say, “my fruit is up for grabs – do you know anyone who would be interested?”
I was still working at Leasingham at the time.
Bunny rang me in a flat panic and I said ,“Don’t ring anybody else… I will take it…. I’ll do something with it.”
I resigned from Leasingham a few days later.
I made my first vintage at Skillogallee. I’ve been making my riesling and rose there right from the start with Di and Dave Palmer.
I met them first at Quelltaler they have been great friends for many years.
Looking back, I had this absolutely romantic notion when I first started my business. I thought if I can’t sell a few hundred dozen riesling each year … at the time it was only a few hundred dozen – now its much more…. It was such a shock, such a rude awakening for me.
I was walking back with my tail between my legs because for years in the big company environment I was protected from all of that .
Whilst I travelled a lot and did a lot of marketing and promotional work I was never involved in sealing the deals.
Obviously I had winery costings and budgets and all of that but in terms of the actual negotiation of positioning yourself in the market … So of course I start this new business; I made all the wine and packaged it; then thought – “what do I do now?”.
When Tim and I first started spending time with each other he asked “How did you arrive at where the price would be. ” “No idea.” I said, “I guess I just made it up.”
I wonder how many people go into business like that ?
My focus was growing grapes and making great wine so its all the other stuff that I have really had to learn. There is no point in having a shed full of wine, you need to sell it. So I chipped away, and I had a few wins.
Sydney has been and still is the biggest market for me; its been very loyal right from the word go.
I was lucky and that was just about getting it in front of the right people. Took awhile, but I’m still here.
Wendouree has been my business model. I was 24 when I took over as senior winemaker at Leasingham. Tony Brady knocked on the door at the winery one day and he just said to me, “Come out and see us whenever it suits, just let us know if you ever need anything”.
Tony and Lita have been such good friends and supporters over the years, I’ll always remember and be grateful for their support.
Those Wendouree wines have been my inspiration – their business model is my inspiration – I don’t say that in a patronising way and that’s not what I am building – but its something to aspire to.
My total production depending on the vintage is anywhere from 4.5 and 5000 dozen.
It’s not big but its more than I can manage (or drink) on my own.
You obviously have a good relationship with your growers particular Bunny and Yvonne ?
Bunny is now 83 – he still does all the work himself with his wife Yvonne – incredibly hard working people.
I was working with Bunny as a grape grower vineyard manager when I was at Leasingham and always got along well with him- he is such a great fellow.
Bunny and Yvonne are old school, it’s about relationships, it’s about working hard for each other . When we agreed that we would work together – they were taking a punt on me, I didn’t even had a label, I hadn’t even left Leasingham at this stage.
What was amazing and this is an absolute testament to this family ; when we agreed to a price – I said, “I can’t afford to pay you a lot of money per tonne straight away but I promise you that we will work at it and I will take every single grape.”
Only a few weeks later we had one of the worst frosts in the Clare Valley in many years and another winery had lost a lot of their fruit and came back knocking on the door and said they would offer double the money that I had offered to take back the fruit.
But Bunny said “no.” I’ll never forget that.
I suppose that goes back to those basic things – building the relationships with growers – that’s been one of the joys of being able to work with these two families.
The big problem in this country is how the industry is split into grape growers and wine makers.
I feel it’s really wine growing.
We need to look at it as an overall package, we need to work together more.
I couldn’t do what I am doing without the fabulous fruit I get to work with, it needs to be a partnership.
We will always have the peaks and troughs with pricing and all of that sort of thing because it tends to be more of a them and an us.
I really disagree with that approach – and having worked in Europe where its all about the wine growing together – what has been great is being able to build these relationships and work together.
So something like vintage 2011 for example, which was just a shit time where we only picked one in three bunches.
I paid a premium for that but had the support of them to only pick the best… and not a berry was taken by the winery that used to take all the shiraz – and thats just unacceptable.
That’s where we as an industry need to take the good with the bad. We as a wine community are just coming out the other side of 2011 vintage.
It was pretty expensive for everyone and there are a lot of people that haven’t recovered from that financially. It’s been tough for a few years.
Your early focus was red wine, why the switch to riesling ?
Yes, now it’s Clare riesling first and foremost.
The beauty of Wirra Wirra where I was working mainly with red wine, in the early days we were encouraged to taste different wine varieties from all over the world.
When I joined Leasingham I was making white wine.
The first vintage I made was 1999 and it was terrible – one of the worst wines I had ever made, I remember that was the real kick up the arse. It got the lowest points at the Clare wine show that year, and I remember thinking I’ve got to turn this around, what am I going to do ?
That’s when I started tasting wines from all over the world again and really benchmarking, trying to work out – how am I going to improve this?
With the support of the Hardys winemaking team we really had a focus on improving it – putting systems in place from 1999 to 2000.
It paid off, 1999 was the one that got the least amount of points and the 2000 won the Mick Knappstein trophy at the Clare wine show. It was one of those complete turnarounds and it started my riesling focus.
What is it about Clare and Clare riesling ?
I always knew that Clare riesling had a reputation of strength.
Mick Knappstein was a really important community member, he had essentially led the charge in planting riesling more widely in Clare in the 60s.
I never worked with Mick Knappstein, in fact he passed away the year before I started up here.
When I took on the management of the site at Leasinghams, a position that Mick had obviously held for many years, his widow, a fabulous woman, Gella Knappstein rang me and said “I’d love to meet you, I’m really excited that a woman is in charge.”
I met her and felt this absolute need to continue the work and the focus that Mick had put in place – to be custodian of that community was really important, I felt really proud about being involved in that.
Tim Adams bought the site and now has a label ‘Mr Micks’ – it is a lovely tribute to Mick. Tim also had a great connection with Mick.
Clare, Eden Valley, how do you the differences ?
As a general rule, bearing in mind I am more Watervale focussed , I find Clare to be more powerful, more concentrated, almost more muscular.
Eden Valley is the more delicate, almost more floral, perhaps a little more austere on the palate – they are crisper, zesty.
I find Watervale to be more juicy and succulent but they have more fruit weight, they are more powerful. There is power in delicacy too but I suppose Clare has more fruit concentration – more generosity.
In regards to the ageing process – it was interesting seeing the two side by side last night.
We know that Clare Valley riesling ages beautifully but Clare tends to almost put on a few pounds as it ages whereas Eden Valley tends to stay leaner through that whole process and that was quite evident in the wines last night.
You produce wine from only two vineyards Peglidis and Churinga how does the wine vary ?
I aim to make wines that are a true reflection of the site.
That is very much part of my winemaking philosophy.
The two vineyards have totally different soil types and I think that is reflected in the wines.
I also make some different styles – for example Melva is from Peglidis in Watervale and is totally different to all the other wines.
It’s100% wild fermented in thirteen year old French oak barriques and left to sit on lees in oak for 3 months with regular stirring.
It’s a style that is inspired by more of a European style of riesling, partly because the soil is different and the fruit dictates where it wants to go.
There is a bit more skin phenolic to play with and so if I was to make a classic dry style it probably wouldn’t work as well.
How has your wine making changed over time ?
When I am making wine now, I suppose I have more of that intuition and I tend to listen to that a lot more than the actual science or chemistry.
The science is always in the background and having the years of experience, you can listen to that gut reaction.
Because I’ve got the knowledge, I perhaps don’t get quite so caught up in the numbers. If you get too caught up in the numbers it can really influence your decision making process and it’s not necessarily how it tastes.
When I started, it would have been more about the numbers and following what would have been perceived to be the right recipe nowadays it more about palate, how it tastes and the textural quality .
You have just opened a cellar door, how did that happen ?
The catalyst was we needed a home up in Clare.
This place in Auburn came up on the market. It was actually Tim who found it.
I just really needed a base – there is only so many times you can meet someone on the side of the road in a vineyard or whatever.
We never had the intention of opening a cellar door full time – it was only ever going to be from time to time – Spring release etc – you know a celebration of the new rieslings then get through until Christmas – then shut the doors again and do special events and gourmet and that sort of stuff.
The building is awesome, a great old space and we love Auburn.
There is lots going on but it still has that rural feel to it. We plan to open every weekend that we can up until Christmas, I’m putting up opening times on the website.
I haven’t had a lot of face to face time with customers so its been lovely to meet the locals, who have been buying from the website for years and customers from further afield.
Generally speaking people who have walked in the door have heard of the wine, have bought before or have really been interested to taste.
People who have been travelling may have tasted the wine at one of the restaurants in Clare and they have come down to buy some after they’d enjoyed it at dinner .
We’ve got one of the big old Penfolds ‘Magill Estate’ tasting benches that we were given by Simon Kardachi, the principle owner of many Adelaide restaurants including two that we are partners in (Press food and Wine and Osteria Oggi)
It’s a beautiful tasting bench we plan to do some structured tastings on it.
I’ve got lots of plans for next year already, it’s really exciting. It’s hard work though – I haven’t had a day off and as usual I completely under estimated that other stuff .
Its also about spending time with Willa .
Its created quite a complexity for our family and thank goodness for my mum – she’s been amazing in terms of the support she has given – so thats why we won’t be doing it all the time – we physically can’t and also I don’t have enough wine to keep everyone happy.
It’s our ten year anniversary, I’ve been doing quite a few events.
I did a ten year vertical of Peglidis in Sydney recently with Ian Cook at Five Ways Cellars, with Cookie and Todd who have been great supporters for many years.
I cant believe its been ten years – I’m really proud and kind of amazed…
Its about creating those fabulous layers of complexity for our wine community.
You were recently involved in the Canberra International Riesling Challenge : how was that ?
This year I did a Master class with Ken Helm – he has a label called Helm wines in Canberra.
The Canberra International Riesling Challenge is a competition and rieslings from all over the world are entered.
There were something like seven or eight countries represented.
It’s a big, big week with more entries than ever. It’s fascinating because you get to see wines from all over the world and some beautiful northern hemisphere stuff.
There were lots of really lovely New Zealand rieslings of all different styles – ranging from the drier up to the really sweet.
A number of different trophies are awarded and then there is the wine of show.
This year the wine of show was a gorgeous off dry style from ‘Ferngrove Estate’ in WA.
The fact that it went to an off dry style really shows a shift in people’s perception of riesling.
Ken and I were showing more alternative styles in our Master class- I showed my sulphur free preservative free riesling and talked about skin contact stuff; a lot of winemakers now are pushing the boundaries which is really exciting.
It shows the diversity of the variety.
There were also masterclasses about New Zealand and Tasmania.
The master classes are a really special part of the week and there are winemakers that come from all over to be a part of it.
It was nice to benchmark New Zealand and Tassie next to each other given that there is now more riesling being plater in cooler climates around Australia.
It is a real celebration of the variety.
I love it but after a week of solid riesling tasting I’m basically paying for my dentist’s mortgage.
I went to the dentist recently and there was this new woman doing the cleaning and stuff, she said to me ” Ooh you’ve got very old teeth” and I said “Yep well that is twenty years of making riesling for you”
The Australian Wine scene : observations on the future directions ?
Almost ten years on from the GFC, I think we are getting back to being more optimistic again.
Export markets are getting back on track, there are some new markets opening up, and lots happening with alternative varieties.
The wines are much better and that’s a good thing – it needed to improve and it will sort out the wheat from the chaff.
Of course I have some concerns with the changes in the taxation – it will effect small business significantly if what is proposed is ratified. I would be surprised if it goes through to be honest but it is a possibility and so my business and many other small winemakers will need to change to continue.
That will be a real shame because part of the success has been us as a community having this diversity and the interesting wines coming from small winemakers.
We’ll see – there is a lot going on that is really exciting and a real focus, on site, on our part of the world.
A new market like China still remains a big question mark but there is no doubt there are great opportunities who knows what the landscape will look like in ten years.
The Chinese have got more grapevines planted that we do – they are taking wine making knowledge from all over . It won’t be this sort of dumping ground. I’ve tasted some Chinese wine that has been really interesting – great competition means great things to come.
I’ve noticed it even in my small business I’m not just competing with Clare Valley producers I’m competing with international producers.
I make a temperanillo, and every time I show a sommelier in Sydney or Melbourne or whatever they are benchmarking it against the Spanish temperanillo they’ve got on the list.
I’ve got to be as good as that and I can’t compete price wise necessarily with them so I have to offer more. So all the wines are getting better and better because they have to.
What’s in your cellar ?
To be honest not much, I don’t keep a lot of wine, we drink it all – apart from my business museum stock of course.
We have Wendouree, some Moselle riesling.
I’ve kept a bit of riesling from the 2002 and 2005 vintages that I made from the Churinga vineyard when I was at Leasingham, it’s good to see them develop , these were two really great vintages .
Wendouree is my sort of desert island wine.
Production, interview & photography : Milton Wordley
Transcript & edit : Anne Marie Shin
Website guru : Simon Perrin DUOGRAFIK