If Jeffrey Grosset is king of riesling, then Kerri Thompson is queen. Hear how this winemaker fell in love with the variety and lay down roots in the Clare Valley, starting her label Wines by KT.
Kerri Thompson shares her passion for the Clare Valley and her label, Wines by KT.
KERRI THOMPSON of Wines by KT is a force of nature. Catching up with her can be difficult: when she’s not in the winery, you might find her hosting visitors at her Auburn cellar door, bottling wines or even picking olives. To add to her packed schedule, she has a young family.
How does she do it? With a lot of help, she says. “My partner [wine writer] Tim White has been incredibly supportive and between the two of us, we juggle responsibilities. Our extended family has also been great – the grandparents have been just amazing. That’s been so important. It’s also about the community here in Clare. We have wonderful neighbours and friends.”
Kerri's business has also allowed a degree of freedom. “Even though it’s non-stop, at least there’s some flexibility,” she says. “I doubt I could have done it quite so successfully in a corporate environment. We’re lucky as well that our daughter, Willa, has been very adaptable and happy to hang out in the vineyard, the winery and around the bottling line.” Is Willa a winemaker in training? “I imagine she’ll probably end up in something to do with sensory analysis. Given our love of food and wine, it wouldn’t surprise me.”
“Riesling is one variety that really reflects its postcode and the special part of the world where it’s grown.”
In the beginning
Kerri was just a kid herself when starting out in the industry.
Many winemaker stories begin with a family connection, but Kerri’s is different. “I went straight from high school to Roseworthy and that was a little out of left-field for me,” she says. “I was 17 when I started the winemaking degree, so it certainly wasn’t for a love of wine per se, but more about the opportunities associated with it. I wanted to specialise in something science-based, but where I wasn’t stuck in a laboratory. I wanted to be able to travel and celebrate other languages and cultures… I was advised to check out the agricultural courses at Roseworthy and it was there that I was hooked.”
That blend of science, art and culture attracts many to the industry – plus the perks of travel. “And great people,” Kerri adds. “I’ve always loved being part of the process from the ground up, starting with the vineyard. I’ve been fortunate in my career to be given an all-encompassing experience by those I’ve worked for. And now, running my own business… well, it’s an all-encompassing experience!”
From her first wine gig to now, Kerri has come full circle. “I started out at the Clare Valley’s Quelltaler in 1993. Back then, being a female in the wine community was still relatively rare – not as rare as when someone like Pam Dunsford [a pioneer for women in the Australian wine industry] went through, but it was still new, so
I felt fortunate to have been given a break.”
Kerri then moved on to McLaren Vale’s Wirra Wirra, to a role that opened her eyes and several doors. “It was a really nurturing, educational environment, where everyone sort of sat around the table and talked about wine, politics and art. It was there that I was given the opportunity to work overseas, and I could do so knowing I’d always come back to a job at Wirra Wirra.”
Flying the Italian flag
Kerri undertook her rite of passage to complete international vintages, with one place proving particularly significant. “I worked in Chianti with a wonderful producer called Isole e Olena and a fabulous winemaker named Paolo de Marchi,” she says. “That was a great source of inspiration at a time when I was still finding my feet. Paolo had a great deal of confidence in me and gave me a lot of responsibility; it was one of those ‘sink or swim’ experiences.” It was here that she learnt about texture and structure, as opposed to the flavour and alcohol that were a little more in vogue in Australia at the time. “I still find myself drawn to those Italian wine styles. It’s also why I really love Clare: the structural and textural elements of the reds here show some similarities to Tuscan styles.”
Italy might be at the centre of Kerri’s story, but her heart is in the Clare Valley. “It was managing the Leasingham wine site for the Hardy Wine Company that brought me back to Clare on a full-time basis. That was 20 years ago,” she says.
In spite of not having a family history with wine, Kerri does have roots in this region. “My grandparents had a farm in Clare, so I spent a bit of time here growing up. I still have family here too, so it was quite natural for me to end up here. I also fell in love with riesling and have chosen to specialise in it, and what better place to do that than the Clare Valley?”
Kerri has a riesling that’s named after her grandmother, Melva, who grew up in the region. “That’s one of the wild-ferment ones in barrel,” she says. “It’s more of an exotic expression and I have fun making it.”
“The dry style of Australian riesling is one that’s the purest expression of fruit, so there aren’t too many winemaking tricks you can hide behind. It’s absolute fruit purity, in my opinion.”
Kerri's time at Leasingham kick-started her obsession with riesling. “When I started managing Leasingham, it was better regarded for its reds. I wanted to improve the rieslings, which was also because I enjoyed drinking them. The first riesling I made got the lowest points at the local Clare wine show and after that, I was determined. I put all of my energy into it and the following year, we won all of the trophies. That was a turning point for me.”
The riesling story
Kerri’s rieslings are truly delicious. When asked the secret, she modestly suggests it’s all about the place. “Riesling is one variety that really reflects its postcode and the special part of the world where it’s grown,” she says. “The dry style of Australian riesling is one that’s the purest expression of fruit, so there aren’t too many winemaking tricks you can hide behind. It’s absolute fruit purity, in my opinion.”
That’s where the Clare Valley, and more specifically its sub-region of Watervale, plays a vital role. “I love the fact that we can make rieslings with such delicacy and finesse right alongside some reds with amazing richness and structure. You can’t do that everywhere,” Kerri says. “I’m especially drawn to Watervale for the wonderful fruit concentration and vitality it provides, and have chosen to focus on that area. It’s all about the postcode 5452.”
That postcode can be seen stamped on the labels of Kerri’s wines, which are easily distinguished by their clean, dotted design. “I thought, gee, I better have a wine range that says the postcode – not that it means much to people outside of the district, but it’s a nice way to pay respect to the area,” Kerri says. The labels, designed by artist Melanie Terrett, are striking. “We started with the three big black dots on the single-vineyard range. Those dots represent the soils, the grapes and the planet – essentially the whole cycle of winegrowing – and that evolved into all of the other designs,” she explains.
Although Kerri doesn’t have her own vineyards, the emphasis on place is clear. “I really feel quite connected to these sites and certainly to the families behind them,” she says. “I’ve been working with the same two grape-growing families for nearly 20 years; they are now an extension of my family. Those relationships are very important to me. “The vineyards I work with are farmed in a responsible, sustainable way,” Kerri says. “They’re not certified organic or biodynamic, although we do adopt some of that philosophy. It’s about doing
“The vineyards I work with are farmed in what we consider to be a responsible, sustainable way. They’re not certified organic or biodynamic, although we do adopt some of that philosophy. It’s about doing what’s right for the site in any given situation.”
what’s right for the site in any given situation. They’re dry grown and old-vine material, planted from 1930 to 1973.”
In specialising in riesling, Kerri makes several different styles. “That dry Clare Valley style is such a wonderful expression of fruit, but I also make rieslings inspired by other parts of the world and there is some different winemaking that goes into those,” she says of the techniques employed in the winery.
Having spent time in various regions in Europe that focus on riesling, Kerri has gained insights from meeting with winemakers, visiting their sites and trying their wines. “I work with some wild fermentation and barrel fermentation, which is not necessarily a traditional way of creating riesling in Australia,” she says. “That’s slightly dictated by the vineyard, the soil types and where the fruit wants to be taken.” Kerri also makes a riesling that’s sulphur-free, a departure from the classic Clare Valley style. “I’ve played around with skin contact and other manipulations too. It’s nice to be able to take people on a journey with riesling, showing them that it comes in so many shapes and sizes.”
While Kerri has a natural affinity with riesling, that’s not the whole story. “I’ve been working with vermentino and that’s been an interesting project, from a different vineyard as well,” she says. Her range also includes popular reds, such as shiraz, grenache, cabernet sauvignon and tempranillo.
A room of her own
Kerri took a risk with Wines by KT and it paid off. “Like anything I do, it’s very much about running with the heart,” she says. “I had been working in the corporate world for about eight years and found myself spending more time behind a computer, working on spreadsheets and tied up in meetings.” It was a move away from her true passions – being connected to the vineyards and wines. “I wasn’t enjoying it, so I decided to control my own destiny. It’s been an amazing learning curve and I’ve loved the freedom to make the wines I’m passionate about, and work with the people I want to work with.”
Some 12 years since launching her label, Kerri has a cellar door to call her own. If you visit, it’s her you’ll be speaking with. “At this time of year, it’s only open on the last weekend of the month, as well as for events like the Clare Valley Gourmet Weekend and holidays,” Kerri says. “From September 1, it’s open every weekend throughout spring and summer. People contact me if they want a private tasting and I offer that when I can. I’m not always around, but I’ll make myself available when I am.”
New life has been breathed into the 1860s building that houses the cellar door and the offering is constantly evolving, with a selection of seasonal wines on pour. September is about the spring releases, so throughout the warmer months there’s more of a focus on riesling. Arrive in autumn or winter and the fire will be stoked, and the vermentino and red wines flowing.
“There are cosy spaces set up around the place where people can sit and have a glass. I also have an island bench that can be booked for a more structured, educational experience. More recently, I’ve been offering cheeses, terrines and pates, working with Terroir Restaurant here in Auburn. They’re just about to open a store, so we’ll be using some of their regional products moving forward.”
It’s all part of the Clare Valley’s charm, according to Kerri. “I love that the region is largely based on smaller, family-owned operations, which means you can actually walk into many of the cellar doors and be served by people from the families and speak with the winemakers themselves,” she says. “That’s reflected in the feeling of the place and certainly in the wines as well.”
“It’s been an amazing learning curve and I’ve loved the freedom to make the wines I’m passionate about and work with the people I want to work with.”