Ries­ling queen

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.

Halliday - - Inside - By CASEY WARRENER

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.”

Com­ing home

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.”

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