We are excited to host Giles Cooke MW winemaker from Thistledown Wine company for our July Winemaker masterclass. Ahead of the masterclass, we chatted to Giles to find out more about the Thistledown ethos and why they have a passion for the grenache grape variety.
What was your motivation to start the Thistledown brand and where does the name come from?
Though not originally Australian, I’ve always loved the country and its wines. I’ve spent a large part of my wine career travelling the lengths and breadths of it and knew that it was capable of producing world-class wines of elegance and diversity of style. But in many markets around the world, Australian was still cast as big and bold and as such, didn’t succeed in many of the markets I was familiar with. Fergal Tynan MW (the other MW involved in Thistledown) and I both wanted to create something that demonstrated what we know and loves about Australian wine while doing something to help preserve some of Australia’s viticultural history. The name Thistledown came about as I was raised in Scotland and Fergal lives there. We drew the analogy that like the Australian climate, the national flower of Scotland is harsh and rugged but when you peel back the layer of a Thistle, you reveal, the delicate purple thistledown and this is what we wanted to convey with the wines. Thistledown wines are made in a rugged, sometimes harsh environment but the resulting wines are elegant, pretty and multi-layered.
Thistledown is committed to a holistic approach to sustainability. What does this mean?
I think that many people assume that sustainability is just about the environment whereas it is really about creating systems that can endure. That means that yes, the environment has to be looked after but you also need to create enduring commercial and social systems too. For us, that means that we support and actively encourage our growers to use low impact agriculture when preserving their old vineyards but we also need to ensure that they receive a fair price for the fruit, that we also are able to sustain a profit and produce wines that are attractive to the consumer. In doing all of that, we also need to ensure that the people and communities involved are also looked after. A good recent example of that being the money we raised from wine sales to go to the Adelaide Hills Fire Appeal.
Thistledown sources wine from a number of growers. How does this process work? Does it change each year?
We work with a lot of growers across South Australia and many of them are the same year in year out – the quality of their fruit proven by the increasing quality of the wines each year. Many of them are friends and we have watched Thistledown grow up together. Most years I do like to bring in some new growers to experiment or to expand what we can do. I work on the basis that with one vintage per year, we need to experiment as much as possible in order to learn.
Your range of wines showcases the Grenache grape variety. What is special about this variety?
Grenache in Australia has a chequered past but it’s great to see that it is finally gaining the recognition it deserves as a standalone variety. What I really love about the variety is that I believe it conveys its provenance in a really faithful and transparent way, perhaps like Pinot or Nebbiolo. The best examples don’t need the excesses of winemaking technique and should be models of restraint. It’s thin-skinned so prone to rot which, to me, doesn’t seem to fit with the received wisdom of it being late ripening so we pick early and I think the ability to help influence modern Grenache winemaking has also been attractive to Thistledown. It’s also an extremely versatile variety when made the way we do. Serve the same wine at three different temperatures and it does 3 different jobs – few other varieties can do that
What is your winemaking style and who influenced it?
Though I have the MW, I’m not a trained winemaker but I do possess an ability to taste well and an affinity with flavour. I’m a keen cook and can taste a dish long before the ingredients have been put together. I like to think that I do the same with wine. From being in a vineyard and tasting the fruit, I immediately have a feeling for how the wine should taste and feel and it’s then a matter of working out how best to achieve that. In general, that has been to do as much as possible to retain the vineyard character, and in practice, this means doing very little. Most of our fruit is hand-picked, we use a lot of whole bunch to provide structure and support for the fruit while wild ferments give me more variable with which to work – more “ingredients”
I don’t think that the wine style has been influenced by anyone person but more by places. I love the wild Garnachas of the Sierra de Gredos in Spain or the influence of Garnacha in the best traditional Riojas. However, I was lucky to meet up with people like Pete Fraser, Toby Bekkers, Steve Pannell early on in the journey and they have certainly helped “frame” the Thistledown style.
What are Thistledown’s signature style characteristics?
If I had to pick one word to describe Thistledown’s style it would be “energy”. I use the phrase that we “pick on the way up, not the way down” which references our belief that you have to pick fruit as it is approaching full ripeness rather than when it has achieved full ripeness on the vine. We want to capture all that energy in the wine. I’d also describe the wine as textural and layered. We want the wines to appear subtle and elegant but on further examination, they have multiple layers, much like peeling back the layers of the thistle (or an artichoke which is from the same family) Our wines should be faithful to the people and places that have formed them over many years. That’s why we do so many single vineyards – when I find something really special, I want to preserve it.
We love the names of your wines, how did you come up with them?
They are all influenced by childhood, friends, experiences, special places and my rather vivid imagination! They too are multi-layered in meaning and form. The best of them are very spontaneous like She’s Electric. I think they can are consistent with what Thistledown is all about – informal excellence. We want to make the best Grenache in Australia, but we also want to have a little fun with it!
As an MW you’ve likely tried most wines in the world, what’s the go-to wine you enjoy?
I wish! There are still thousands of wines I’d like to try, many of which are now out of my budget. But, one of my first loves was the region of Rioja and I adore the really traditional styles with my favourite being La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva Bin 890 – I’d be very happy drinking something from 2001 or maybe 2004/5 right now.