September 18, 2020

Weekly Crush: Thistledown Wines, International Grenache Day

By Angela Oemcke

Meet Cellr’s Weekly Crushes from Thistledown Wines: Giles Cooke (Owner, MW & Winemaker) and Paddy Gilhooly (Director of Sales). The brand’s story of two Masters of Wine, Giles and Fergal, making small batches from incredibly old vineyards throughout South Australia with the help of Peter Leske is more than enough to captivate most. However it’s the wines that truly speak for themselves, and this has been highlighted through the brands plethora awards- including winning the 2019 James Halliday Grenache Challenge. On top of this, the Thistledown team has taken their passion for Grenache to a new level with an entire line dedicated to the variety! If you haven’t already, we urge you to check out their Gorgeous Grenache series, which includes a Grenache, a Grenache Rosé and a Grenache Blanc- you can find them here.

By now we hope it is pretty clear why we asked Thistledown Wines to join us as the Weekly Crush for International Grenache Day…

To follow the Thistledown Wines story check them out on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter! Also, check out their website to find out more about their story and head over to their online shop to see their entire range. 

Meet Owner & Winemaker, Giles Cooke

Before I get down to all things Grenach, what was it that led you both to founding Thistledown Wines? 
Between us we had spent a lot of time travelling Australia in our pursuit of finding wines to sell in the UK. We were a little frustrated by the wider perception of Aussie wine being too big, too oaky, too sweet to be paired with serious food and we knew that this didn’t have to be the case. Thistledown was set up to make wines that would help us convince people that Australian wine would be subtle, even delicate, complex, faithful to site and delicious on its own and not out of place in a serious restaurant. We were fortunate that when we started, nobody wanted Grenache and so we were able to gain access and build relationships with some of the very best vineyards in the country.

Since it is Grenache Day it’s only fitting to ask, not including the Gorgeous Grenache series, what are your top 3 favorite Grenaches and who makes them? 
I’ll partly answer and partly dodge it! Close to home, I love the new wave Grenaches from people like Yangarra, SC Pannell, Aphelion, Ministry of Clouds, Bekkers, Bondar etc. Like Thistledown, they have embraced the brighter side of Grenache and helped to transform the perception of the variety in Australia and further afield. If money was no object, Chateau Rayas from Chateauneuf du Pape has to be a benchmark for its purity, texture and aromatics and I also really enjoy many of the wines from the Sierra de Gredos, close to Madrid. Producers such as Commando G, Bernebeleva and Daniel Ramos fashion incredibly aromatic, genuine wines from this incredible landscape. I also love the Garnacha led wines from Rioja, where I’m also making wine. Too many wines, too little time really.

What was it that inspired Thistledown Wines to produce the aptly named Gorgeous Grenache series? Also, tell us a bit about the uncommon Grenache Blanc in the series…
When we started out, Grenache was at a low ebb and we wanted to help the growers who had cared for these old vine vineyards, often without much payback. We knew that making small batches of high end wine is all well and good but to provide a more stable future for the variety, we had to do something that appealed to more people.

We knew that making small batches of high end wine is all well and good but to provide a more stable future for the variety, we had to do something that appealed to more people.

We wanted the wine to be delicious, attractive and desirable so called it Gorgeous Grenache. We use a lot of top Grenache from sites in McLaren Vale and Barossa but the foundation of the wine is old vine Grenache from the Riverland. Another under-valued resource which we have helped to become more desirable while adding value to the crop to make it more sustainable. The Grenache Blanc is a new addition and, for now, there is very little of it due the tiny amount grown in Oz. It’s gradually been planted more widely so hopefully we can grow sales. It makes beautifully textured, citrus led fruit which we enhance through wild ferments in barrel and concrete eggs.

Via @thistledownwines Instagram

Tell us a bit more about your artisan approach to making these wines
Ah, think I’ve answered that above. The vast majority of our wines are wild fermented with minimal intervention to preserve as much of the vineyard personality as possible. Those reds that are fermented in concrete have little to no mechanical intervention, the fruit being left to infuse rather than pumping over or plunging. We use layers of whole bunches too which helps provide freshness, structure and definition for the wines. Over a period of time we have found that the less we do, the more vocal the vineyards are in narrating their personality and stories and that is really important for us. Fergal and I are both History graduates and love the idea that a vineyard captures memories and stories from all the people that have looked after over the decades and centuries and it is our job to help those stories be told through our labels and the wines.

Fergal and I are both History graduates and love the idea that a vineyard captures memories and stories from all the people that have looked after over the decades and centuries and it is our job to help those stories be told through our labels and the wines.

Moving on from your incredible Grenache (begrudgingly), what motivated the team at Thistledown Wines to build the brand around supporting and highlighting the wine regions within South Australia?
We never like doing things the easy way, but South Australia seemed like a big enough area to get ourselves in trouble. It would be tempting to have a play in Tasmania but life is pretty complicated already! South Australia is home to some of the most amazing vineyards in the world and we’re very lucky to work there and proud to be a supporter of SA. Adelaide itself, with the surrounding regions, is one of the most experimental, open societies in which to make wine and we love being part of it.

Meet Paddy Gilhooly, Director of Sales

So Paddy, tell us a bit about yourself. What got you into wine and how did you become the Director of Sales, where you have not just increased Thistledown’s market presence Australia-wide, but also unlocked a heap of doors for the brand internationally?
After University I fell into a job in Oddbins (a wine retailer) in the UK, but had no idea. I did a couple of WSET courses while I was there, but really a year backpacking in Australia in 2003 was the first time I realised that a career in wine could be a serious option. I landed a job for an importer/retailer in Melbourne called Randall Pollard, where I worked with some amazing people where I was lucky enough to try a lot of incredible Australian wine, and Burgundy. I did vintage at the end of that year at Punt Road and that was it, I was hooked. I’ve been full time in wine since.

The Thistledown job came about after working for their importer in the UK. I was pretty used to selling the wines into Michelin star restaurants in various places in Scotland, but I needed a new challenge and change of scene. They were at the stage of stepping things up and were happy enough to take a gamble on me. I moved to Australia in 2014 and haven’t looked back. I was made a director two years ago, and became an Australian citizen at the start of this year.

What gets consumers excited about Thistledown wines? 
Really, often it’s just getting people to taste the range for the first time. The wines are looking better than ever, and I think the more they hear about two Masters of Wine making small parcels from incredibly old vineyards, the more they want to know.

the more they hear about two Masters of Wine making small parcels from incredibly old vineyards, the more they want to know

I think consumers love finding hidden gems – incredible wines which over deliver, and which they can introduce their friends to (as your CEO did with the team at Cellr). I also think there has been a move towards fresher more elegant styles in general, which is something we strive for across our range.

Via @thistledownwines Instagram

On the Wine Market…We asked Paddy to shed some light on his experience in the wine market, as a big part of what we do at Cellr is make true direct to consumer marketing easy for producers. Find out more here

In what ways do you feel it is challenging to engage with consumers?
Not having enough hours in the day! The reality is it’s a crowded marketplace, there has never been a better time to be a consumer, and there is a lot of exceptional wine out there. People have never had more options, so the big thing for us is just getting the story out as much we can, alongside the wines. Often then we just let the wine do the talking.

As a small batch artisan producer, Thistledown Wines has gained a lot of traction and popularity. What has the strategy been for marketing and distributing your wines Australia-wide and furthermore, getting into international markets? 
We came from more of a hospitality distribution background, and from the start were looking to produce world class wines which could sit on the list of some of the best restaurants in the world. On premise was a big focus, and we have been lucky enough to partner with distributors who are quality led and very strong in this channel. Plus our production is small so really we always wanted to focus on the best of the best. Independent bottle shops domestically have also been great supporters (in Adelaide think East End, The Ed, The Parade etc).  

In terms of international, it’s always been about this same quality focus, but Wine Australia, and some of the SA State Government support (through DSD and Austrade) have provided a great value platform for small wineries like us to get in front of serious operators. The only issue we are starting to have is having enough wine!

On Authentication and Supply Chains: We asked Paddy about his views on authentication and his current supply chain management. At Cellr we want to understand how producers feel about the current systems in place and make a packaging solution that is consistent with what they need. Find out what we do for brand protection and supply chain track and trace.

Talk to us about your supply chain, do you currently have visibility of your products after they leave the winery? What impact would having detailed data showing you where (in the world) and when your wine is being opened by the consumer?
We work closely with all of our distributors to promote and to find out where our wines are going, and it can be hugely satisfying when you find out they have won a really top listing in somewhere like Seoul in South Korea, or Hong Kong.  

With the global explosion of wine fraud pushing into the mid/premium brackets due to sheer volume, how important is it for wine consumers to be able to identify your (legitimate) products via anti-counterfeit measures?
It’s a big issue, even for smaller wineries in certain markets. We work pretty hard to have all of our IP secured wherever we work. I think for a winery our size, with a less well known reputation the risk is smaller than a lot of guys out there (ie Penfolds and Yellow Tail), but it is an industry issue.

To follow the Thistledown Wines story check them out on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter! Also, check out their website to find out more about their story and head over to their online shop to see their entire range. 

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