Vine Talk: Interview with Peter Thompson of Thompson Estate
Last year, I wrote a review of Australian wine on these pages and one of the wineries I featured was Thompson Estate. Since then, they have continued to win awards and been '5 red star' rated for the sixth year by world-renowned, influential wine critic, James Halliday.
During January's Australia Day 2015 Tasting in London, highlights of which I posted on Facebook, I caught up with the owners – cardiologist Peter Thompson and his wife Jane, a former lawyer. Thompson Estate wines are characterised by purity of fruit from start to finish, combined with elegance and good balance. These qualities were evident again, as I sampled the latest vintages of their superb Estate Chardonnay and Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Additionally, I had the opportunity to try their new 2013 'Four Chambers' wines, a name reflecting both Peter's and Jane's backgrounds plus four essential stages in wine production, namely viticulture, vinification, maturation and presentation.
Robin Goldsmith: How did you get into the wine business and what is the story behind Thompson Estate?
Peter Thompson: Jane and I decided to have our first formal education in wine when we were getting engaged to be married. It was quite a long time ago and the wine business has changed enormously, but we did learn the basics of recognising premium, well-made wine from commercial bulk wine. When I was training in Cardiology at Harvard University in the 1970’s, my boss was one of the leading cardiologists of his generation, and attracted patients from all over the world. Some of them were from the First Growth châteaux in Bordeaux and were very generous with gifts to their doctor, who in turn was remarkably generous in sharing them with his trainees! Our interminably long Saturday morning training sessions always ended with a brown paper masked tasting. This is where I first tasted Château Margaux and Château d’Yquem. On our slow trip back to Australia, we visited a large number of the legendary vineyards in Bordeaux, sometimes camping in their vineyards. When we returned to Perth, we set out on a long search for a vineyard with the ideal location. At that time, the Margaret River wine region was only 10 years old. Surprisingly however, most of the wine pioneers of the region were doctors, and so I knew them all through the relatively small medical world in Western Australia. I knew Dr Tom Cullity, who founded Vasse Felix, as he was a cardiologist and one of my mentors; Dr Kevin Cullen, who founded Cullens winery, as I had worked with him on population research; Dr Bill Pannell, who founded Moss Wood, as we had been at high school and had done medicine together; and Dr Mike Peterkin, who founded Pierro and who had been a junior doctor in my ward in his hospital training. So it was very clear that our future vineyard should be in the Wilyabrup sub-region of Margaret River, which was already establishing its reputation as a unique location following detailed research done a decade before. We eventually joined Mike Peterkin as owners in Pierro in 1989, just as Pierro was becoming internationally recognised for its superb Chardonnay and we purchased the Thompson Estate block to develop the vineyard in 1994, within a stone’s throw of Vasse Felix, Cullen, Moss Wood and Pierro.
RG: Have your medical and Jane’s legal backgrounds helped in this respect?
PT: I am very dedicated to my medical work and thoroughly enjoy the challenges and interaction with patients. Medicine teaches disciplined, curiosity-driven thinking and encourages habits of careful assessment of all the facts before acting rashly. It encourages innovation, but too much creativity can make patients uncomfortable! Winemaking allows some of the more creative juices to flow without having to worry about the patient’s reaction.
Jane’s legal background has been enormously helpful in creating an administrative structure which is sensible and meets our needs without being too bogged down in detail. She has instilled into me the excellent habit of taking detailed notes and filing them, whenever a meeting takes place or an agreement has been reached.
About a decade ago, we both did business administration training and I have found that an MBA has also added a valuable perspective in strategic planning and financial management.
RG: What unique attributes do you feel wines from the Margaret River region have and what makes the Wilyabrup district so special?
PT: Margaret River is probably the only wine region in the world which was chosen based on scientific assessment of its suitability for growing wine grapes. Studies conducted as recently as the 1960’s studied the climatic features conducive to premium grape-growing. Margaret River was found to have the same maritime climate, consistent rainfall and reliable sunshine exposure for ripening as Bordeaux. On a graph of all these characteristics, the dot point for Margaret River nearly coincided with the dot point for Bordeaux. Even more interestingly, the dot point for the “great years of Bordeaux” coincides precisely with Wilyabrup! This prediction proved to be remarkably accurate. We are blessed with a maritime climate, surrounded on three sides by ocean and consistent breezes which cool the vineyard every night even after the hottest day, regular rainfall and summer sunshine, which produce wine of the highest quality. The last eight vintages have been consistently reliable. There may be some trend to warming of the climate, but this has so far not affected the conditions. Nevertheless, we are looking at the possible change in conditions and the possibility of introducing varieties which may thrive in slightly warmer conditions, such as Shiraz and Tempranillo.
RG: Given the soil and climate, which grape varieties grow particularly well?
PT: As predicted, the region and in particular Wilyabrup, has proven to be one of the great sub-regions in the world for production of high quality Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux varieties. As would be expected of a region similar to Bordeaux, it can produce excellent blends of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc too. A surprise, which was not predicted from the research in the 1960s, is that Wilyabrup is capable of producing sublime, intensely flavoured Chardonnay. How this has happened in a region predicted to be a Cabernet region remains unclear, but the most likely explanation is that the clone of Chardonnay widely planted in Wilyabrup is the so-called 'Mendoza clone' which produces intense flavours with high natural acid from the “hen and chicken” bunch characteristic [larger, fully-flavoured berries combined in the same bunch with smaller less ripe, more acid berries.]
RG: What changes in the Australian wine industry have you seen over the last 30 years?
PT: The most important adverse effect on the Australian wine industry was an unfortunate government decision of the mid 1990’s. Encouraged by the amazing growth of the wine industry and its export success up to the early 1990’s, tax incentives were put in place to encourage further growth of the industry. This had the adverse effect of plantings excess to need, including in low quality irrigated areas. Many of these vineyards have had to be ripped up and the repercussions of this are still being felt in a surplus production and price pressure on Australian wines. The expansion of production of low quality wines coincided with strengthening of the Australian dollar. Furthermore, export markets in the US and UK were flooded with low quality wines and the market for premium wines collapsed. Attention to the rapidly growing China market has been a focus on many wineries, but the recent crackdowns on luxury goods have dented optimism there. Recent responses to this challenge have been highly encouraging, with a move to innovation in winemaking, trialling of new varieties and an appreciation of the importance of regionality in Australian wines. While the despondency on the export markets has been washing through, the best of Australian winemakers are energetically honing their skills, challenging accepted practice and producing some of the most exciting, innovative wines in the world.
RG: What perceptions do people generally have of Australian wine and how accurate are they?
PT: The above-mentioned flow of ordinary wine from Australia to its export markets has undoubtedly affected the image of premium wines in Australia’s key export markets. In the UK, the most recognisable Australian brands are Jacobs Creek selling at £5-7, and in the US, Yellowtail at $6-7 per bottle. While these cheap and cheerful wines are acceptable to many wine consumers, it is very hard to present a profile for premium wines when this is the image of Australian wine. The situation has not been helped by the widely reported embarrassment of Treasury Wine Estates having to trash $35 million of low-end wines because of oversupply problems in the US. All of this adverse imagery affects the standing of Australian wine in our key export markets. I am being told by UK wine distributors, that they even have trouble selling premium wines above £14.99. This is at the lowest end of profitability for Australian premium wines. Our top wines in Australia are our Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. If we were to export at their full price, they would require retail prices of £45-50 per bottle, equivalent to many upper end Bordeaux or Burgundy wines. We believe the value and quality is there, but convincing the discerning purchaser may be challenging. Fortunately we do have well-recognised super-premium Australian brands, such as [Penfold's] Grange and [Henschke] Hill of Grace, which we are all proud of and command top prices. Hopefully, they can lead the way for the upper end of the market back to premium Australian brands.
RG: Over the past two years, you have won a stack of awards and accolades. Does this come as a surprise or have you always known that you were making top quality wine?
PT: Our emphasis from the start has always been to ensure excellence at every step of the way, from site selection to vineyard preparation, vineyard management and viticultural practice, winery procedures, as well as choice of barrels and blending and willingness to change as we see new challenges. So, no, it does not surprise us that we are well awarded.
RG: How much does it mean to you to be a James Halliday 5 Red Star rated vineyard?
PT: The Halliday ratings are very important for us to reaffirm that we are in the top echelon. James Halliday’s own definition for a 5 red star winery is “Outstanding winery regularly producing wines of exemplary quality and typicity. Will have at least two wines of 94 points or above and had a five star rating for the previous two years“. This is of great importance in Australia, as James Halliday is by far one the most influential wine critics there. I find that it means less in export markets, particularly in the US, where the Wine Advocate reigns supreme (yes we do well with them too!)
RG: What plans do you have for the future and where do you envisage your company in the long term?
PT: Thompson Estate does not want to be the biggest wine company in Australia, but it does want to be recognised as one of the most respected. When we started in 1994, we were criticised by some wine writers for having the temerity to suggest that we will be producing icon wines in the first decade or so. We are now past the first decade, but believe we are on the threshold of this ambition and are constantly refining our Cabernet and Chardonnay wines with this aim in mind. We are expanding gradually by buying in fruit from nearby vineyards, but only when we can ensure excellence in the vineyard and be sure that the site and the management meet our standards. This is a vineyard for our grandchildren and we aim to make sure we leave them a viable, sustainable business. I am sure with eight grandchildren I can encourage at least one into the vineyard! We are mindful that we are only curating the land for future generations.
RG: What does the latest vintage hold in store?
PT: The 2015 vintage has looked good from the start, with plentiful rains in the winter and generally mild ripening conditions. The weather conditions have been ideal. Yields are down, but this usually means high quality. The Chardonnay in particular is looking brilliant.
RG: Lastly, is there a connection between heart health and wine drinking?
PT: The J shaped curve has been reproduced in every study looking at the effect of alcohol on the risk of heart attack. Persons with a light to medium intake have lower risk of heart attack and stroke than those with no intake at all. The optimum is 1-2 standard drinks per day. Above this, the risk goes up, the blood pressure rises and the risk of damaging the heart and developing irregular heart rhythms or alcoholic cardiomyopathy increase. The mechanism of protection may be related to the antioxidant effect of polyphenols and potent antioxidants such as resveratrol in wine. There is some recent evidence that the benefit may be partly genetically determined. So, it is OK for the heart to drink in moderation and if you choose to, make sure you get the dose right, do not exceed two glasses per day and make sure it is a quality wine from Margaret River!
Many thanks to Peter Thompson for taking the time to answer these questions in such detail and I certainly look forward to tasting future vintages of his excellent wine!