Wine: Australian ‘show stoppers’ a thing of the past

The Great Escape Chardonnay. Pic: Contributed.
The Great Escape Chardonnay. Pic: Contributed.
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I AM delighted to see that big Australian “show stopping” wines are becoming a thing of the past. With thumpingly high alcohol levels, very extracted fruit and heavy new oak notes they were made to seduce wine show judges and American critics – and to scoop awards.

When it came to quaffing them, the average wine lover shied away. Now there is a welcome move to make wines that we – the consumer – might actually want to drink.

“New style Australia is all about balance and drinkability”. That is the motto of a trio who have come up with an interesting range of classic Aussie wines with a Celtic twist. The folk behind Thistledown include two Masters of Wine, Englishman Giles Cooke and Irishman Fergal Tynan – and well-respected Australian winemaker of German descent, Peter Leske.

Although the vines might be Down Under, Thistledown’s roots are in Scotland as its team all work for Scottish importer, Alliance Wine. Hence the thistle as their emblem.

“Our wines are – like the thistle – robust externally, but multi-layered with a delicate, almost feminine core,” says Cooke. “They are a response to requests from restaurants for Australian wines with balance and texture, rather than power and excess oak,” he says.

Influential restaurant wine buyer, John Power, head sommelier of Prestonfield House Hotel, the Witchery and the Tower Group agrees that he has found very little to excite him in Australia.

“The Australians have been focusing on making wines for supermarkets at the lower end and pleasing US critic Robert Parker at the high end where prices are too high for the quality. I still buy a handful of Aussie wines like Penfolds’ St Henri that I was buying 20 years ago – no progress has been made,” says Power.

The Thistledown trio are hoping to rectify this and compete with the fantastic bargains emerging from Chile and Argentina today.

The range primarily focuses on reds, as the project was initially 
born from a passion for grenache and shiraz. Sadly only one white – a rather juicy chardonnay – is hopefully going to be joined in the future by whites from Rhône grapes marsanne and roussanne – and perhaps a riesling.

To put the “drinkability” factor back into Aussie wines, Thistledown has two main criteria. “Firstly, we look for fruit grown at relatively lowish yields (no more than 3 tons per acre),” says Cooke. “Secondly, we pick a little earlier than many other Aussie producers as we don’t like the fruit to ‘hang too long’,” he says.

They have been hunting for parcels of vines across south Australia. Their shiraz hails, not surprisingly, from Barossa – particularly the Kalimna and Koonunga zones made famous by Penfolds. The fruit here is crunchy dense and black which gives great texture in the shiraz.

Clearly grenache is their real passion. “We believe that McLaren Vale grenache in particular is world class. As good as anything you can find in Spain or France,” says Cooke.

“We try to make our grenache in the style of pinot noir: low yields, old vines, sandy soils with some ironstone and higher sites – focusing on small batch winemaking with whole bunches to give savoury elegance and only a minimal use of new French oak,” he says.

Overall the aim is aromatic elegant wines – rather than dense dry reds. The next batch of wines will be coming from vines aged over 100 years old for the 2014 vintage “which lets the fruit really shine”.

Grasping the Thistledown range


The Great Escape Chardonnay 2012

£14.99; alcohol 14.5 per cent

Grapes from higher altitude Eden Valley give this wine bright acidity at its core surrounded by a mouthful of very juicy citric fruit. A little too high in alcohol for me, but it is definitely on the right track with its balance of ripe fruit and acid.


The Vagabond Grenachae 2013

£17.99; alcohol 15 per cent

A more serious effort as you would expect from the price. A blend of McLaren Vale fruit: Seaview and bush vines from Blewitt Springs grown on limestone and ironstone. Violet perfume notes, deep dense mouthfilling fruit with an interesting savoury edge deriving from whole bunch fermentation, this is chunky but with a soft, silky finish. It should mellow even further in the bottle.

The Cunning Plan Shiraz 2013

£12.99; alcohol 14 per cent

One of my favourites of the range for its elegance and affordability. From Langhorne Creek and made primarily from shiraz with 5 per cent grenache. Very pure fruit character, floral notes, hints of cedary French oak, lighter in texture than many Aussie shiraz.

The Basket Case Shiraz 2012

£17.99; alcohol 14 per cent

From Barossa’s Marananga sub region where the ironstone and quartz soils give a savoury liquorice note with lush creamy mouthfeel – which is so welcome compared to many over-sweet shiraz. On the right track – more like this please.

Thorny Devil Grenache 2013

£14.99; alcohol 15 per cent

This is like an iron fist in a velvet glove. Initially it looks as pale as a pinot, enticing ripe raspberry notes, but it has an elegance and lightness rarely found in Aussie grenache. It might disappoint those who like big reds, but has an interesting subtlety. It hails from a single vineyard called Lyndoch in the heart of the Barossa Valley.

•Retail stockists for Thistledown wines: Cornelius Wines, Edinburgh; Fine Wine Co, Musselburgh and Portobello; Cork & Cask, Edinburgh; Cross Stobs Bottle Shop, Glasgow; Reids of Dollar, Clackmannanshire

•Join Rose’s wine tastings in Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews