Henschke – the pinnacle

The tag ‘people, places, wines’ perfectly sums up the subtle and profound appeal of Henschke‘s wines.  

People

This is another story of early free settlers in South Australia making a home and a living in a remarkably remote spot. Even today with excellent roads and a short drive from the Barossa Valley, you feel you are entering a remoter, wilder countryside as you travel up to Keyneton. What must it have felt like to the first settlers in 1841?  

And in their own ways the current generation of Henschke are just as impressive.  Fifth generation Stephen and his wife Prue, two botanists who did part of their training Geisenheim in the Rheingau, have taken the property on to be simply one of the world’s greatest wine growers.  This curious designation seems entirely appropriate here. Their work has been:

  • tending the Grandfathers block of 1860-planted Shiraz
  • planning for the future by planting selections of the best old vines for the next century or two
  • whole hearted commitment to organic and biodynamic viticulture, written up at length on Prue’s blog
  • wine making which brings out the maximum potential of the fruit: ‘traditional and fastidious’ in Stephen Henschke’s words
  • training a sixth generation to take the property on 
  • being ambassadors for a holistic ethos imbued with a deep intelligent curiosity about the world we inhabit

Stephen popped in to see us at the end of our excellent tour and tasting with Megan.  Five minutes turned like a flash into an hour’s conversation which ranged over the weather in this season; moving to Scott-Henry training on some blocks to increase to a two-metre foliage canopy to increase Quercetin (resulting in a marked extra black pepper character at the same maturity) by increasing UV not direct sunlight; promoting natural maturity earlier through biodynamic farming; the effects of white man’s agriculture on the poor soils of the Eden Valley and how to reverse these effects; the challenge of growing native grasses; the benefits of the Vinolok closure (glass is beautiful and tactile; the food-grade polymer O-ring has the same closure quality as a screw cap); why Hill of Grace has greater intensity and texture than its immediate neighbour also old-vine Shiraz, Mt Edelstone. Never has lunch been missed in a better cause! 

Places

As already hinted, the Henschke’s wines do come with the additional bonus of being grown in one of the most evocative and beautiful landscapes imaginable. Even in the height of summer, the native trees which dot the landscape bring some relief to the parched straw-coloured ground.  At the vineyard the old Lutheran church stands guard over the Hill of Grace vineyard.  The road still has its original German name: Gnadenberg. On our visit I was moved by the connections with my own family. On my mother’s side my family is Austrian by origin and had travelled the world because of political persecution (escape from Nazi invasion) and inspired by a protestant faith – in my parent’s case to bring modern medicine to a remote village in central India.  The benefits here are more hedonistic but moving nonetheless.  The ‘hill of grace’ is in fact a shallow valley at 400m of altitude, eight hectares in all, now planted in blocks which include the oldest vines planted at least as early 1860 (conservatively dated by documentation) and other Shiraz blocks, Riesling, Semillon and Mataro.  The Henschke wines are also drawn from nearby Mt Edelstone, a further site at 500m of altitude in the Eden Valley and a special vineyard at Lenswood in the Adelaide Hills.  

Wines

Julius Riesling 2015, 11.5% – 40 year old estate-grown vines, this is Henschke’s flagship white which was showing well with its broad, floral nose and remarkably vivid impact on the palate and exciting acidity (pH 2.97, TA 7.05).  An excellent Eden Valley Riesling.  

Croft Chardonnay, 2014 – is made from Lenswood-grown fruit from the Adelaide Hills and interestingly is a few dollars more than the Riesling ($40).  Fermented in barrel, 28% new French oak, with a mixture of wild and selected yeasts, then aged for 10 months in barrel, with two months of lees stirring.  Creamy with a touch of vanilla on the nose, then subtle ripe apple fruit, pear skin and tart stone fruit and fine, rich texture.  

Giles Pinot Noir, 2013, 13.5% – again Lenswood fruit, 30 year old vines, a mix of Pommard and Australian clones, really bright red berry fruit with savoury notes, long savoury finish and firmish tannins. Barrel ageing is again the magic 28% new French barrique for 10 months.  

Henry’s Seven 2014, 14% – an unusual blend of 60% Shiraz, 24% Grenache, 8% Mataro and 8% Viognier, the Viognier being co-fermented with the Shiraz. Ageing is 10 months is French-oak hogsheads.  Layered fruit on the nose with red plum and distinctive peach and almond kernel, presumably from the Viognier.  This really stands out from the usual GSM or similar blends.  

Keyneton Euphonium 2012 – growers’ fruit and homage to local musical tradition.  Aussie/Bordeaux blend of 65% Shiraz 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc which has spent 18 months in predominantly French oak, 15% new.  Bold blackcurrant and blackberry fruit, soft textured. The Cabernets dominate the nose, the Syrah the palate.  

Cyril Henschke 2010, 14% – 84% Cabernet Sauvingon, 13% Cabernet France, 3% Merlot, aged in 45% new and 55% used French hogsheads for 18 months. Classic blackcurrant fruit and leaf, ripe, broad palate, medium bodied, very fine ripe tannins. As a five-year old, already showing some development and softening.  

Mount Edelstone 2012, 14.5% – 100% Shiraz from the single vineyard with 100 year old vines; aged for 18 months in 87% French and 13% American hogshead, 32% new. Lively and refreshing (pH 3.56), spicy black fruit, elegant nose and palate, towards the red end of the red-to-black fruit spectrum with pepper and sage themes, very refined finish. The vivacity of this top Shiraz is due to the vineyard facing east and so not getting the direct heat of the afternoon sun.  Superb.  

Hill of Grace 2010, 14.5%  – Stephen describes 2010 as a year of radiance, resulting in perfumed wines. But there is also a big step up here in terms of the finest, dense blackberry fruit, a super elegant nose, with Asian spice character, luxurious soft but taut texture and very fine and still firm tannins.  In Stephen’s view, the Hill of Grace’s greater power and character is due to a combination of yet more vine age, deeper soils, more moisture from the creek. 100% Shiraz, aged in 65% new and 35% older oak, 95% French and 5% American, hogheads for 18 months.  Simply, one one of the world’s greatest wines, combining elegance, complexity and understated power. 

The shorthand for the wine making style here is ‘traditional and fastidious’.  Waxed, open fermenters made of concrete are still the order of the day for reds. The cap is kept submerged with minimal hand-plunging to achieve a full and soft extraction.  Pump overs are used primarily to give the chance to cool the ferment as required.  The whites are made in a contemporary part of the winery with refrigeration.  Enough solar power is captured for the winery’s power needs except during the vintage itself.  

With thanks to all the staff of Henschke. Having been to hundreds of wineries and vineyards in the last decade and more, I can safely say that visiting Henschke is a pinnacle, for the people, the place and the wine.  

 

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