One of the beautiful aspects to learning about wine is the way wine connects into human history.
Whether it’s Medieval monks with too much time on their hands (Burgundy’s cru system) or the practicalities of seafaring nations exploring the new world (Madeira’s distinctive style), there’s a human story to be told.
For South Australian wine, it's a story about the pursuit of religious freedom. And in a poetic way, there’s a vinous connection at the very centre of that religious persecution:
That old theological chestnut of, once the magic spell has been cast, or sorry, I should say once the ‘Words of Institution’ have been spoken, are we really drinking the transmuted body and blood of Christ when we take Holy Communion, or is it merely a spiritual metaphor?
Old King Fred III of Prussia tried to find a common, reformed wording for this controversial topic that would unite everyone in his kingdom, but for the Old Lutherians, (who strongly believed in the ‘wine becomes blood’ angle), he took it too far, which to cut a long story short, ended in their emigration to a land down under.
Drops of God
This is in fact an excellent context in which to talk about the wines of the Henschke family. This idea that wine is not simply fermented grape juice, but something sacred and spiritual, imbued with certain mystical properties based on some combination of provenance and method runs deep in Henschke’s veins.
The Hill of Grace, home of the ‘Grandfather’ vines, is one of those iconic names in wine. It sounds almost Tolkein-esque doesn’t it? The Hill of Grace is the English translation of Gnadenberg; the name of the little Lutherian Church that overlooks the vineyard, itself named after a place in Silesia, now south-west Poland; a poignant tribute to the life they left behind in search of freedom. For first generation Johann Christian Henschke it was a journey that cost him dearly - he lost his wife and two of his children on the journey over.
Some of the vines on the Hill of Grace are over 150 years old, making them some of Australia’s oldest vines and certainly some of the oldest Shiraz vines in the world. Hence they take on the quality of almost holy relics, as they sit under the watchful eye of the little Lutherian Church. It is purely and exclusively the fruit from these Grandfather vines that goes into making the iconic ‘Hill of Grace’ wine. You can see how beautifully gnarly they've grown to be!
Let Us Purify Ourselves
South Australia is a kind of virgin territory. So far, it has not been defiled by the Phylloxera louse. So before we could visit the vineyard, we had to perform our “ablutions”. This was in the form of dipping the souls (sorry) of our shoes into a chemical solvent to smite any possible pestilence that might be hitchhiking with us. I was very happy and relieved to see they did this since we were actually getting up close and personal with the vines on our tour. Otherwise, it is absolutely forbidden to walk amongst the vines in SA for obvious reasons.
Disciples of Biodynamics
The Hill of Grace has always been harvested just before the full moon of Easter - something which now chimes with the biodynamic principles of which Prue Henschke is an ardent disciple. In Biodynamic viticulture, the holistic health of the vineyards is ministered to with a special focus on maintaining soil fertility and the energy forces in the vineyard, the dynamic between the cosmos and the growing environment.
Biodynamic practices incorporate the cyclic nature of the vineyard and surrounding ecosystem. For example at Henschke, ground egg shells from their chickens go into the natural fertilisers, native plants provide pest and disease control in place of pesticides. The grape marc (the remains of grape skins etc after pressing) is used to make a special compost.
Moon phases are observed to determine viticultural activities: which days to spray, which to pick, which to prune, which days to simply leave the vineyard alone, which sounds like woowoo until you remember that moon phases, like the tides, cause sap to rise and fall.
In the pics you can see the straw laid down around the base of the vines, helping to keep a moist and fertile environment in the hot weather for the underlying biodynamically prepared compost.
A Divine Degustation
And then came the divine conversion.
After visiting the vineyards and feeling fully converted into the Henschke religion we were brought into the hallowed winery, which is as full of history and artefacts as you’d expect. You can see on the entrance to the old winery where previous family members have etched into the stones the gallons produced that year. Below you can also see the traditional open top fermenters that they've used for years, and are coming back into fashion now. We were then brought to a private tasting room, where we tasted our way through ten wines, from some of their more everyday wines, working our way up to the Hill of Roses and finally the Hill of Grace.
The Hill of Roses is made from the vines that were propagated from the Grandfather vines in 1989, so too young to be graced with the Hill of Grace name just yet, but they are the next generation in training (just like Stephen and Prue’s children, the sixth generation who will eventually take over).
I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting to be so impressed with the wines, perhaps purely as a result of my (by now) especially high expectations. They say believing is a leap of faith but this particular spiritual conversion came damascene-like to my rather disbelieving mind.
What can I say? It was… revelatory. It was utterly delicious. So pure but also so thrillingly complex. Yes of course I thought it would be good, but I didn’t think it would be that good in such an immediate and apparent way. I usually think a revered bottle like this needs the right environment, the right company, the right food, the right mood to truly show all of its miraculous powers. But somehow, with this, just one sip and I was a believer. Of course we had been primed. We’d drunk the Kool Aid. But my sensory experience was ‘real’. This hadn’t happened at Penfolds the day before. Even though in theory we’d been treated to the same priming.
Overall, we tasted the following wines, all of which were beautiful in their own way.
I’ve included a link to where you can buy them, where available in the UK.
The Order of Service
Dry, zesty and citrusy - £31.50
2017 Joseph Hill Gewurztraminer
100% Gewurztraminer with all the florals and delicacy you would expect. (Doesn’t seem like this is available in the UK).
One of my absolute favourites. 5% aged for 8 months in seasoned French barriques, and the remaining 95% was aged on the lees in tank.
This gives it the most beautiful subtle touch of cream while still being crisp and refreshing, with a deliciously distinct note of snowpea which was just divine! Around £27.60.
2016 Innes Vineyard Pinot Gris
Pear and florals with just a touch of spice. Sadly doesn’t look like this is available in the UK.
Made in the ‘old-fashioned’ way - whole bunches fermented and the 100% matured in French oak Hogsheads for 10 months. Super concentrated berry flavours and velvety tannins. Around £30/bottle.
A blend of Shiraz, Cabernet, Merlot and Cabernet Franc across the Barossa and Eden. A symphony of grapes and vineyards! A lovely complex palate and very approachable with fine powdery tannins. £35-40/bottle.
Cyril Henschke was renowned for pioneering old-vine, single vineyard wines. This one is Cabernet (88%), Cab Franc and Merlot. The Cabernet was planted by Cyril in the 1960’s. Dark berry fruits and oak notes, with pronounced, firm tannin structure. (Around £80-90/bottle)
This is the longest produced single-vineyard wine, first bottled by Cyril Henschke in 1952. This is pure Shiraz from 101 year old vines planted in the MOunt Edelstone vineyard in Eden Valley. Part French (81%), part American (19%), part new (34%), part old (66%) oak.
One of Australia’s most famous Shiraz wines. A clear note of liquorice with herbal and peppery notes. Around £90 - £114/bottle
100% Shiraz, from a block of younger Shiraz vines, near the hallowed Grandfather vines. Only 23 years old when picked, so lacking quite a few decades before they make it into a Hill of Grace level blend, but of such incredibly quality from an amazing vintage they warranted their own bottling and name. 71% new French hogsheads, and the rest old.
Elegant but powerful, just so good. Peppery, herbal, spicy with dark fruit and silky tannins. (around £350)
100% Shiraz from pre-phylloxera material brought over from Europe in the mid 1800’s. 86% French and 14% American (56% new 44% old) hogsheads. This one deserves repetition of the entire tasting note:
Very deep crimson n colours, Rich and beguiling aromas of blackberry, blueberry and dark plum, followed by signature exotic five-spice, star anise and sage, with underlying nuances of beef stock and dark cedar. Intense and layered, the complex palate bursts with a dense, pure core of sweet spiced plum and blackberry, coated by firm yet integrated, fine velvety tannins which draw away to an extraordinarily long finish and lingering flavours of dried, sweet spices.
Where to Find Other Henschke Wines
If you’re after some of the Henschke magic in the UK, without spending several hundreds of pounds, you will find various of their other bottlings, including more of the slightly more affordable ones from the following retailers:
FYI These are the wines grown biodynamically:
Joseph Hill Gewurztraminer
Lenswood Croft Chardonnay
Lenswood Green’s Hill Riesling
Lenswood Blanc de Noir
Lenswood Abbott’s Prayer
Mount Edelstone Shiraz
Cyril Henschke Cabernet Sauvignon
Hill of Roses
Hill of Grace
Lenswood Giles Pinot Noir