Henschke cellars, the prime terroir-driven, vintage-specific Barossa wine
- Thursday 2 July 2009
Mild-mannered, thoughtful, meticulous, polite: these would be some of the adjectives you might choose, after an initial meeting, to describe Stephen Henschke. You wouldn’t guess he’s the owner of the only single-seater Sky Chariot balloon in South Australia – an enthusiast given to skimming the top of lakes before letting rip with the gas to crest nearby gum trees.
And you can’t talk about the Henschkes without quickly bringing Stephen’s wife Prue into the frame. He makes the wine, she runs the vineyards. In more than three months in Australia I haven’t come across a better tended set anywhere. Prue seems winsome, almost playful. But those who know her say she has ironstone determination. I don’t know what her secret hobby is. Maybe rainforest canopy exploration by jetline and harness?
The first Australian Henschke was the resilient Johann Christian, who made the decision to set sail south with a wife and four children but arrived as a single father of two, having suffered three bereavements en route. He lived at Krondorf in the Barossa but decided to buy his land and plant his vines in the very different environment of the Eden Hills.
His great-grandson, Stephen’s father Cyril, was another original thinker. Fortified-wine production dominated Australia during most of the 20th century, but Cyril made the switch to table wines earlier than most, from 1952. There were no more fortified wines at Henschke from 1959 despite the commercial difficulties this posed: the national tipping point didn’t come until 1968. Cyril pioneered varietal wines and single-vineyard wines, and was the first winemaker from Australia to be awarded (at age 46) a Churchill Fellowship. The resulting travel to three continents opened his eyes, and refined his Australian ambitions still further.
Both Stephen and Prue Henschke took the decision to learn their craft not at Roseworthy but in Europe, at Geisenheim, during two seminal years of study and travel. When the time finally came for South Australian winemakers to resume the long-lost historical challenge of Adelaide Hills viticulture, the Henschkes joined Geoff Weaver and Tim Knappstein with pioneering plantings at Lenswood from 1981. Few companies this size have dared to make the switch to organics and biodynamics; the Henschkes have not only converted all their own vineyards (organic certification is due in 2011), but Prue is busy trying to get all her growers to develop their own biodynamic composts. Henschke has used screwcaps since the mid-1990s, and will soon be moving to glass closures, already trialled on its Tappa Pass Shiraz.
A fair reward for all these efforts is the fact that if there is a single-vineyard alternative to multi-site Grange as Australia’s greatest red wine, then auction prices and critical consensus alike would tend to finger Henschke’s Hill of Grace Shiraz. It’s almost as if two paths beckon Australia’s greatest winemakers towards the future: Grange or Grace. The former path expresses the solidity of human craft through vintage-surmounting work at the tasting bench; the latter explores the tenuous beauty of place through a necessarily inconsistent weave of vintages.
‘There have been a lot of pressures to turn Hill of Grace into that riper, jammier style,’ Stephen told me in 2004. ‘Because we’ve got such a long history and I’ve taken on the philosophies of my father, I wanted to keep this as a wine that just reflects the vineyard.’ I tasted the 1996, 2002 and 2005 Hill of Grace with the Henschkes, to add to the 1994 vintage I tasted with them in 2004. ‘Pure’ is the word which keeps coming to mind: pure blackcurrant fruit, pure floral characters and the purity of tone which results from its untroubled Eden Valley freshness. A blockbuster it ain’t.
European? Yes and no. Yes in that every wine in the now-extensive Henschke range has its own character, and yes in that this is a rewarding range to follow if you are interested in vintage variation. Indeed, I can’t think of a single rival Australian producer of similar size who does better, over a steeplechase of 20 wines, to represent the ever-changing challenges of season, place and variety more faithfully. Few tasters will like them all.
But no in the sense that these aren’t faux-European wines out to imitate a hypothecated elegance or restraint, and doing so at the expense of ripeness, amplitude and harmony. They are sensitively if conservatively vinified examples of grape varieties principally grown in two special places: the Eden Valley and Lenswood.
Just how different the Eden Valley is from the Barossa Valley is still inadequately recognised (perhaps because Eden’s wines can be misleadingly sold as Barossa). It’s a large area with sub-regional nuances, but almost all of it is fundamentally higher, cooler, wetter and stonier than almost anything in Barossa. (British readers: imagine the Peak District – rugged upland grazing country – with vineyards. That’s Eden.) Whereas much of the Barossa is sumptuously warm, undulating arable land whose intricate interplay of sediments happens to produce magnificent wines, but which could easily also produce (as it did in the past) cereals, fruits and nuts.
The Adelaide Hills is hugely complex, but Lenswood could usefully be seen as a higher, cooler, more acid-soiled southern echo of Eden with a marked white-wine vocation, where convincing Pinot becomes a viable option. It is these facts, rather than any winemaking tricks, which create the elegance and restraint of the Henschke range; the flavours, textures and balances are classic Australia.
A few highlights? Hill of Grace harvests the headlines, but my Shiraz preference is for Mount Edelstone which, at its best (as in 2002), takes that same purity of flavour but
seems to fill it out with more earth, sage and underbrush, as well as a greater textural depth.
Cyril Henschke is a challenge, since Cabernet in Eden will only ever tiptoe towards ripeness; the same is true for the Merlot-Cabernet of Abbotts Prayer in Lenswood, and both walk vintage tightropes between aristocratic, dark-ember panache and leafy, minty slenderness. Riesling from the two areas can be compared via Eden’s Julius to Lenswood’s Green’s Hill: citrus grove contra apple orchard. Louis, an old-vine Eden Valley Semillon, is perhaps the most characterful white in the range: weighty, haunting, strange.
Just how welcoming the Adelaide Hills can be to the Pinot family can be tasted in the complex Littlehampton Innes Pinot Gris and the light-bodied Lenswood Giles Pinot Noir, all cherry and raspberry.
History hasn’t ended, of course: both Prue and Stephen Henschke are scientifically curious experimenters who never stop trialling and tweaking. Their son Johann, after a dose of world travel, is making his own contribution, with what Stephen calls ‘ideas about tannins and textures, bringing in different techniques to look at structure in the wine’. Winemaking evolutions allied to ever-finer fruit quality from balanced vineyards growing in healthy, well-mulched soils should make the Henschke name as durable as any in Australia.
Andrew Jefford and his family have relocated to Australia for a year where he is writing a monthly column for Decanter (see p23). His latest book is Wine Course (Ryland, Peters & Small, £19.99)