henschke – a family affair

by Joshua Niland and Sonia Bandera

Most people who enjoy a cheeky tipple every now and again (or more than a tipple, more often) will understand how special one might feel standing at the foot of Henschke’s Hill of Grace vineyard with Prue Henschke herself. The 2013 Electrolux Appetite for Excellence National finalists were fortunate enough to do just that, and felt honoured to visit not just a winery, but a family proud to be deeply entrenched in the history of their region and craft.

Henschke was one of only 7 wineries in the region at the turn of the century with their first vineyards planted in the 1860’s by Johann Christian Henschke with suspected James Busby vines. There were more plantings beyond this with lots around the 1950’s. The Hill of Grace vineyard is phylloxera free and all vines are on their original rootstocks, just another impressive fact that the family can add to their name. A visit here requires all shoes to be put through a bath to maintain the integrity of the beautiful 150 year old vines from the Grandfather Block and beyond.

Stephen and Prue Henschke are now at the helm and in their time have implemented bio-dynamic and organic practices with a focus on the integration of native flora and various fertilisation techniques, eased by Prue’s Botanist background. This move was sparked when Prue was researching mulch to preserve moisture in the dry grown vineyard. They’ve looked at how to use stems and stalks for compost and bring in green waste compost from Adelaide. There is a firm belief here in the positive effects of plant diversity. The winery itself, constructed of locally quarried sandstone with local mica and slate paths, has seen modernisation in many aspects including a bottling line in 1977 which, as of 2005, no longer utilises cork.

The family place huge emphasis on expressing the cool climates of the region which is reflected in the wines by a consistent elegance, tension and concentration not just in the Hill of Grace but throughout the range. Stephen says he tries to maintain as much floral, delicate fruit and spice with cooler ferments (24-26°C) in 4 ½ – 6 ½ tonne cement vats. The wines are batch pressed as selected in the vineyard from a single site; this enables increased flexibility but also increases the knowledge potential, allowing them to know the sites more intimately.

The highlight of the visit would have to have been the opportunity to experience first-hand the synergy between vineyard and bottle just like the synergy between Stephen and Prue themselves. This was made possible by seeing the vines and their environment and then tasting the resulting wine. The unified respect for the fruit and for the environment they’re grown in and how those elements affect the end product is the key to Henschke’s success and sense of place. Standing at the entrance of the original vineyard listening to the history of the family, the region and the vines themselves was so inspiring and special that we hardly noticed the rain. It was quite amazing to stand at one point in the vineyard and being able to see the various vine ages and therefore a piece of history. Tasting the wines it became clear that access to these vines without doubt provides them with a profound complexity balanced by wonderfully subtle nuances. As Stephen pointed out, if we closed our eyes we could in fact taste and smell the vineyard and see in our minds the red gums and red-brown earth.

One might easily confuse the reputation of Henschke and its place in the Australian wine industry as being simply another iconic big brand, but this would be wrong as at its heart is a family, a story and a real wish to nurture it to the best of their ability. The story we were left with was Stephen as a boy pulling bee stings from the soles of his feet after stomping on grapes for his Grandfather.

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