Anyone fond of a drop or two of Australian wine will be more than familiar with the name Henschke – especially their iconic Hill of Grace, which is second only to Penfolds Grange in prestige amongst Australian red wines. What many may be unaware of is the warmth and generosity of both Stephen and Prue Henschke and their enthusiasm to share the passion and knowledge they have accrued over the years. I’ve enjoyed their hospitality on a couple of occasions in the past when they have been hosting some of the keen young entrants of the Electrolux Appetite for Excellence, and had the opportunity to learn more – both about them and from them – just a couple of weeks ago.
I have always thought of Henschke’s as a Barossa Valley wine producer, although I was vaguely aware that they had a vineyard not too far from my home here in the Adelaide Hills. It was an invitation to a picnic in this 37 acre vineyard, with it’s extensive plantings of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc, which led to the broadening of my knowledge of one of the First Families of Australian wine and a deepening of the respect I already held for both Stephen and Prue.
Prue’s existing knowledge and skills as a viticulturist were further honed during time she and Stephen spent in Germany in the 1970’s, especially when Prue was accorded “Guest Listener” status at the prestigious Geisenheim Institute there. She then brought that knowledge back home, teaching grafting techniques at Roseworthy Agricultural College (now Roseworthy Campus of The University of Adelaide) for two years before going back to work at Henschke’s. Around this time there was quite a bit of research being conducted at Roseworthy into cool climate viticulture in the Adelaide Hills. Given their German experience, Stephen and Prue were keen to explore this more and, in 1981, they purchased what was then an orchard in Lenswood.
Prue continued to work the orchard for two years, taking the opportunity to familiarise herself with the micro-climates to be found on the steep slopes, but in 1983 devastating bushfires swept through the Adelaide Hills and through their property destroying all the fruit trees, but jumping a few existing small plantings of Chardonnay and Riesling. Presented with what was virtually then a clean slate the Henschke’s set about planting an area whose steep gradient would have put most others off at the time. The massive variety of micro-climates found in this vineyard have given Prue and Stephen the opportunity to vary and experiment with their viticulture and produce fruit with diverse flavour profiles depending upon the position on the slopes of the vines.
Both Prue and Stephen take their role as custodians of the land seriously and in the early 1990’s Prue’s attention was caught by the concept of mulching their precious dry-grown Barossa vineyards as a method to help overcome moisture loss. This, in turn, led her to investigate bio-composting as a simple and effective way of using waste from the winery while maintaining soil health. Building on these initial steps, biodynamic agriculture has become something of a passion for Prue now as she applies it’s principles to all of their vineyards, focusing on the health of the soil and the vines through natural, non-chemical means.
Prue tells me that this is not at all prohibitive and is manageable under “very similar regimes, but simply making different choices about the substances used to maintain vineyard health.” To this end she can be found brewing concoctions of Casuarina (the silica extracted from the sheoak protects the vine leaves) or Mulberry leaf (to protect the vines from the effects of heat) “teas” for use in the sprayers. In fact, the Henschke’s are so serious about this approach that all of their wines are well on the way to organic certification.
Such is the esteem in which the Henschke name is held, I’d suggest this will be something of a major game-changer for organic wines in Australia which have, until fairly recently, not really been taken terribly seriously. Having the “Certified Organic” badge on any Henschke wine bottle, let alone on a bottle of Hill of Grace, is going to make many more wine lovers sit up and take a second look at organic wines and make changing traditional vineyard practices over to more environmentally friendly ones look more accessible and attractive to viticulturists all around the country.
I learned a great deal about the Henschke‘s, cool climate viticulture, grapes and wine on that picnic a few weeks back. Along with a visiting group of (mostly) interstate wine writers and sommelier’s, I attempted (not terrifically successfully) to identify the grapes in a blind tasting of the fruit, before sitting down to a splendid lunch of fresh, local produce. There is something very special about tasting the individual wine grapes, drinking the wine produced from them and being walked through the whole process by the winemaker whilst sitting in the middle of the vineyards in which it all starts. And knowing that the wines we enjoyed are well on their way to being produced sustainably thanks to the extraordinary skill, drive and passion of of two of South Australia’s finest is cause for much celebration and parochial pride.
I think I’ll drink to that!
All photographs in this post are taken by Dragan Radocaj.