Henschke’s Hill of Grace - The Garden of Eden
BY ANGUS HUGHSON | APRIL 19, 2023
Henschke’s Shiraz Hill of Grace exemplifies human triumph and perseverance over 160 years, dealing with blood, sweat,
tears and an unforgiving landscape. Hill of Grace
embodies an entire family’s journey,
first uprooted from their European homeland
and delivered to the far end of the
earth. Gradually, over five generations, the Henschkes worked their way into
Australian wine folklore.
“Hill of Grace” is a charming title for one of Australia’s greatest
vineyards, yet it obscures a darker past of 19th-century Lutheran
refugees fleeing Europe for a mysterious land. The early Barossan settlers who
traveled by ship from Northern Germany could be forgiven for rethinking their
decision as they set sail for a new world. Merely surviving the journey on the pounding
seas was the first of many challenges. Unfortunately, thousands did
not make it.
Johann Christian Henschke was among those to
chance their arm and set sail in 1841. He survived,
but his wife Appolonia Wilhelmine and children Johann Friedrich and
Johanne Luise died during the journey. After the harrowing ordeal, Henschke and
his two surviving sons arrived in Adelaide, South Australia, which was little
more than a trading post at the time. Baking, withering summers and a frontier
life no doubt came as a shock to them. Their only source of solace during those
challenging times was the musical instruments they brought from home.
It took another twenty years for the Henschkes to enter the world of
wine. Christian Henschke first purchased land, only possible after he took an
Oath of Allegiance to South Australia, on the Barossa Valley floor at Krondorf.
But, in 1862, the Henschkes moved up into the Barossa Ranges and the Eden
Valley. They purchased land in what is now named Keyneton. There the family
followed the trend of their German homeland, creating a small mixed farm that included
a cellar and vineyard of Riesling, with some interloper Shiraz in the mix. The inaugural Henschke vintage was 1868,
only two decades after the first wines were made in Barossa.
The Henschke Hill of Grace vineyard.
The Eden Valley
The choice to purchase land in the Eden Valley was curious at the time. The Barossa Valley’s richness and natural
fertility make farming easier, with more generous yields. In contrast, the Eden
Valley has meager soils and, at 400m altitude, a cooler continental climate.
Perhaps the area’s frosty nights and biting winters were more familiar and provided
a taste of home. Or maybe the Henschkes had plans for a vineyard
and thought that land where summer nights sometimes fail to hit
ten degrees Celsius might be better suited to vines. They did not know then
that they had settled in an area with some soils over 140 million
years old. It proved an inspired choice,
but it would take more than a century for the rewards to come.
Initially, wine was nothing
more than a small part of the Henschke enterprise. The Henschkes were
industrious, God-fearing people. Son Paul Gotthard was the organist at the
Gnadenberg Lutheran Church. Perhaps the land’s position close to their place of
worship led Gotthard to purchase a farm across the road in 1891. It included a
small plot of vines planted 30 years before by Nicolaus Stanitzki, whose family
would later become tied to the Henschkes in marriage. Today, these dry-grown
vines remain gnarled and worn thanks to 160 summers and winters, although they
are in surprisingly good shape.
The vineyard is named after
the Lutheran Church that watches over them,
Gnadenberg, which roughly translates to hill of blessings or hill of grace.
While it is probably a coincidence or related to the lunar cycles, harvest at
Hill of Grace almost invariably occurs within days of the Easter full moon.
The Henschkes were not the only ones drawn to the area by the church and
its bucolic backdrop. The small village of Parrot Hill slowly emerged in 1866
with a Post Office and school, all across a still dirt track from the Hill of
Grace vineyard. Yet, the village never took off and was abandoned by 1880.
The only remnants of the time are the Post Office ruins.
It is almost a blessing as the vineyard could have become a casualty
of a growing town.
From there, generation after generation of
the Henschke family has added to their legacy. Paul Alfred Henschke was the
first to focus on the wine trade, greatly extending the cellar and vineyard as
demand for fortified wines grew. However, it was the fourth generation, Cyril
Henschke, who put the pursuit of quality front and center.
Embracing a Single Vineyard Vision
The actual breakthrough moment for the estate was not with Hill of Grace, but with its
stablemate, Mount Edelstone Shiraz. The Mount Edelstone vineyard, also
located in the Eden Valley, was first developed by the Angas family. George
Fife Angas was considered the father and founder of South Australia and had
significant land holdings. Angas’ grandson planted the vineyard in 1912 and, in the
early 1950s, offered its fruit to the Henschkes.
Cyril Henschke crafted
the groundbreaking 1952 Mount Edelstone Shiraz, one of Australia's first
modern single vineyard wines. This fabled wine swept all before it, winning
numerous prizes at leading local shows. It also gave Cyril Henschke the
confidence to bottle Henschke’s first Hill of Grace
from the 1958 vintage. Fascinatingly, Cyril was not only an innovator in the winery. During his
tenure, Henschke also opened Cyril’s Wine Bar on Rundle Street in Adelaide
during the 1960s, where no doubt early Hill of Grace vintages were going for a
Miraculously, early vintages, including the 1958, are still drinking
superbly even though winemakers at the time did not have a playbook for
creating wines built for the cellar. These wines were aged in older oak, and by
the 1960s, a submerged cap with header boards
was used for extraction, which
continues to this day.
These older vintages are ever so slightly rustic, a feature of the times.
The Hill of Grace vineyard
did not stay stagnant after its purchase in 1891. The adjoining block to the old
vines was planted in 1910, and in 1951, 1952 and 1956, three more blocks of
Shiraz were added. Total plantings for the Hill of Grace Shiraz are small and make
up only four hectares, with 0.89 hectares planted before 1911. Cyril Henschke
was clearly already convinced that Henschke’s future lay in the Hill of Grace
soils. Shiraz was the mainstay but was not alone. Today, the Hill of Grace
vineyard includes 1952 Sémillon plantings, Riesling from 1954
and 1961 and Mataro from 1956. In addition, new Shiraz plantings were added in
1965, 1989 and 1997. All Shiraz vines in the Hill of Grace vineyard are
pre-phylloxera clones planted on their own roots. Today, Hill of Grace
is a pinnacle wine for Henschke, with the winery largely focused on single
vineyard offerings from the Barossa and, more recently, the Adelaide Hills.
Primed to Shine
Stephen Henschke took over from Cyril in 1979. Here Henschke’s Hill of
Grace takes an exciting turn thanks partly to Stephen Henschke’s wife, Prue Weir, a renowned viticulturist and botanist. Like many other
vineyards in the 1960s and
1970s, Hill of Grace had moved
away from organic viticulture, but this was about to change.
brought new ideas to both trellising and overall vineyard management. Henschke was one of the first
Australian wine companies to wholeheartedly embrace
a wide range of organic and biodynamic practices, treating each vineyard
like a garden with its own unique
requirements. Along with biodynamic preparations, promoting soil health and
biodiversity through mulches and permanent swards is key. The original 1860
grandfather vines are particularly cared for to keep them in good stead for the
next generation. All this work is done
with an eye on the changing climate to maximize fruit quality while ensuring
that soil moisture remains more than adequate for these dry-grown vineyards.
Part of that overall process is
regeneration and ensuring that the clonal material is maintained. The emerging
field of epigenetics illustrates that older vines can change to accommodate
their environment. Weir and
her team completed a significant project identifying which old vines have best
acclimatized to produce fruit with the finest flavor and color characteristics.
This material was planted out in the more recent
plots on the Hill of Grace vineyard
and will also be used to replace old vines as required, continuing
that vital legacy of pre-phylloxera clonal material.
It is essential to recognize that alongside Weir’s viticultural improvements in the
vineyard, Stephen Henschke has similarly focused on tightening up every element
of the winemaking process, which is most evident in vintages since the turn of
the century. Henschke’s work is often lost in the mystique of the Hill of Grace
vineyard. Still, this vertical tasting, stretching back to the first 1958
vintage, emphatically illustrates the upward trajectory of the wines during his
tenure. Cyril Henschke’s aspirations for the wine have been met and exceeded,
with greater precision in the winemaking, more consistent fruit quality and a
finer use of oak. The great vintages are beautifully manicured with undisputed power but also,
dare I say it, grace
and harmony. Part of this, no
doubt, also comes from introducing screwcaps from the 2002 vintage, only adding
to purity and longevity.
That said, winemaking for Hill of Grace is pretty traditional. Fruit from
the various blocks is handpicked and fermented separately in open-top fermenters with header boards, a submerged cap with regular
pump-overs and no extended maceration. The heart of the wine remains the 1860
grandfather vines with small additions from vines over 100, 70 and 35 years
old. Pressings are retained for the final wine, although that has not always
been the case. They were often sold off in the past, giving greater density to
more recent vintages. Wines are now aged for 18 months in French and American
oak hogsheads, 20% new, with an approximate 80/20 split. Curiously, Henschke
has stuck with American oak, which is becoming less fashionable in higher-echelon wines
from the Barossa. Importantly, its use has changed over the years. However, oak
is seldom noticeable as Henschke has moved away from locally coopered
hogsheads, as the drier conditions in Australia tend to give quite different
This recent Hill of Grace
vertical tasting presented the 2018 vintage release. Hill of Grace was made in most
vintages except 1960, 1974, 2000 and 2011. The bottles, all drawn
from the family
cellar, were served chronologically from oldest to youngest. While
vintage variation has lessened over the
years, the site’s pedigree was on display from the earliest
vintages. The 1958, 1961 and 1962 are stunning examples of the
era, made largely from vines close to 100 years old. As we moved through the
decades, alcohol and ripeness slowly increased, from an average of 12.5% in the
1980s to 13.7% in the 1990s, with 14.5% being the
norm since then. While this gave the wines a greater
density of fruit, the Eden
Valley location and old vines still generally held their line and focus. In
fact, that added ripeness has given the best vintages
greater weight and structure while maintaining fruit complexity. From
2002 forward, the Henschkes’ work in the cellar and vineyard provides
incredible fruit consistency and a greater sheen and composure to the wines.
The hotter years are certainly more of a feature in the last two decades,
bringing a muscular shape to the wines, but thoughtful winemaking and picking
decisions have helped protect them from the worst of the season.
In recent years,
the Hill of Grace vineyard
stable has also grown, with the addition
of the Hill of Peace Sémillon,
from 1952 plantings and the Hill of Roses Shiraz, from 1989 plantings. Reviews
for these wines will be published in my Barossa report later this year.
wines were tasted at the winery in February 2023 to commemorate 60 years since
the first Hill of Grace vintage.
See the wines in the order tasted.
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