Torched by bushfires that ran through the Adelaide Hills in December 2019, much of Henschke’s 30-hectare Lenswood vineyard was burned to the ground – yet a majority of the roots survived and new shoots emerged, while the barren blocks at least provided the Henschkes with an opportunity to plan the Lenswood vineyard afresh, which has resulted in the reorientation of many vine rows, and a mix of different clones chosen among new vine plantings. Viticulturist Prue Henschke spoke to us about their three-year journey of recovery.
Heartbreak doesn’t last forever. Vineyards torched by bushfires can be rejuvenated, as viticulturist Prue Henschke can vouch for. But patience is the virtue needed to persevere, along with sound viticultural knowledge, to keep moving forward through a three-year journey of recovery.
Prue saw Henschke’s 30-hectare Lenswood vineyard in the Adelaide Hills torched by flames in December 2019, eliminating mature plantings that she had nurtured with her winemaker husband Stephen since they purchased the site in 1983 – a former apple and cherry orchard which had, with bitter irony, been wiped out by the Adelaide Hills’ catastrophic Ash Wednesday bushfires in Easter 1983.
The 2019 bushfire decimated vines that were producing exceptional fruit. Henschke’s flagship wines from the Lenswood vineyard, Giles Pinot Noir and the Croft Chardonnay, both exhibited the subtle nuances of site, binding lean, measured fruit flavours with elegantly balanced acid, tannins and phenolic influences.
“The prospects for a complete revival are very good – 90% of the vines affected by fire have regenerated, and our new plantings are progressing strongly. We’re getting rewards for the love we’ve always put into this vineyard.”
Those vines were burned to the ground, yet the roots survived, new shoots emerged, which have been trained to new trellis wires, and Prue’s hope for the future of this prestigious cool-climate site remains bright.
“The prospects for a complete revival are very good – 90% of the vines affected by fire have regenerated, and our new plantings are progressing strongly,” says Prue. “We’re getting rewards for the love we’ve always put into this vineyard.”
In 2020, Prue adopted a wait-and-see approach to this vineyard’s revival. What remained was largely a field of ash, with lots of wire and metal debris from trellising that needed to be removed. But only a month after the blaze, an unexpected 33ml of rain fell, and plant matter immediately sprang back to life. Water shoots began appearing from vine stumps, and capeweed sprouted vigorously across the plot. “We couldn’t get machinery into the muddy field to mow, so the capeweed grew up to a metre high, and was probably the best thing that could have happened,” says Prue. “It helped bind the loose soil and build up organic matter in the soil.”
The barren site at least provided the Henschkes with an opportunity to plan the Lenswood vineyard afresh, which has resulted in the reorientation of many vine rows, and a mix of different clones chosen among new vine plantings. “While it was hardly an old site, it still had its problems and limitations, particularly with the ripening and vigour of different patches,” says Prue. “Now, with a strong knowledge about how this site performs, we were able to model each block to suit best-quality fruit.”
This has seen the introduction of more pinot noir and chardonnay on the 10 hectares of new vines planted. Most of the merlot is gone, replaced by cabernet sauvignon on a small patch of gravelly soil at the vineyard’s highest point, which Prue says has ripened impressively from the two initial vintages.
It also means that most sauvignon blanc vines are now gone from the Lenswood vineyard, replaced with grüner veltliner, which Prue has high hopes for. “We had a tiny amount of grüner on the property and had only issued one vintage before the fires took those vines – but now we have planted more vines that have gone through virus elimination, and I’m really excited by what this new flavour is going to provide.”
Nurturing regrowth across 16 hectares of vines was a painstaking process. “We willed those water shoots from the vine base to grow and reach the trellis wire in that first year after the fire, and then we cut them all back again to two buds, which was the only way we could ensure a strong new trunk. Two steps forward; one step back,” she says. “We have taken great care to make sure the rejuvenated vines will be long-lived, and pruning is the key to it.”
Fruit from the 2023 vintage at Lenswood will be re-introduced to Henschke’s commercial releases – representing about half the vineyard back in production – but the quality and character of what this fruit will produce remains a mystery. “What we’ve seen from the rejuvenated vines so far has been very good, but we won’t really know until fruit from the 2023 vintage goes through fermentation,” says Prue, adding that another 4 hectares at Lenswood will come back into production in 2024, a further 3 hectares in 2025, and another 3.4 hectares of new vines still to be planted. “We don’t know whether we will receive a style of fruit like juvenile vines, or whether the roots will provide more mature character. Patience is required, once again. We just have to wait and see.”
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