When you’re responsible for some of the oldest vines in the world, it demands a particular thoughtfulness for each decision made – one wrong pruning cut could be very telling for the following year’s fruit. With a deep understanding of her family’s vineyard – and the wider realms of agriculture – Prue Henschke has been elevating the Henschke wines for over three decades. It has been a journey defined by experimentation and consideration. Her touch is partnered with unique sites that translate to an expression that is unequivocally and individually Henschke.
If you’ve been fortunate enough to be in the presences of vines that are so old they surpass your age, your parents’ age and your grandparents’ age, you understand the ancient air to their being. “When you look at the old grandfathers, they twist and gnarl around each other. You can read humanoid expressions into their shapes.” Prue is musing about the shiraz vines on the Hill of Grace vineyard, planted 160 years ago. The vines are closely set with a tight space between the rows, as there was only the need for a horse to travel through, but planting a vineyard to one variety was an unusual gesture for the time. “I think it was just the rule of the day. There were a lot of French viticulturists running around the place, and I think that’s where they got their information from.”
The Hill of Grace vineyard is a national treasure, situated a stone’s throw from the Henschke winery in Keyneton, within the high country of South Australia. That high elevation and the alluvial soils of the Eden Valley nurture the production of some of Australia’s best examples of cool climate wine. When Prue stepped into her role as viticulturist, she was engaged to look after vines that four generations of predecessors had sustained.
Vine age provides a consistency and power to the fruit. With deep roots and a solid trunk, the vine becomes more resilient against seasonal impacts. Able to overcome stress, it can focus on growing quality fruit. That said, these vines still need to be fostered with specificity. The concentrated expression of Hill of Grace shiraz comes from the control of low yields. “The pruner has to be exceptionally careful to prune 30 buds to each vine,” defining the number of shoots that will eventually grow fruit, Prue explains. Even after all these years, the vines are so healthy that it would be possible to leave 100 buds, which would grow 20kg of fruit per vine. Prue controls the quality by guiding the vine to focus its energy into fewer bunches. She also thins the grapes to allow more intensity in the fruit that remains. It’s what makes this wine focused and deeply flavoured. A profound lesson in less being more.
“It took 30 years for the fruit on my patches to develop the kitchen spice character you get in Hill of Grace. Before that, it’s just young, red fruit and the tannins are quite different. The tannins really soften as the vine ages, and they become quite complex.”
The first vines were planted in 1860, and the vineyard was expanded in 1910 by replicating the existing design. There was then a gap of about 40 years before the rest of the Hill of Grace vineyard was planted in the 50s. They used material from the grandfather vines, and Prue then added two plots in 1989. “It took 30 years for the fruit on my patches to develop the kitchen spice character you get in Hill of Grace. Before that, it’s just young, red fruit and the tannins are quite different. The tannins really soften as the vine ages, and they become quite complex.” For that reason, the fruit from Prue’s patches is used to make a separate cuvee, Hill of Roses, until the vines reach a certain maturity, which will become her contribution to the ongoing story. It’s a patient approach that upholds the quality of the flagship wine.
It’s a similar story at Mount Edelstone, where her ideals of progression have transformed the 109-year-old vineyard. Another site planted solely to shiraz, the vineyard sits west of Hill of Grace, is twice its size and has vines planted very distanced from each other. In the 90s, Prue initiated trials on varying trellis styles, observing grape colour in relation to crop load, and leaf area to fruit ratio. With the vines able to extend their reach without touching, Prue was able to convert the training system of the vines to the Scott Henry method. Scott Henry training allows the vines to be controlled to face the morning sun, giving the bunches exposure to the cooler part of the day, retaining freshness, adding complexity, contributing to finesse. This adaptation doubled the surface area for photosynthesis, giving the fruit even more exposure. “Prior to the 90s, Mount Edelstone shiraz was rather elegant, red-noted and spicy,” says Prue. “When I started putting in Scott Henry, we saw intense bay leaf and spiced pepper notes. Also, the tannins became a lot richer. It was a really distinct change”.
Prue Henschke’s success goes further than benefiting from vine age. Her practices give respect to the ancient vines she inherited in her role, while pursuing evolution and longevity – initiatives that are evident in her commitment to biodynamic farming and regenerative agriculture. Each adaptation to vine training or to preserve soil moisture is a translation to flavour that is undeniably evident in the wines. Her stewardship of the land and vines show a thoughtfulness for the individual needs for not only shiraz, but each of the varieties she continues to nurture for the future legacy of Henschke.
2016 Henschke ‘Hill of Grace’ Shiraz, Eden Valley $890 RRP
The power of this wine is its elegance and complete refinement. Aromas of blackberry and olive leaf float from the glass – completely inviting. Its texture shows a silky sense of comfort, carrying notes of crushed strawberries and blackcurrants that are framed by perfectly placed tannins. The spiced notes and dried leaf characters work in balance with the acidity that provides freshness to the concentrated wine. It is a glimpse of an old soul combined with precise low yields and grace.
2016 Henschke ‘Mount Edelstone’ Shiraz, Eden Valley $225 RRP
A wine of broad intensity where ripe black fruits fall over the sides of the tongue leaving bay leaf and aromatic brown spices to settle on the centre of the palate. The tannins are like a good dark chocolate, bitter but balanced to the rich fruit that fills the palate with composure. A wine that proves its elegance with its black pepper spice and cooling acidity from vines that are trained to grow with just the right exposure to the sun.
Please note, Henschke have sold out of the 2016 Hill of Grace online, but it should still be available at fine wine retailers. For all other Henschke purchase enquiries, visit their website.
Today, there is an explosion (pun intended) of bottles, with no rules aside from the fundamental principle of finishing primary ferment in bottle… Any extensive tasting of pét-nats will never uncover some sort of universal truth, but rather be a celebration of the expansive diversity of the style. Good enough reason for a deep dive, we think.
Heathcote is a relatively young region, which saw an explosion of growth in the 90s, driven by the trend towards powerful shiraz. But Heathcote is very different today, wth shiraz finding myriad expressions, and other varieties increasingly taking the lead. This year’s Top 50 features Bart van Olphen from Italian variety specialist Chalmers.
The roots of Henschke’s history run deep, but the journey is ongoing. Since her appointment as viticulturist in 1987, Prue Henschke has helped shape the family’s wines from the ground up. Their family’s commitment to manage vineyards for over 150 years adds weight to the term sustainable, yet what those practices translate to in the glass is perhaps even more significant.