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Shaping Henschke Wines from the Ground Up

Wines Of Now
4 November 2021. Words by Olivia Evans.

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. She has continued the preservation of old vines, while also evolving the offering by bringing new varieties into the fold. 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.

The Henschke family have held land in the Eden Valley since 1862, when Johann Christian Henschke began developing the property with simple, self-sufficient farming methods – knowledge that was inherited from his homeland in Germany. Five generations later and that agricultural philosophy is still ever present. Prue has complemented those sustainable farming methods by employing the use of biodynamic applications as well as mulching techniques.

“We could have done stalk ferments with shiraz to create savoury characters, but we thought we would explore tempranillo and nebbiolo,”
Prue Henschke, using a flowform to activate water for preparations of biodynamic tea for the vineyard.

Regenerative agriculture, which is an approach to farming systems that considers conservation and rehabilitation, is seeded in each of Prue’s processes, helping to guide the wines from nutrient-rich soil to bottle. “I started the regenerative journey in the early 90s by experimenting with different straws and green waste compost,” says Prue, noting that the focus of regenerative agriculture is to enrichen the topsoil, increase biodiversity and improve the water cycle to strengthen the vitality of the soil. “People soon realised that preserving soil moisture was really important.”

Prue creates a mulch from triticale straw that comes from local wheat farmers, while underneath is a biodynamic compost that assists in preserving soil moisture for an extra month. Soil temperature can be up to 25 degrees cooler under the mulch than on bare ground, creating a nutrient-rich and temperate zone to protect fruit during the ripening period. It is particularly useful for late-ripening varieties like nebbiolo, which is typically harvested in May and requires perfect conditions through the entirety of its long growing period.

Above: Prue Henschke planting native flowering plants in the vineyard, to support the local biology of the vineyard and bring ecological balance in a natural approach top managing grapevine pests. Opposite: demonstrating the soil profile of the vineyard.

Prue and her husband Stephen, the winemaker at Henschke, explored the wines of Barolo and Barbaresco over several trips to nebbiolo’s birthplace in Piedmont, Italy. The generosity at dinners with winemakers allowed them to form a deep understanding of the variety (along with gluttonous memories of eating truffles and hazelnut gelato, adds Prue). Those experiences are what made nebbiolo a serious contender when they looked at planting a variety that would add a savoury expression to their range.

Shiraz from Henschke is recognised for its black pepper and bay leaf notes, spiced characters that Prue sees as distinct from the overall expression of savouriness that nebbiolo can provide. “We could have done stalk ferments with shiraz to create savoury characters, but we thought we would explore tempranillo and nebbiolo,” she says. “Tempranillo is difficult to grow, but nebbiolo is an angel.” With that, nebbiolo found its place.

Henschke’s Gardens of Eden vineyard in Eden Valley includes plantings of nebbiolo, tempranillo and riesling, in addition to semillon, shiraz and cabernet sauvignon.

The Roesler vineyard, part of Henschke’s Eden Valley vineyards, sits atop the cooler part of the Mount Lofty Ranges. The 32 hectares of vineyard boast an array of varieties, the first being planted in 1968, with nebbiolo in 2000. The area was once mainly old dairy farms situated on porous, sandy soil with lots of rock. “We knew that we had a variety that ripened very late, so we had to head up the hill to try and get ripeness,” says Prue, describing finding warmth through elevation via sun exposure in an otherwise very cool climate.

“By breaking the rock layer, we opened up the soils and allowed the roots to penetrate right down to get base moisture,” she says. Since a period of drought in 2016, the vines have been completely dry grown, so moisture retention in the soil is imperative to nurture nebbiolo to an elegant, earthy yet firmly structured expression. “We thought it would lose its legs from the stress of drought, but because we broke that rock barrier, we probably have a very deep root system.” This process has encouraged the vines to draw flavour from deep within the soil, creating wines of complexity and intensity.

Opposite: Prue trialled the use of VSP (vertical shoot position), which trains the vine shoots upward in a vertical, narrow curtain with the fruit zone below, controlling the fruit’s exposure to the sun. Prue found that creating dappled light on the fruit with VSP helped to develop intense and exotic floral aromas in the riesling. Above: Prue recently at their Lenswood vineyard in Adelaide Hills , which is recovering from the December 2019 bushfire.

In the early days of experimentation, Prue and Stephen bought land in Lenswood in the Adelaide Hills, establishing the site as a research tool for practices they had learnt while working in Germany. Prue trialled the use of VSP (vertical shoot position), which trains the vine shoots upward in a vertical, narrow curtain with the fruit zone below, controlling the fruit’s exposure to the sun. After some success, she brought these learnings back to their Eden Valley vineyards for riesling vines.

The regional riesling style is affiliated with expressions of zesty, lime-driven fruit, which was a character that Prue wanted to complement. “One aspect is looking after that beautiful citrus fruit, and the other side is bringing in floral notes,” she says. “I think it’s important to bring floral characters into riesling; it makes it no longer hard, but more delicate, beautiful.” Prue has been working with a German researcher to study the impact of partial light on riesling, and they found that creating dappled light on the fruit with VSP helped to develop an aroma compound (damascenone, for those who must know) that produces intense and exotic floral aromas. It’s a fascinating discovery, with the science of scent supporting her focused viticultural decisions to create a specific style.

“It’s just little tricks,” Prue says, a modest yet devoted custodian of the land.

The wines

2021 Henschke ‘Julius’ Eden Valley Riesling $47 RRP

There is a delicacy to the balance of fruit weight, acidity and crunchy texture that creates a salivating effect on the palate. Notes of lemon pith and candied ginger are carried by a central line of mineral acid. The weight of the wine comes from characters of jasmine flowers and nectar that are traced back to grapes grown in dappled light.

2017 Henschke ‘The Rose Grower’ Eden Valley Nebbiolo $50 RRP

The wine expresses fresh roses and turned earth with a seasoning of dried thyme leaves. The silky weight of the wine is held through a tea-like tannic structure and surging acidity – indicative features of quality nebbiolo. Despite the wine having power, it shows perfect harmony of ripeness, flavour and structure that is due to the ideal growing environment for a late-ripening, complex variety.

For all other Henschke purchase enquiries, visit their website.

Henschke are a partner of the Wineslinger Awards.

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