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Henschke and the Hill of Grace

Stephen Henschke is credited with creating a cult status for the Hill of Grace, making it one of the top Aussie wines, but he gives an equal credit to his father and wife for the phenomenon, reports Subhash Arora who chatted with him and his wife Prue, in Singapore during the  Wine For Asia last week.

Stephen Henschke is one of the most famous winemakers and wine producers of South Australia. Based in Barossa Valley's neighbouring Eden Valley. his Hill of Grace is an iconic wine that can set you back by over US$ 650, if you can lay your hands on it.

Don't call me Cult please

The mild mannered and modest winemaker does not like 'Hill of Grace' to be referred to as a cult wine. 'Cult status implies that it is a trader wine; that is, the traders pick up the wine to make a killing on selling it. I think the proper way would be to address it as an iconic wine.' As a comparable example, Harlan Estate wine in Napa is pre-sold on allocation to a select few at around US $450 a bottle and may be re-sold for upwards of $600, instantly on release.

Sitting next to me at the dinner table, Stephen spent one evening chatting about his winemaking philosophy during the 'Wine Experience Dinner' at the Coriander Leaf Restaurant, in Clarkes Quay. The dinner, organised by Malcolm Tham, Director of Wine for Asia, showcased a couple of his labels along with other wine makers, Pepper Tree of Coonawarra, and Troll Creek.

Hill of Grace goes iconic

Henschke celebrates its 140th anniversary this year. But not much was heard during my interview about the iconic Hill of Grace turning 50 this year!

'My father started making it in 1953 as a family wine and it was released in 1958 under this name,' says Stephen. 'It was a special wine made from the old Shiraz vines that turn 140 this year. Produced from a single vineyard named Hill of Grace, it yields only 1 ton/acre of fruit. This was a very good wine from the very beginning but got noticed after Prue and I joined dad's business.'

Incidentally, when his father Cyril made the wine, people scoffed at the idea- those  were the days of fortified wine in Australia!

'The international recognition came in 1984 when a group of 'Masters of Wine' (MW) visited Australia and tasted several wines including ours. They gave glowing reviews to the Hill of Grace. Then tasting with other journalists followed and there has been no looking back.'

It may be an interesting comparison that during his father's time, the 'Hill of Grace' sold in Australia for around A$4. It sells for A$500 now! And - it is on allocation.  

Henschke- marriage of viticulture and winemaking

The simple recipe of making good wine is when the viticulture bonds well with winemaking. What better example can there be than his  marrying his wife of 33 years, Prue! Both of them went to study at the Geisenheim Institute in Germany, the Harvard of oenology. A graduate of Botany and Zoology, Prue knew enough of plant life before submerging hersel in viticulture while Stephen opted for winemaking at the Institute.

The 'Made for Each Other' couple make a perfect team to make the perfect wine, among others, the Hill of Grace 100% Shiraz which shares with the Penfolds Grange an iconic status.

Prue-the Pruner

The red wines which focus on fruit maturity, submerged cap open fermentation, minimal racking, no fining and minimal filtration are really based on fruit quality in the vineyard, says Stephen Henschke.
His wife Prue Henschke does the pruning and all the other functions expected of a viticulturist. 'Of course, I have 3 persons help me all the time,' she smiles shyly. After spending the whole year looking after the vines like her three children, she goes to the vineyard everyday during the harvest season with or without Stephen to taste the fruit.

'Get your tannins ripe,' she said

As she demonstrated to the whole class in a Master Class on viticulture, she showed the right way of breaking a berry and removing  the juice till only the skin is left on your palate. She went on to explain how to chew the skin to get the feel of the tannins. 'It is very important that the tannins in the skin are ripe. Many viticulturists make the mistake of only looking at the Brix value- thus getting green tannins in the grape they use. This will always give green tannins in the wine which would have a grassy and unpleasant flavour.'

How has she helped improve the vine growing on the estate, I ask? 'My basic job is to release the stresses on a vine.' To that extent, she looks after the canopy management, straw mulching the ground between the vines. The purpose of developing the canopy structure is again, to make sure that the tannins are ripe,' she says, getting a bit technical.

Her latest excitement is the development of foliage lifter, a device she has got made with the help of local students to help lift the 2m high trellis at different levels – otherwise quite a strenuous exercise. She has got the patent on it and is working on getting it fabricated for commercial use. This would give them better canopy control and less physical pain, once installed.

Going Organic

She has also introduced organic farming and uses worms for sustainability of soil and avoids the use of Nitrogen as fertiliser. About to go organically certified she also admits to tinkering with biodynamic farming in part, including harvesting the grapes on a full moon.

All in the Family

Apart from their own grapes in the Eden Valley vineyards and Adelaide Hills, they also buy grapes from outside. 'You may be surprised to know that we have been buying grapes from our relatives for generations now.' We have an excellent working relationship and it is all in the family,' he adds.

And the Beat Goes On

Stephen Henschke is the 5th generation entrepreneur. When I asked him if he was aware of the BBR Future Report that depicted a negative picture for the Australian wine industry, he replied in the negative but did not feel disturbed either.
'I am sure Australia will find a solution to the problem of global warming like the Carbon footprint problem. In any case, we can move to a cooler part of Australia, like Victoria and Tasmania. New Zealand is there too.' BBR Future Report (delWine has written about it in an earlier edition) has painted a gloomy picture for Australia due to rising temperatures, that will benefit New Zealand.

'I have told our 24 year old son Johann that if wants to join the business, the future is bright. He has in fact already joined in the winemaking, and is the 6th generation entry into the winery,' adds. Justine and Andreas , the other two children are still studying.

Screw-cap vs. Cork as closure

Ask Stephen about the closure issue and you incite him mildly. 'How can one even think of cork as a wine closure today? he asks. 'Corks used to cause at least 10% wastage of wine- not only the cork taint due to TCA but also the resultant problems due to leakage and oxidation.'

'Cork is a fantastic product for footwear and several other applications but not for wine anymore.' 'With the Portuguese cork industry working overtime to improve the quality, will they not be able to solve the problem?' I ask.

'First of all, I don't think that they are spending money on research; they are putting more money in the marketing. Even if they solve the TCA problem, the other problems would not be solved. I think the future of cork as a wine enclosure is dark.'

So when was he so convinced of the screw caps? 'Way back in 1975-77 at Geisenheim where Prof Becker was doing studies in this subject, we knew that this would be the closure of the future.'

'We shifted to screw caps in 2001 with 10% in caps and 90% still in cork. The bottles with screw caps got sold so fast that we shifted to screwcaps fully in 2002. We are producing 100% of even the 'Hill of Grace' in screwcaps.' This ought to make producers from Bordeaux to Nashik sit up and take note.

'With screw-caps you encapsulate the wine as it is and the winemaker cannot blame the bad wine due to cork,' he says.

Vino- lok

Although Stephen finds screwcaps as a permanent solution for wine bottle enclosures, he realises that people miss the experience of uncorking the wine. The perfect solution for him is in sight. Produced by Alcoa, and first used fully by the Schloss Johannesburg Estate in Germany, he tried it first  on the 2004 Henry's Seven on a trial basis. The 2005 Hill of Roses has also been sealed with Vino-Lok as is the  2005 Tappa Pass Shiraz.

'We are very satisfied with the results. I feel the final solution for enclosures will be screwcaps for most of the wines and vino-lok for the higher end bottles. Vino-lok is a lot more expensive, so both will live side by side.'

Ageing Hill of Grace

Obviously, it ages very gracefully, though the name of the label has nothing to do with it. 'I think it is best to drink after 10 years. Some of the earlier vintages are still drinking well while the others are not doing so well due to the cork problem. He adds,' I think the first 10 years are very good for it; the next 10 can be better, depending upon the vintage. It may last for years after that.'

'What would be the life cycle for 2004 Hill of Grace, for instance?' 'It will start drinking very well in 2010 and will keep on getting better till 2026, if stored properly' says Henschke with confidence.

Flavours of Hill of Grace

The 2004 tasted at Wine for Asia Master Class was perfumed with lifted aromas of plums, blackberries with herbs and spices lurking in the background. I could not pick up the aromas of Sage that Stephen could, though.

The well structured wine was very rich and complex on the palate- very juicy and fleshy. Very elegant and powerful wine with velvety tannins, it had an excellent balance. The wine has a lot of exotic characters that keep on seducing the palate at every sip.  The taste was even better while thinking that each sip was worth around Rs. 500 ($10!)

Hill Graces India too

Henschke exports wines to about 20 countries, except to UK, through Negociants International. Ace Beveragez is the importer for India. So how many cases does he get in a year- I ask Debjit Das Gupta, the importer? 'Well, we got 1 bottle for 2003 vintage. We were luckier for the 2002 of which we got 6. Our constant efforts have been successful and we have been promised 18 bottles this year.'

Of course, Henschke Cellars  have several other labels from the stable which can be enjoyed at hotels like Shangri-La where the pro-active Australian GM, Andrew Steele is ready to snap up any fine wine for his various restaurants and discerning clients.

In 2003 as Stephen tells me, the number of barrels produced of the iconic wine was one; which was better than none in 2000. They produce 0-2000 cases of the 'Grace', approximately 10% each of which are earmarked for the UK, US and Europe.

Other wines from Henschke

If one thinks that Henschke makes only fine red wines, one is only partially correct. The Riesling, for instance is so perfumed and full of minerals and fruit like lime and lemon that you feel like in a different olfactory state for a while.

The classical petrol smell of Riesling is predominant in his wine. 'Of course, we do not like to emphasise this factor openly though it is typical of Riesling grape, as most Australians don't think of it as a positive characteristic. The cool climate Eden Valley gives very jesty and limy Riesling that can easily age for a decade or more. It has loads of fruit and the taste lingers on for ever after every sip. Not a quaffable but very serious food wine, this.

Of course, there are shirazes full of anise flavours and Cabernet Sauvignon reds too. They also make a selection of 'Hill of Roses' which is 100% Shiraz from the 'Grace' vineyards but made from the vines which are relatively young-unlike the 140 year old vines.

There are the usual Semillon, Sauvignon and Chardonnays in whites too.

Oak and alcohol- Kings no more 

To my query on Australians using too much oak for their wines and having too much alcohol content, he says,' It is true that we in Australia have been using too much oak-even chips and staves- a process that incidentally, came from Bordeaux 70-80 years ago when Wolf Blass started using and then the whole country followed.'

'But now the people are tired of heavy oak and high alcohol wines-they are tired of Robert Parker wines and so are reducing the use of oak to give complexity to the wine. They are looking for subtle oak flavours that do not dominate the fruit' As expected, he believes that the complexity does not come as much from the soil as how you manage it and the climate surrounding the vineyard.

'We like to keep alcohol as low as possible. For whites 12-12.5% is normal while for red 13-14% is what we aspire to do. Hill of Grace is around 14%.' However, some wines still have exceptionally high alcohol, like the Henry Seven Shiraz blend, a delicious, well integrated wine from Eden Valley had alcohol of 15%, which he admits is a bit too high.

Say the Grace

Henschke Cellars have an excellent range of wines, some of them even affordable for the Indian market. 'Have you been to India?' I ask them.  "We travel to US and UK so many times, but never had the opportunity to do so. We would love to visit some day, though. We have heard so many beautiful things about your country.' With a promise that we shall organise an exciting wine evening at the Australian High Commission when they come, I say adieu to one of the most influential wine producing couple of Australia, running a family owned winery for generations.

As Malcolm Tham, Director of Wines for Asia likes to say,' now we know the secret of making great wines- you should have five generations of wine-making and a wife who is a viticulturist-and training at Geisenheim might be an extra help.' Dr. Monika Christmann, of the Department of Oenology and Wine Technology at the Geisenheim State Research Institute in Germany, who I had met recently at the Nederburg Auction in South Africa, would be pleased to know.

Subhash Arora


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