The release of the new vintage of the Henschke’s iconic Hill of Grace is something I always look forward to. This is a wine of world-class sophistication and to think that this vineyard is in our own backyard, it’s virtually like living close by Hermitage and Côte Rôtie – some of the world’s best vineyards for Shiraz. As a matter of fact, if I had to take any Australian wines with me to Europe to show them our savoir-faire, the Hill of Grace would be one of them.
After five years of working as a sommelier in Adelaide, I am honoured to have befriended the Henschke family.
Let’s step back a bit. I remember very well when I used to work with their wines in luxury resorts in Mauritius and the Seychelles almost a decade ago, we used to refer to their wines as the Petrus of Australia (the Cyril cuvée in particular). The elegance in the wines was always the driving force behind my enthusiasm for showcasing these wines to my clientele. The balance between the power of the fruit, the structure of the wine and the tannins were what really impressed me, especially when working mostly with European wines. It didn’t carry the huge ripeness we often encountered with some of the warmer climate new world wines. Instead, the reds were always so- generous but with restraint. The best of both worlds.
I often found that my guests would revel in the fruit-driven style of Henschke which satisfied the thirst for a great red, rather than the uncertainty of a moody European red that could possibly never really open.
Fast forward many years later, I am now working in South Australia’s top luxury destination, only 45 minutes’ drive from the home of Henschke. If you had asked me a few years ago, I couldn’t have told you that I would find myself living in one of the Great Wine Capitals of the World. When I flew from Mauritius and came over in 2015, I was thrilled to be able to visit all the great Australian wines I had the opportunity to work with, including Grosset, Torbreck, d’Arenberg and Penfolds amongst a few.
What was also really exciting was that I came at a point when there was a big movement in smaller artisan wineries, younger generation making wines differently from what I have experienced Australian wines to be, pushing the boundaries a little further and creating some of the most interesting expressions I was yet to discover coming from Australia.
That being said, even after more than 150 years of winemaking history, Henschke was also at the forefront of this movement highlighting the importance of viticulture and organic farming thanks to Prue Henschke. My first visit to the Hill of Grace vineyard with Justine and Prue was in 2018.
I am always fascinated by what I learn in the vineyard as a lot of things start to make sense when you think of the process it takes from vine to wine.
When you stand atop a hill where the vines grow, you can understand the geographic importance of its location – to see whether the vineyard benefits from the morning or the afternoon sun, to feel the direction of the wind, to observe the surrounding flora and fauna that comprise of the natural environment and influence in which it evolves. Prue helped me understand why it was important to observe the surrounding. Great wines aren’t possible if it doesn’t start at the cradle – the soils, the agriculture of it all. For too long, people have been consuming wine without thinking of provenance. People like Prue have been a major force in bringing that awareness to us.
She elaborated her meticulous work with experimenting with new fruiting wire systems along with the use of biodynamic preparations and mulching under vine. She says she wants to create a natural environment so that nature can look after nature. When human intervenes with nature, it is also our duty to restore that balance, and that takes time. A long time. Sadly, not everyone has the same dedication to pursing sustainable practices. This is where you draw the line between viticulture and the quality of the wine.
My visit confirmed that this was indeed a hallowed ground as mysterious as some of the top vineyards in Burgundy.
After bracing quite a chilly spring morning, we headed back into the cellars to taste the wines. The cellars were loaded with history. You could sense that this was an important place that has shaped a big part of the evolution of the Australian wine industry. There is context, old soils, old vines and more than 150 years of winemaking experience. That much history is rare in the new world – and the Henschke family will keep passing on to successive generations the wisdom of their fathers and mothers.
Tasting of the Hill of Grace 2013 (tasted in October 2018)
This release marked the 150th anniversary of Henschke. The top wine of the estate needs time in the decanter, especially at the tender age of five years. I enjoy tasting wines in their youth to see the potential and see how they evolve with time. Also, when you are about to taste a wine that comes from the best shiraz vineyard in the country, it is bound to make you stop everything and really take your time to be in its presence entirely.
One of the things I enjoy the most with being in charge of Arthur’s cellar at Hardy’s Verandah is to be the guardian of a prestigious wine collection and see them over time with both the team and our guests.
The first release of HoG was in 1958. The wine has since been made every year with some truly exceptional vintages like the 1960, 1974, 2000 and 2011. The 2013 has concentration, power and generosity. Brown spices, florals like violets, roasted coffee, vanilla, cherries and cassis notes woven around a supple texture with superb length.
Tasting of the Hill of Grace 2015 (tasted in May 2020)
The context in which I had the chance to taste this 100-point wine was one I am not ready to forget about. I was also lucky to be one of the very first people to taste this truly exceptional wine. We were confined during the Covid-19 but still able to serve in-room fine dining to our guests at the Sequoia lodges. Justine came in as one of our guests and brought the 2015 with her. I have only just heard that it scored 100 points by James Suckling.
The fruit was handpicked from the 17-26 of March 2015 with the final pick taking place a week before the harvest moon of Easter. According to 5th generation winemaker Stephen Henschke, harvesting close to the full moon is optimum for fruit ripeness and quality.
This reminds me of the conversations I usually have during my visits to France, with winegrowers who work around the calendar of the moon, like Thierry Germain from Saumur Champigny. There is a certain mystery about how this symbiosis between the moon and the vines takes place. When you think that the moon can displace entire oceans between high and low tides and the influence it has on living things, it doesn’t come as a shock that it would be a contributing factor to the decisions farmers and winegrowers make along the growth cycle of the vines from pruning to picking. But only a few really take the time to understand the intricacies of biodynamic farming – the teachings of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), founder of the biodynamic approach to agriculture – which saved us from the very mechanistic view of nature which started taking hold in agriculture in the early 1900s.
I was surprised to see the colour of the wine. It wasn’t as dark and brooding as I had expected. The glass was luminous and the wine so vivacious – looking more like a red Burgundy than a dark Shiraz. I could definitely taste the gentleness of the hand of the winemaker. There is this purity of fruit. It is a wine that glows in transparency and elegance showing a sense of place; it is a wine of terroir. As the wine unwinds across the palate, there is a growing momentum, an ad
ded layer that comes with every sip. Eden Valley allows Shiraz to ripen slowly, therefore the grapes become mature and have phenolic richness without the big alcohol factor. The natural acidity is highlighted brilliantly, and the fragrance is quite intoxicatingly sensual. Texture of velvet comes to mind, the touch of suede…
To think these vines have been planted in 1860 does make you tremble a little at the greatness of this enchanting work of art.