“A slightly beguiling nose of kirsch, dried mulberries and plum preserves with nuances of star anise, potpourri, cloves, dusty earth and menthol.” - Lisa Perrotti-Brown, Wine Advocate, 2010 Hill of Grace
There is a certain art to writing tasting notes, it reads like poetry. Like remembering something you’ve never actually experienced, and yet if done well, can be as vivid as if you tasted it yourself. To do it justice however, you need the VOCABULARY, you need to KNOW what potpourri smells like, menthol, plums, and it’s not just the KNOWING, you have to be able to SMELL it, a sensory memory. When you DO remember it, it will most probably be connected to an olfactory memory, potpourri embodying your mother’s Biggie Best obsession when you were six years old; plums, the wet, sticky mess of a ripe plum all over your face and hands; cloves, helping poke them into the diamond edges of the Christmas Gammon skin. A tapestry of meaning, the meanings collected throughout the years; what it might have meant to you five years ago, could mean so much more now. The point being that writing tasting notes that, not only make SENSE to a wider audience, but can serve to RATE any one wine in an official capacity, is an art. Bringing wines to life that geographically, might have remained just outside your grasp. Which is precisely what brought Henschke to our attention. One of the 12 Australian First Families of Wine, Yalumba being one of their number as well, the Henschke family represents the very best in Australian wine. BEST as in their Hill of Grace, single varietal Shiraz, made from 158 year old vines. The 2012 vintage was hailed the 2018 Wine of the Year by James Halliday, and rated 99 points by Robert Parker’s Wine Advocates. And well, we couldn’t contain our curiosity, given the write-up.
The Henschke family own vineyards in three of the major growing regions of South Australia, these being the Barossa Valley, Eden Valley and Adelaide Hills, arguably some of the best terroir this sprawling continent has to offer. To gain some perspective here is a quick overview: Australia has 6 wine regions, primarily situated at the very southern tips of the continent, making up a very, very small percentage of the actual land mass. In very simple terms South Australia, where the Henschke family is based, is known for its Shiraz and Cabernet blends. While Western Australia does Bordeaux blends and unoaked Chardonnay. Victoria does cool climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. And even though Queensland was originally thought to be too hot to produce wine grapes, a few perceptive grape growers have since started planting at higher altitudes with cooler climates and rich volcanic soils to produce a number of exciting Cabernet, Shiraz, Chardonnay and Viognier. New South Wales was Australia’s first grape growing region with the first vines planted in 1788 (almost a hundred years AFTER vines were first planted in the Cape of Good Hope), and is seen as the birthplace of Australian wine as vines were then distributed to other regions; it is also home to the famous Hunter Valley just outside Sydney. Tasmania, one of the most intriguing to me, is an island state, known for its cool climate varietals such as Pinot noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc, as well as Méthode Tasmanoise, which we recently discovered by way of Jansz. The three South Australian growing regions the Henschke family cultivate also represent very specific wine styles. You will often find Eden Valley grapes being blended with Barossa Valley grapes in order to temper the tannins and offer age-ability. See the Barossa and Eden Valleys are situated right next to each other, where the Barossa Valley offers some of the most powerful Shiraz in the world, with BIG fruit flavours, BIG tannins, HIGH alcohol levels and a punch of tobacco and earthiness. The Eden Valley is situated on a chain of hills called the Mount Lofty Ranges (which to our untrained ear sounds like a Care Bear reference), the elevation causing a cooler climate that imparts a bit more acidity to the resulting wine, making their Shiraz a bit more elegant, with a delicate fruity flavour that explains the blending practices between the two. Not to MENTION Eden Valley’s bone dry Rieslings. The Hill of Grace is located here, overlooked by a Lutheran church named for the region in Silesia the family hails from, Gnadenberg. Adelaide Hills is said to be beautiful countryside, with rolling hills and meadows of sheep as far as the eye can see. Much cooler than the other two areas it is known for its oak-aged white wines (see Henschke Croft Chardonnay 2015).
Of Australia, the travel author, Bill Bryson writes: “It has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. Of the world’s ten most poisonous snakes, all are Australian. Five of its creatures - the funnel web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick, and stonefish - are the most lethal of their type in the world. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, where seashells will not just sting you but actually sometimes go for you… If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback. It’s a tough place.” Given the many dangers, it would seem a great accomplishment surviving and thriving here, especially for the six generations the Henschke family has done. But then their history would suggest no other outcome. It was Johann Christian Henschke, who in 1841 boarded a ship from Silesia (yes, we hadn’t heard of it either but it is a region of Central Europe with small parts in the Czech Republic, Germany and Poland) to South Australia. The voyage took 98 days , during which his wife, a son and daughter passed away. He arrived in Australia with his two remaining children and set about surviving. Eventually remarrying and purchasing land in the Barossa Range, he produced his first vintages of Riesling and Shiraz for sale in 1868. From there the family has retained a tangible link with their German roots, current owner and winemaker Stephen Henschke and his wife Prue (acting viticulturist at Henschke) having spent two years working at the Geisenheim Institute of Viticulture and Wine Technology; and by his own admission, allowing Old World tradition to influence his winemaking techniques, coupled with New World technology. Their eldest son and the next winemaker at Henschke, Johann, also completed a Masters in Viticulture and Oenology at Geisenheim, ensuring the winemaking style is passed on yet again.
And passed on it has been, winningly, given the very many 90+ ratings awarded their various wines (out of 39 wines in total, at last count). The sheer number of wines are unsurprising given the number of different vineyards, including the celebrated Mount Edelstone Vineyard, pioneered by Stephen’s father, Cyril. Producing award wining Shiraz, it is the deep red-brown clay-loam to clay soils that produce low yields from the 100 year-old, dry-grown, ungrafted vines. We’ve come to the conclusion that the ‘art’ of the 99 points awarded their latest two Hill of Grace Vintages is a combination of grit, heritage, scientific know-how, passion, curiosity and people, which when they come together, are bound to produce something extraordinary. For future reference, should you wish to know what a 99 point rating reads like, here is the full excerpt from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, Lisa Perrotti-Brown, on the 2010 Henschke Hill of Grace, which by some happy coincidence we have available right here. We’d suggest cellaring, but don’t take our word for it:
“Medium garnet in colour, the 2010 Shiraz Hill of Grace reveals a slightly reticent yet beguiling nose of kirsch, dried mulberries and plum preserves with nuances of star anise, potpourri, cloves, dusty earth and menthol. Medium to full-bodied with youthfully taut, mouth-filling perfumed berry preserves and exotic spice flavours, the fruit is well framed by rounded, polished tannins and seamless freshness, finishing with incredible length. It could still benefit from 2-4 years in bottle before entering its drinking window but is already stunning.” - 99 Points, Lisa Perrotti-Brown, Wine Advocate