Walking through the Hill of Grace vineyard in the historic hamlet of Parrot Hill in South Australia’s Eden Valley, with glimpses of towering blue gums and the Gnadenberg spire between the vine rows, is akin to strolling through a much-loved garden.
The oldest vines, rather than looking tired and fruitless, are productive with vitality and strength. Prue Henschke, botanist and lauded viticulturist of the family owned Henschke, one of the world’s most respected wine labels, has nurtured the vineyard for decades. The land has been in the wider Henschke family for most of the past 150 years. With ancient soils and 8ha of vineyard, it is a complex mosaic of vines, including eight precious shiraz plots. As we nip between blocks of varying age, Prue quips, “You can’t get old vines without planting new ones.” The same could be said for vignerons, with six generations of wine producers in the Henschke lineage.
The stable of vineyards Prue presides over is extraordinary, with the oldest vines dating back to the 1800s. Husband Stephen oversees the winemaking and has done so for more than 40 years. When I comment on the integrity, clarity and exquisite proportions of the Henschke wines, he replies, “I am married to a very fussy viticulturist.”
Nicolaus Stanitzky, with his wife Rosalie and three children, arrived in Australia from Prussia on the ship the George Washington in 1844. They first lived in Hahndorf, then Blumberg (now called Birdwood) before heading north to Moculta; later Nicolaus bought various parcels of land in the Parrot Hill area between 1867 and 1873. Mixed farming was common for early Silesian settlers, and Stanitzky is believed to have planted the first vines on the land now known as the Hill of Grace vineyard.
In 1891 the land, described as having a good vineyard, went up for sale. It was purchased by Paul ‘Gotthardt’ Henschke, son of Henschke wines founder Johann Christian Henschke. Gotthardt increased the shiraz plantings on the property in 1910, now known as Post Office Block 1, due to their proximity to the village ruins. After Gotthardt’s death in 1914, the land was inherited by his son Julius ‘Philip’ Henschke, who was married to Stanitzky’s granddaughter, Ida Maria. She inherited the property in 1928 when Philip died and held it until 1947. In the following five years, the property changed hands three times, landing with Louis Edmund Henschke. Not only was he the great-grandson of Stanitzky but he was also brother to winemaker Cyril Henschke of Henschke wines.
Louis, a bell-ringer at the Gnadenberg church, increased the shiraz plantings between 1951 and 1965, and during the same period, planted riesling, semillon, mataro and sercial, though the latter has since been replaced with shiraz. He was an intuitive grape-grower with a delicate touch who disliked herbicides and loved soils. “He was a man of the dirt,” reflects Prue fondly, “and an incredibly good resource for me.”
The grapes from the property went to Henschke wines, 4km away and in 1958, Cyril made the inaugural Hill of Grace Shiraz, the pinnacle of the range and heralded ever since for its intense flavours and single-site status. Stephen took over the winemaking, aged 29, after his father Cyril’s premature death in 1979.
The six oldest, dry-grown, own-rooted shiraz plots, totalling 4ha, go into Hill of Grace Shiraz. There is a diversity of vine age, planting stock, orientation, soil, and microclimate, with corresponding harvest date and character differences. The six plots are: Grandfathers, 1800s, 0.56ha, 604 vines (vigorous vines with big berries with thick skins, and generous – concentrated flavours and structure); Post Office 1, 1910, 0.33ha, 604 vines (large berries, dense bunches – bright blue fruits and five-spice); House, 1951, 1.08ha, 970 vines (small berries, dark fruit with structural tannins – sage and pepper accents); Church, 1952, 0.74ha, 750 vines (small berries, plummy fruit – spice and velvety tannins); Windmill, 1956, 0.7ha, 612 vines (vigorous vines – red fruit with leafy notes); and Post Office 2, 1965, 0.5ha, 332 vines (small berries and open bunches – red and blue fruit, with sage, anise, pepper and fine tannins). Prue and Stephen Henschke planted a further two shiraz blocks: Post Office 3, 1989, 0.94ha 769 vines; and Church 2, 1997, 0.32ha, 430 vines.
Post Office Block 3 is a mass selection of the best performing old shiraz vines from the block, as selected by Prue and Louis, and is currently bottled as a single vineyard wine called Hill of Roses. When this block comes of age, it will be eligible for inclusion into Hill of Grace. Church Block 2 was Prue’s selection from the Grandfathers. The slow, deliberate renewal process will ensure the longevity of the vineyard well beyond the lives of the current custodians. And importantly, it will preserve the precious genetic stock of the pre-phylloxera vines.
Prue and Stephen took over managing the vineyard in 1990 after Louis’ death, building on his core philosophies, with soil health and biodiversity at the heart of all decisions. Biodynamic principles are central to the vineyard’s management, including referencing the astral calendar before all critical decisions. Biodynamic preparations are made by Prue for composting and sprays, including maturing cow manure and ground eggshells in half wine barrels buried at the back of her garden.
Beneficial native plants are planted around the edge of the vineyard, which aids pest control, and Prue has introduced permanent mid-row swards and straw mulch under vine. Re-trellising has improved fruit exposure, lowered disease and has enhanced colour and tannin development. Careful pruning, protecting the live wood, has allowed the vines to maintain their health in their old age.
The soils are sandy-to-silty loam over clay-rich loam, with an additional alluvial layer near the creek. The House Block is particularly free-draining due to the scree layer 30cm beneath the vines. Rainfall in an average year is 520mm, and the altitude of the site is 400m. The average yield is around 2.5 tonnes per hectare, and harvest is synchronised with the Easter full moon.
Grapes are handpicked and vinified in traditional open vats using submerged cap fermentation, with twice daily pump-overs plus intermittent delestage. Post-ferment maturation occurs in French oak hogsheads (83% new), plus a small amount of mainly older American oak.
The 2016 Henschke Hill of Grace (A$890) is a thrilling wine, where the barest hint of the aroma informs the drinker of its greatness. Warm Bedouin spices evoke mysterious images of ancient lands, while the sumptuous mid-palate fruit communicates its Eden Valley origin. Melodic marshmallow and star anise chants add accents to the concentrated mulberry and boysenberry flavours. Supporting the fruit are lace-like tannins with the appropriate tensile strength to see the wine through its multi-decade-long journey. As always, the palate exhibits a pleasing contradiction between tenacity and decorum. It is a distinguished wine with few parallels.
The gravity of stepping foot onto the Hill of Grace vineyard can cause a wine lover’s heart to skip a beat. The vineyard gives off an air of timelessness, though it is constantly in a state of evolution. The intuition and skill of the current hard-working custodians, combined with the legacy of its forebears, creates an aspirational wine that all must try at least once in their lifetime. And any serious wine collection, no matter where on the globe, would be incomplete without it.