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Henschke - Celebrates 150 Years

It was a Wednesday morning in the middle of June and it looked and felt like winter had taken its grip in the City of Churches. As a luxury bus picked us up from the centre of Adelaide, the weather was dire, with torrential rain lashing horizontally at the windows. Normally, I’d have holed up in my hotel room, but not today. Sixteen lucky scribes, including yours truly, had been invited to a special tasting at one of Australia’s icon wineries and this was an opportunity too good to miss.

The normally beautiful drive up to the Adelaide Hills was cloaked in cloud, but things soon brightened up at our first destination. Taking cover in a small shed on the Henschke Lenswood vineyard, we were greeted by Stephen and Prue Henschke, fifth generation custodians of this magnificent wine brand. 

A glass of Johanne Ida Selma Blanc de Noir was served, harvested from the very vineyard we were standing in, and as a nod to their German heritage, we were offered a laugenbrötchen (pretzel roll) with a choice of either bacon and egg, or smoked salmon filling. With a temperature of eight degrees, the former was the obvious choice and what a wonderful match it was with the glass of quality Lenswood fizz.

Let the celebrations begin

Sated and excited for what was to come, we headed off for the main event – a celebration of 150 years of Henschke Wines. 

The Henschkes’ Australian history started back in the 1840s when the family escaped religious persecution in their homeland, journeyed to the bottom of the world and established new lives deep in the Barossa ranges. 

Since then, few have attained the remarkable success of this talented family, whose flagship wine is now regarded by the international cognoscenti as one of the world’s greats. But more on that later.

To whet the palate, we commenced with the latest releases – an eclectic range of whites and reds, including Riesling, Grüner Veltliner, Sauvignon Blanc, Nebbiolo, Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, and unique Mediterranean blends. The diversity of the Henschke range soon became apparent, as did their unique ability to make great quality wines, vintage after vintage. 

The first masterclass finished with a new release wine, The Wheelwright Shiraz 2015, a tribute to founding father, Johann Christian Henschke, first generation winemaker and a skilled stonemason and wheelwright. 

It’s made from fruit grown on the Eden Valley Estate vineyard, which was planted in 1968 by Stephen’s father and fourth generation winemaker, Cyril, and the vines are ungrafted and biodynamically grown. The result is a stunning wine with perfume and spice aromas and attractive vanillin oak. Licorice and herbs dominate with notes of sage and pepper. Elegant and plush, it’s a class act befitting the founder’s vision. Drink now by all means, but The Wheelwright 2015 will still be a pleasure in 30 years.

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Grace in the glass

Next came the pièce de résistance – a vertical of six vintages of the iconic Hill of Grace Shiraz. This now legendary wine was created by Cyril Henschke in 1958 when, incredibly, the vines were already 100 years old. As Stephen remarked, “I can’t think of any other single vineyard wine that had its first vintage from centenarian vines and has been continued to be made for another 55 years.”

The tasting started with the acclaimed 1962 vintage, and included 1972, 1986, 1996, 2002 and 2013. As for the 1958, Stephen explained that the odd bottle he still has is affected by crumbling corks, so not worthy of the occasion. 

It would be remiss not to provide some commentary on these priceless museum wines, as this tasting was truly a once-in-a- lifetime opportunity. The 62 was simply sublime. Sure, it was showing a brown rim in the glass, but you could forgive a wine for that at 56 years of age! Roasted coffee, malt, mocha, earth, leather and spice. Delicate, elegant, still alive and well.

The 72 also showed a brown rim and had earthy farmyard notes. On the palate, it showed a complex array of flavours – Christmas cake fruits, leather, stewed prunes, tar and roses. A sheer delight.

It was proclaimed as one of the vintages of the century and the 1986 Hill of Grace proved why. Showing much less age than the previous wines, it had attractive five spice and herbs on the nose. The palate was rich and still concentrated with leather, sage and pepper. Still vibrant, it has many years of life ahead, so if you have any in your home cellar, certainly don’t be in a rush to drink them.

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The 96 presented youthful plums and raspberries, with five spice again, tar and a touch of leather, prunes, licorice and mocha. With lovely balance, structure, acidity and great length, it’s only just beginning to show its potential.

The first vintage of Hill of Grace to move away from cork closure to screwcap was 2002 and Stephen Henschke lamented he hadn’t made this change earlier; his own research shows that screwcaps are far superior in so many ways to cork. The wine didn’t disappoint with red and blue fruit aromas, rich, ripe and concentrated flavours in the mouth. Pristine and powerful – keep till 2035 if you can.

Finally came the newly launched 2013 vintage, which Stephen introduced as follows: “We have chosen ‘Faith’ to describe our 55th vintage of Hill of Grace, the 2013. We certainly needed it as we prayed for rain. 

“This is a vintage graced not just by our faith in this brief moment in time, but by the generations who came before us in the gardens of Eden. Faith led my great-great-grandfather across the world in 1841 to settle here and faith has sustained the Henschke generations who followed.”

It was vibrant purple in the glass with lashings of perfectly ripened fruit, licorice, tar and garden herbs. Such a pleasure, it demonstrated why this wine is famous the world over. Sadly, it will be hard to get, as the 2013 is one of the smallest makes in decades.

A legendary lunch

Over a five course lunch, the taste sensations continued. Paul Baker from Adelaide’s Botanic Gardens had set up a make-shift kitchen in the cellar and for the main, he matched the 2013 Hill of Grace with free range duck breast over charcoal, confit leg, farro, egg yolk and umeboshi leaves (a local native plant). Divine!

We were treated to many other museum wines over lunch, which highlighted again the diversity, quality and consistency of Henschke wines. Highlights for me included more vintages of Hill of Grace – 1973 and 1978 – both wonderful curios, which have aged gracefully. The 1978 vintage was clearly cracking at Henschke, as we were treated to three other wines from that year – a Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz and the acclaimed Cyril Cabernet Sauvignon. All showed attractive leather, five spice, mocha and an elegance and subtlety that had you yearning for another glass. Simply stunning.

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Boarding the bus back to Adelaide, it struck me that I had just experienced one of the greatest days of my 30 years in the wine industry. Here’s to another 150! 

Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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