While many may argue about just which individual wine represents Australia’s finest expression of Shiraz, few could argue that when considering top producers of Australian Shiraz, Henschke shouldn’t be on the short list.
For more than 140 years, across five generations, the Henschke family has been growing grapes and making wine in a little corner of the hills surrounding the Barossa Valley. For the last 30 years, the winery has been run by Stephen Henschke and his wife Prue, with increasing help from their children.
The history of the Henschke family is in many ways the history of the Barossa Valley. Stephen’s great-great-grandfather was one of the original Germanic (technically Silesian) settlers to the area who fled religious persecution and settled en-masse in the Barossa Valley. Johann Christian Henschke arrived in 1841, settling first in the Adelaide Hills area, and then later in the Barossa township of Bethany, where he helped source fruit tree cuttings and vine cuttings for the local community.
Eventually he bought property for his son, Paul Gotthard Henschke in the region that would become Barossa’s Eden Valley — a crumpled zone of geologic messiness that makes for rolling hills and small vales with lots of different soil types. Together they built a house, and then in 1860, a small stone winery, with the goal of becoming a fully self-sustaining homestead. They planted Riesling and Shiraz and settled down to continue the family line.
At one point there were six or seven small wineries in the little township nearby, but only one managed to survive the depression. And Henschke has been going strong ever since. Like most Australian wineries in the 19th Century and the early parts of the 20th, Henschke produced sweet, fortified wines that were in demand around the world, and could easily withstand the hardships of export by sea without microbial problems. But in the 1950’s interest in dry table wine began to emerge in Australia, and Paul Gotthard Henschke’s grandson Cyril began experimenting with some of the old vine Shiraz on the property, which by that time were already 100 years old.
In 1952 Cyril made a dry Shiraz from his Mt. Edelston vineyard, and in 1958 he made the first single-vineyard wine from a vineyard named Gnadenberg, which means “Hill of Grace,” after the old Lutheran church which lies just across the road from the vineyard. Cyril would go on to be a pioneer of dry table wine in the Barossa Valley, and one of the winemakers responsible for the worldwide recognition of Australian Shiraz as a serious wine. And the Hill of Grace would go on to become one of the single most famous Australian vineyards, which it remains today — its own-rooted Shiraz vines now more than 145 years old.
Stephen Henschke expressed interest in winemaking as a young man, and went abroad to study in Germany in the mid 1970s. He met his wife Prue there in a botany class. “She and her sister were great cooks. I was in the skin diving club and loved catching abalone, so I’d bring some over and there would be lots of good seafood to eat. We always had a bottle of wine nearby and we had a great time. At first we were just good friends, but as my study abroad was coming to a close, I realized I didn’t want to leave her behind,” says Henschke. In addition to a lovely wife, Henschke also got a partner in wine. Trained as both a botanist and a zoologist, Prue studied viticulture and wine assessment in Germany, and has become the driving force behind the continual improvements in viticulture at Henschke for the past thirty years.
On their return to the family farm, and upon the death of Stephen’s father Cyril, the two put together a 10-year plan for their family winery that included everything from improving the quality of oak they used, to eventually eliminating the chemical fertilizers and pesticides used in their vineyards. Prue and Stephen are now on their third or fourth such plan, which will likely be implemented in part by one of their sons, Johann, who is currently studying to become a winemaker in Montpelier, France.
To the extent possible, the wines keep getting better. The viticulture continues to move farther down the spectrum of sustainable, and in 2009 100% of the family’s vineyards were on track for organic certification, and were being treated with a number of biodynamic preparations. The winemaking continues to feature very little intervention, with open-top fermenters, ambient yeasts, no fining, and minimal filtration. Notably, Henschke used its last cork in the 2004 vintage. Every wine since has been bottled with a screwcap.
There are a number of historic winemaking families in Australia that have successfully continued operations from the 19th century until the present, but there are very few who have reached, and then held the heights of quality that Henschke continues to achieve. Their wines are highly recommended.
2009 Henschke “Julius” Riesling, Eden Valley
Pale gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of bright, unripe pear aromas that mingle with scents of bright lemon zest and flowers. I the mouth it is quite mineral-driven and floral, with just hints of lemon and lime zest, and a clean pear fruit. Faint tangerine skin notes linger on the finish. From a single vineyard of 50-year-old vines in the deep soils of Eden Valley. Score: around 9. Cost: $28 Click to buy.
(Note: 2009 vintage not yet available in the USA).
2002 Henschke “Julius” Riesling, Eden Valley
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells lightly of petrol and paraffin with hints of orange marmalade and even a bit of green melon. In the mouth the wine is bright and delicate with apple and pear flavors mixed with fine floral notes. Excellent acidity and balance. The finish has this wonderfully sour character that makes me want to drink more. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2002 Henschke “Louis” Semillon, Eden Valley
Light greenish-gold in the glass, this wine smells of bright candied lemon and fantastic floral aromas that waft dreamily about. In the mouth it has fantastic texture and an incredible electric lemon quality, that catapults the taste buds into wild paroxysms of excitement. Perfectly balanced with incredibly crackling acidity, the wine offers a nuttiness with a vanilla note on the finish. Made from 50-year-old-vines, this wine will age beautifully for decades. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $25 Click to buy.
2008 Henschke “Louis” Semillon, Eden Valley
Pale greenish-gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of kiwi fruit and green grass. In the mouth it offers wonderful kiwi flavors with bracing acidity, and wonderful lemon juice flavors that have a hint of waxiness to them. Bright, fresh, and exiting on the tongue. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $25 Click to buy.
2009 Henschke “Joseph Hill” Gewurztraminer, Eden Valley
Light greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of candied mandarin oranges and wonderful floral scents that are hard to pin down. In the mouth the wine is bright and smooth on the palate, with mandarin orange and wet slate flavors, that shift to orange zest on the finish. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
1996 Henschke Mount Edelston Shiraz, Eden Valley
Medium ruby in the glass with hints of brick color at the edge, this wine smells wonderfully of smoked bacon and black olives. In the mouth the wine is deliciously savory, with black olive and chocolate flavors mixing with exotic incense. The fruit has faded to a prune and chocolate confection with notes of stewed cherries. Wonderfully dark and deep with great acidity, the wine, made from 90-year-old vines, reminds me of the atmosphere of an old wood paneled library well worn with comfort. Score: around 9 . Cost: $90. Click to buy.
1996 Henschke Hill of Grace Shiraz, Eden Valley
Medium ruby in color with a slight orange hue on the edge, this wine smells of beautiful green herbs with a minty cast to them mixed with a wet dirt and black olive scent. In the mouth the wine has an incredible savory black olive, dried cherry, chocolate, and wet redwood bark quality. A note of sherried vanilla lingers on the finish. Faint, sculpted tannins emerge over time. Lovely. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $350. Click to buy.
1996 Henschke “Cyril Henschke” Cabernet Sauvignon, Eden Valley
Medium ruby in color, this wine has a nose of stewed prunes and stewed cherry aromas with hints of cocoa powder. In the mouth the wine still has quite pushy, muscular tannins that clutch flavors of dried cherries, cocoa powder, black olives, and black licorice in their suede fist. Very nice acidity still lingers in the glass, with a woody quality that remains in the finish. Score: around 9. Cost: $75 Click to buy.
2006 Henschke “Hill of Grace” Shiraz, Eden Valley
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a compelling nose of roasted espresso, graphite, black cherry and plum fruit aromas. In the mouth, black plum and blackberry fruit have a stony earthiness mixed with a faint trace of saline and black olive savoriness into which a bit of anise creeps. A deep dark chocolate quality emerges from the perfectly balanced acidity and the most finely grained, supple tannins to linger with an umami character in the finish. Impeccably balanced and fantastic. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $unknown, as it is not yet released in the USA. It will likely retail for somewhere north of $250. Click to buy other vintages.
2007 Henschke “Cyril Henschke” Cabernet Sauvignon, Eden Valley
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of slightly briary cherry and plum aromas with a lively sweet note to them. In the mouth it has a fantastic aromatic sweetness that lingers over cherry and chocolate flavors with a slight saline/soy sauce quality that is just an undercurrent to add complexity without detracting from the fruit. A wonderful plummy espresso quality lingers in the finish. Very gulpable. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $90 Click to buy. (Note: 2007 vintage not yet released in the USA).
2001 Henschke “Hill of Roses” Shiraz, Eden Valley
This wine, the first vintage of a vineyard planted with cuttings made from the famous Hill of Grace vineyard, is medium ruby in the glass with hints of brick at the edge. It smells of pencil lead, well oiled leather, and kalamata olives. In the mouth the wine is wonderfully balanced with a medley of kalamata olive, black cherry, and minty chocolate flavors. This chocolate quality that lingers with an anise note into the finish. Lightly grippy tannins with very nice acidity make this a truly pleasurable wine. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2008 Henschke “Hill of Faith” Mataro, Eden Valley
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of root beer and grapey cassis aromas with a remarkable note of cinnamon. In the mouth, the wine is juicy and bright with voluminous tannins and fantastic acidity. Rich flavors of mulberry, anise, and chocolate dominate, while cassis lingers on the finish. This wine comes from a tiny block of 60-year-old Mataro or Mourvedre grapes in the Hill of Grace vineyard. This wine is not publicly available, and was made to commemorate the tiny church that stands opposite the Hill of Grace vineyard, which is, in turn named after the Church. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Not for retail sale.