When I could not get to Australia for Henschke winery's massive 40-vintage tasting of its signature wine earlier this year, the iconic Shiraz Hill of Grace, Stephen Henschke offered to bring a few of the older vintages to me when he came for the New York Wine Experience.
He seemed distracted as he decanted the five vintages. The vagaries of corks and long-cellared wines being what they are, Stephen had already opened second bottles of two of the wines. Alas, in one case (the 1986) neither of the two bottles was what it should have been. This is why Henschke started bottling its wines under twist-offs in 2001, including Hill of Grace, among the two or three most expensive wines on release in Australia.
Stephen has been the winemaker (and his wife, Prue, the vineyard manager) since 1998, although both were well-involved in the business before that. He represents the fifth generation of the Henschke family. His great-great-grandfather Johann Christian Henschke arrived in South Australia from Silesia (now mostly in Poland) in 1841, in search of religious freedom. The family found it, settling at Keyneton, in Eden Valley, and planting grapevines in 1862 as part of their farm, making their first commercial wines in 1868.
The Henschkes acquired the 80-acre Hill of Grace vineyard, named after the Lutheran church across the road from it, in 1891. Prue still coaxes remarkable grapes from the core planting of original Shiraz vines, dating from the 1860s and planted on their own roots in the sandy soils. Known as the grandfather block, these vines have massive trunks and gnarled shapes. I have tasted tiny, nearly ripe grapes off these vines, and the concentration and flavor definition is eye-popping. These are the heart and soul of the Hill of Grace bottling, which includes wines made from the somewhat younger vines in the rows surrounding them.
Hill of Grace, by the way, is on flat ground, not a hill. it's named after the Lutheran church across the road, Gnadenberg (which translates to "hill of grace" from the German).
Stephen's father, Cyril Henschke, is credited with bottling the first single-vineyard wines in Australia. The first, in 1952, was from the family's Mount Edelstone vineyard, an actual sloping vineyard just over the hill. Hill of Grace saw its first separate bottling in 1958.
In the tasting in Australia "the older wines were more revered by the tasters than I expected them to be," Henschke noted. Included among them were the first two wines we tasted (all non-blind).
The Henschke Shiraz Hill of Grace 1973 (91 points) showed beautiful color, still with a red bloom, and a lovely delicate texture. I caught some animal notes under complex tastes of cherry and dry underbrush, the long finish picking up hints of dried blueberry. Extremely long and elegant.
A lovely core of youthful fruit and spice enlivened the complex, harmonious 1986 (93 points). The better of the two bottles featured a light buzz of tannins around cherry and mocha spice, the finish holding together, suggesting this has decades to go. It had depth and intensity without weight, but it was missing the length and expressive aftertaste that Stephen expected.
"The smell of these older wines reminds me of my childhood," Stephen mused. "Hill of Grace smells like my grandmother's cloth handbags. We would be taken to church, and my grandmother would have crown mints, peppermints and her makeup in there. It's a very distinctive combination of aromas."
These wines of the 1970s and 1980s were made traditionally. Hand-picked, brought in as separate blocks, fermented in open fermentors under submerged cap. "They probably would have fermented fully in four to five days, but once we got refrigeration (in the 1990s), we could extend that to eight to 10 days," giving the wines finer texture and deeper flavors.
Firm and expressive, the 1990 (98 points) was juicy with bright red and black fruits, harmonious on the finish, finishing with a real tang of acidity. It has wonderful spice notes on the finish to go with magnificent balance and intensity without great weight.
Sleek, supple and appealing, the 2001 (95 points) centered on red cherry and rhubarb flavors, with a minty edge to the tight tannins and tangy balance. The finish persists against sweet fruit, spice and earth. This still has miles to go.
The 2008 (97 points), the current vintage, is simply a majestic wine, already showing the suppleness and balance that it took previous vintages years to attain. A sensuous wine that snakes through the palate, leaving behind clouds of cherry, licorice, exotic spices and bitter chocolate notes.
"I couldn't believe how similar the 1958 and 2008 were (at the tasting at Henschke)," Stephen smiled. "They were both warm years, ripe years, but even at five years old vs. 55 years old you could see the similarities. In a classic Shiraz that core of fruit never goes away, it just evolves."
The biggest change Stephen and Prue have made, he said, is to emphasize the vineyard more. This includes a shift from organic farming practices to biodynamics starting in 2005.
"Once you start having kids, you worry about what you're putting in your mouth," he said. "This is driven by Prue's botanical background and passion. We are making the vineyard healthier and in better condition to pass on to the next generation." Prue has introduced native plants that flower at different times of the year, for example, which helps keep native wasps happy and they, in turn, help control caterpillars and other pests.
In the winery, Henschke doesn't add tannins to the Shiraz, a widespread practice in Australia. It also tries to rely on the grapes' natural acidity in a land where acid additions are common. "We find that [grapes from] these old vines tend to have higher acidity and lower pH, but the young vines do have to be acidified," he allowed. "That's part of the reason old vines make better wines."
Although the wines clearly can develop for decades, Stephen maintained that these wines reach maturity at around 10 years, when the bloom of exuberant youth has subsided and the extra nuances that come from bottle age make their appearance. If that's the case, four of the five wines were already living on borrowed time, and doing rather well.