Henschke’s Hill of Grace - The Garden of Eden 


Henschke’s Shiraz Hill of Grace exemplifies human triumph and perseverance over 160 years, dealing with blood, sweat, tears and an unforgiving landscape. Hill of Grace embodies an entire family’s journey, first uprooted from their European homeland and delivered to the far end of the earth. Gradually, over five generations, the Henschkes worked their way into Australian wine folklore.

“Hill of Grace” is a charming title for one of Australia’s greatest vineyards, yet it obscures a darker past of 19th-century Lutheran refugees fleeing Europe for a mysterious land. The early Barossan settlers who traveled by ship from Northern Germany could be forgiven for rethinking their decision as they set sail for a new world. Merely surviving the journey on the pounding seas was the first of many challenges. Unfortunately, thousands did not make it.

Johann Christian Henschke was among those to chance their arm and set sail in 1841. He survived, but his wife Appolonia Wilhelmine and children Johann Friedrich and Johanne Luise died during the journey. After the harrowing ordeal, Henschke and his two surviving sons arrived in Adelaide, South Australia, which was little more than a trading post at the time. Baking, withering summers and a frontier life no doubt came as a shock to them. Their only source of solace during those challenging times was the musical instruments they brought from home.

It took another twenty years for the Henschkes to enter the world of wine. Christian Henschke first purchased land, only possible after he took an Oath of Allegiance to South Australia, on the Barossa Valley floor at Krondorf. But, in 1862, the Henschkes moved up into the Barossa Ranges and the Eden Valley. They purchased land in what is now named Keyneton. There the family followed the trend of their German homeland, creating a small mixed farm that included a cellar and vineyard of Riesling, with some interloper Shiraz in the mix. The inaugural Henschke vintage was 1868, only two decades after the first wines were made in Barossa.

The Henschke Hill of Grace vineyard.

The Eden Valley

The choice to purchase land in the Eden Valley was curious at the time. The Barossa Valley’s richness and natural fertility make farming easier, with more generous yields. In contrast, the Eden Valley has meager soils and, at 400m altitude, a cooler continental climate. Perhaps the area’s frosty nights and biting winters were more familiar and provided a taste of home. Or maybe the Henschkes had plans for a vineyard and thought that land where summer nights sometimes fail to hit ten degrees Celsius might be better suited to vines. They did not know then that they had settled in an area with some soils over 140 million years old. It proved an inspired choice, but it would take more than a century for the rewards to come.

Initially, wine was nothing more than a small part of the Henschke enterprise. The Henschkes were industrious, God-fearing people. Son Paul Gotthard was the organist at the Gnadenberg Lutheran Church. Perhaps the land’s position close to their place of worship led Gotthard to purchase a farm across the road in 1891. It included a small plot of vines planted 30 years before by Nicolaus Stanitzki, whose family would later become tied to the Henschkes in marriage. Today, these dry-grown vines remain gnarled and worn thanks to 160 summers and winters, although they are in surprisingly good shape. The vineyard is named after the Lutheran Church that watches over them, Gnadenberg, which roughly translates to hill of blessings or hill of grace. While it is probably a coincidence or related to the lunar cycles, harvest at Hill of Grace almost invariably occurs within days of the Easter full moon.

The Henschkes were not the only ones drawn to the area by the church and its bucolic backdrop. The small village of Parrot Hill slowly emerged in 1866 with a Post Office and school, all across a still dirt track from the Hill of Grace vineyard. Yet, the village never took off and was abandoned by 1880. The only remnants of the time are the Post Office ruins. It is almost a blessing as the vineyard could have become a casualty of a growing town.

From there, generation after generation of the Henschke family has added to their legacy. Paul Alfred Henschke was the first to focus on the wine trade, greatly extending the cellar and vineyard as demand for fortified wines grew. However, it was the fourth generation, Cyril Henschke, who put the pursuit of quality front and center.

Embracing a Single Vineyard Vision

The actual breakthrough moment for the estate was not with Hill of Grace, but with its stablemate, Mount Edelstone Shiraz. The Mount Edelstone vineyard, also located in the Eden Valley, was first developed by the Angas family. George Fife Angas was considered the father and founder of South Australia and had significant land holdings. Angas’ grandson planted the vineyard in 1912 and, in the early 1950s, offered its fruit to the Henschkes. Cyril Henschke crafted the groundbreaking 1952 Mount Edelstone Shiraz, one of Australia's first modern single vineyard wines. This fabled wine swept all before it, winning numerous prizes at leading local shows. It also gave Cyril Henschke the confidence to bottle Henschke’s first Hill of Grace from the 1958 vintage. Fascinatingly, Cyril was not only an innovator in the winery. During his tenure, Henschke also opened Cyril’s Wine Bar on Rundle Street in Adelaide during the 1960s, where no doubt early Hill of Grace vintages were going for a song.

Miraculously, early vintages, including the 1958, are still drinking superbly even though winemakers at the time did not have a playbook for creating wines built for the cellar. These wines were aged in older oak, and by the 1960s, a submerged cap with header boards was used for extraction, which continues to this day. These older vintages are ever so slightly rustic, a feature of the times.

The Hill of Grace vineyard did not stay stagnant after its purchase in 1891. The adjoining block to the old vines was planted in 1910, and in 1951, 1952 and 1956, three more blocks of Shiraz were added. Total plantings for the Hill of Grace Shiraz are small and make up only four hectares, with 0.89 hectares planted before 1911. Cyril Henschke was clearly already convinced that Henschke’s future lay in the Hill of Grace soils. Shiraz was the mainstay but was not alone. Today, the Hill of Grace vineyard includes 1952 Sémillon plantings, Riesling from 1954 and 1961 and Mataro from 1956. In addition, new Shiraz plantings were added in 1965, 1989 and 1997. All Shiraz vines in the Hill of Grace vineyard are pre-phylloxera clones planted on their own roots. Today, Hill of Grace is a pinnacle wine for Henschke, with the winery largely focused on single vineyard offerings from the Barossa and, more recently, the Adelaide Hills.

Primed to Shine

Stephen Henschke took over from Cyril in 1979. Here Henschke’s Hill of Grace takes an exciting turn thanks partly to Stephen Henschke’s wife, Prue Weir, a renowned viticulturist and botanist. Like many other vineyards in the 1960s and 1970s, Hill of Grace had moved away from organic viticulture, but this was about to change.

Weir brought new ideas to both trellising and overall vineyard management. Henschke was one of the first Australian wine companies to wholeheartedly embrace a wide range of organic and biodynamic practices, treating each vineyard like a garden with its own unique requirements. Along with biodynamic preparations, promoting soil health and biodiversity through mulches and permanent swards is key. The original 1860 grandfather vines are particularly cared for to keep them in good stead for the next generation. All this work is done with an eye on the changing climate to maximize fruit quality while ensuring that soil moisture remains more than adequate for these dry-grown vineyards.

Part of that overall process is regeneration and ensuring that the clonal material is maintained. The emerging field of epigenetics illustrates that older vines can change to accommodate their environment. Weir and her team completed a significant project identifying which old vines have best acclimatized to produce fruit with the finest flavor and color characteristics. This material was planted out in the more recent plots on the Hill of Grace vineyard and will also be used to replace old vines as required, continuing that vital legacy of pre-phylloxera clonal material.

It is essential to recognize that alongside Weir’s viticultural improvements in the vineyard, Stephen Henschke has similarly focused on tightening up every element of the winemaking process, which is most evident in vintages since the turn of the century. Henschke’s work is often lost in the mystique of the Hill of Grace vineyard. Still, this vertical tasting, stretching back to the first 1958 vintage, emphatically illustrates the upward trajectory of the wines during his tenure. Cyril Henschke’s aspirations for the wine have been met and exceeded, with greater precision in the winemaking, more consistent fruit quality and a finer use of oak. The great vintages are beautifully manicured with undisputed power but also, dare I say it, grace and harmony. Part of this, no doubt, also comes from introducing screwcaps from the 2002 vintage, only adding to purity and longevity.

That said, winemaking for Hill of Grace is pretty traditional. Fruit from the various blocks is handpicked and fermented separately in open-top fermenters with header boards, a submerged cap with regular pump-overs and no extended maceration. The heart of the wine remains the 1860 grandfather vines with small additions from vines over 100, 70 and 35 years old. Pressings are retained for the final wine, although that has not always been the case. They were often sold off in the past, giving greater density to more recent vintages. Wines are now aged for 18 months in French and American oak hogsheads, 20% new, with an approximate 80/20 split. Curiously, Henschke has stuck with American oak, which is becoming less fashionable in higher-echelon wines from the Barossa. Importantly, its use has changed over the years. However, oak is seldom noticeable as Henschke has moved away from locally coopered hogsheads, as the drier conditions in Australia tend to give quite different flavor profiles.

The Wines

This recent Hill of Grace vertical tasting presented the 2018 vintage release. Hill of Grace was made in most vintages except 1960, 1974, 2000 and 2011. The bottles, all drawn from the family cellar, were served chronologically from oldest to youngest. While vintage variation has lessened over the years, the site’s pedigree was on display from the earliest vintages. The 1958, 1961 and 1962 are stunning examples of the era, made largely from vines close to 100 years old. As we moved through the decades, alcohol and ripeness slowly increased, from an average of 12.5% in the 1980s to 13.7% in the 1990s, with 14.5% being the norm since then. While this gave the wines a greater density of fruit, the Eden Valley location and old vines still generally held their line and focus. In fact, that added ripeness has given the best vintages greater weight and structure while maintaining fruit complexity. From 2002 forward, the Henschkes’ work in the cellar and vineyard provides incredible fruit consistency and a greater sheen and composure to the wines. The hotter years are certainly more of a feature in the last two decades, bringing a muscular shape to the wines, but thoughtful winemaking and picking decisions have helped protect them from the worst of the season.

In recent years, the Hill of Grace vineyard stable has also grown, with the addition of the Hill of Peace Sémillon, from 1952 plantings and the Hill of Roses Shiraz, from 1989 plantings. Reviews for these wines will be published in my Barossa report later this year.

All wines were tasted at the winery in February 2023 to commemorate 60 years since the first Hill of Grace vintage.

See the wines in the order tasted.

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