Fifty shades of Grace
When Cyril Henschke bottled the first Mount Edelstone shiraz, 1952 vintage, as a single vineyard wine he was way ahead of his time.
It’s believed to be the first time anyone in Australia bottled an individual vineyard wine with the name on the label. Six years later, he did the same thing with another Eden Valley vineyard, Hill of Grace 1958. Except for the occasional off vintage, both wines have had a continuous history ever since.
The Henschke family recently celebrated the 50th vintage of Hill of Grace wine with a tasting of every vintage bottled to date. We tasted 1958 through to 2008 (tastings). There were only three gaps: vintages 1960, 1974 and 2000, when seasonal difficulties meant the wine was not bottled.
Cyril Henschke, a Churchill fellow, and his family’s fourth generation winemaker, was a visionary. At 400-500 metres Eden Valley is considerably cooler than the Barossa Valley floor: about 200 metres higher and the cooler climate leads to a harvest delayed by about two weeks. Such a climate is not suitable for fortified wines – ports and sherries – which were the preferred tipple of the day. Cyril Henschke made fortified wines too but his heart was with fine table wines made from shiraz and riesling. Max Schubert made his first experimental Grange Hermitage for Penfolds around the same time, in 1951, and Ron Haselgrove also visited Bordeaux in the same year as Schubert (1950), returning home to make the first of what could have been an iconic line for his employer Mildara: the Yellow Label cabernet shiraz series. It was a time of great change in Australian wine.
The difference at Henschke was that it’s a family owned winery, and being in a kind of backwater at Eden Valley, it was free to follow its own path without the corporate issues that Schubert and Haselgrove, Colin Preece at Seppelt Great Western and other leaders of that era had to deal with.
Even more remarkable in the Henschke story: both Hill of Grace and Mount Edelstone were and are family-owned vineyards. In fact, the Hill of Grace vineyard was already nearing 100 years old when Cyril Henschke – with the help of his brother Louis who looked after the vines – made the 1958.
Hill of Grace is Australia’s most famous single vineyard wine, but the romance of the wine is difficult to separate from the romance of the site. At the vineyard’s eastern end is the beautiful stone church of Gnadenberg, which was built in 1860 and only recently celebrated its 150th anniversary. It is a tranquil, unspoilt and, except for the church, typically Australian setting with scattered ancient gum trees and summer-brown grasses. In the 1860s it was a village called Parrot Hill, which had a school and a post office, long since closed. Just a few ruins of the post office remain. The first vines were planted in 1860 by Nicolaus Stanitski, a relative of the Henschkes, and it would be wonderful to see his face if we could tell him how famous his little plot of vines has become. Four hectares making a world-famous wine worth $600-$700 a bottle.
A unique vineyard and a unique wine. If the season is unkind, it’s not bottled. In ’69 it probably shouldn’t have been. Poor vintage, according to the family records, and poor wine. With single-vineyard wine, there is no back-up if nature doesn’t deliver.
So, how did Hill of Grace measure up? Extremely well in my view, although the later vintages are far more consistent than the early. Even allowing for the vagaries of old wines under cork seals, great wines are far more frequent since about 1980, and even more frequent since the start of the 1990s. Improvements in vineyard and winery, technical knowledge and of course the pressure on the owners to make no compromises, a pressure exerted by continually growing fame and demand, all have an effect. And climate change: there have been fewer tricky vintages, although dryer, hotter seasons have often reduced yields. The advent of the screwcap in 2002 has also brought its usual benefits: it has eliminated cork-taint and premature oxidation and ensured greater consistency of aging.
Following the slightly silly idea that “there are two types of people in this world”, we can identify two kinds of Hill of Grace: the refined, elegant wines and the big, muscular wines. I see 1986, 1998, 2007 and ’08 as being the big style, while 1994 and 2002 and perhaps ’04 exemplify the more elegant, but no less worthy, style.
With Cyril’s son Stephen making the wine and his wife Prue as viticulturist, the wines are more concentrated, riper, more full-bodied and impressive in recent vintages, and with higher alcohols than in the early days. This is a pattern they share with most wines, including Grange. Below is my ranking of the vintages, or at least the bottles that we tasted on the day. Plus a full tasting note for the upcoming new release 2008. The price had not been set at time of writing, but expect to pay at least $600. Release date was April 1.
2008 Henschke Hill of Grace Shiraz
Very deep, dark red-purple colour; the bouquet an explosion of super-ripe blackberry, mocha and violets, with toast and vanilla from oak. The oak is still evident but subtle. Very intense, powerful, full-bodied and very long on the palate. A big wine, with all components in superb harmony. With a youthful firm texture, it needs time and will be a great Hill of Grace. 14.5% alc. Best 2018-2048. 96/100 (tasting)
Hill of Grace Rankings
First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Good Food – 2 April 2013.