Fill a van with half a dozen Right Coast sommeliers traipsing through Australia’s Eden Valley en route to Henschke, and the on-road proceedings will take on the air of a group of pre-teens after a full night’s sleep and a breakfast of Sweettarts that were about to enter Disney World.
Initially, I didn’t “get” why this group (who, along with me, were visiting as guests of Wines of Australia) was so amped up for a winery visit. I knew Henschke made very, very god wine, but so what – a lot of producers make very, very good wine. There was, of course, that thing about Hill of Grace, clocking in at $600 or so a bottle, but I’d had plenty of expensive wine that didn’t live up to the billing on its price tag and so I was actually firmly in the “skeptically optimistic” territory about tasting it that day. What the hell was wrong with these people?
But here’s the thing about good Sommeliers, particularly those from the big drinks like Boston and New York: they have access to world’s most exclusive wines that far exceeds their pay grade levels. It’s more intimate access than most of us get, and often it means that they enjoy an understanding of the world’s best wines that few others can readily grasp for having simply lacked the experience – and I include in that unlucky majority most pro wine critics, because they don’t have wealthy patrons ordering the better vintages of the world’s most difficult-to-obtain juice several times per night, as the somms do (depending on what rich-and-famous clientele might be forking out the cash for the good stuff that night on the floor).
[ Editor’s note: My favorite such story doesn’t involve drinking wine at all: as one of my newfound somms told me, he once served a group that included Robert Downey, Jr. After offering Downey the wine list, before he could finish his opening sentence Downey cut him off: “Oh, no, no, no, no NOOOOOO... take that away... we would tear this place APART.” ]
And so it turns out that the somms were all justified to have been so giddy, because I was about to be schooled – big-time – in what it really meant to have sommelier-level access to one of the world’s finest fine wines…
Stephen Henschke, now his namesake’s 5th generation winemaker, came back to the family business in the 1970s “to help my father make the wine, really,” he told us, “at about the time when Australia was just starting to try to match grape variety to place.” That Stephen became family winemaker is a matter of interest, not lineage (in the Henschke line, it’s the child who takes the most palpable preoccupation that takes up the winemaking mantle, though current eldest son Johann now looks poised to succeed Stephen).
That family history is now pretty well known: Germans, escaped from religious persecution, settled in Australia (first in Adelaide Hills and eventually in what would become the Eden Valley) because emigration to their first two choices – Russia and the U.S. – proved too difficult. Third time had proven to be the charm, and they converted the horse stables into winemaking facilities and began making wine commercially in the late 1800s when they noticed that their religious wines were selling like Dutch Baby pancackes within the local community.
Stephen’s wife Prue, now their viticulturist, studied as a botanist, and is “still a tree-hugger… and a rock-hugger!” which might explain what seems to be a minor fascination with the fact that quite a bit of their vineyard properties once housed apple trees: many of their wines are named after families of local apple-growers and “apples are a great indicator for cooler climate varieties,” he explained.
After the obligatory Aussie explanation/minor-tirade about why alternative closures like screwcaps and glass are being used instead of cork (…”We’ve deleted cork 100%,” Stephen remarked, “because it’s just too unreliable; I was getting angry calls at night from unhappy Hill of Grace customers all due to cork issues” …and really, we got this everywhere in Australia… I mean, whoever sold a name like Henschke sub-optimal cork is someone who probably should not have a job in the cork business…), Stephen and brand ambassador Melanie Keynes led us through a tasting of some of Henschke’s current releases.
And that was when I got schooled. That was when I got a lesson in what had my traveling somm companions all giddy, and what should have had me all giddy as well if I wasn’t such a damned Debbie Downer skeptic all the f*cking time.
You can read the tasting notes below; to me, that tasting showed that Henschke is not only on top of its game, but that it might be Australia’s best producer, period. That tasting meant that whenever I met get a bottle of Henschke put in front of me from that day forward, I will be anticipating the contents not as I anticipated the gaudy Star Wars prequels (“please… please just let this film not suck”) but as I anticipated the big screen lighting up for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films (“this is gonna be awesome….” – apologies to the Aussies for using a Kiwi reference there, by the way).
Of course, we need to talk about that $600-some-odd bottle of 2007 Hill of Grace, and whether it’s really worth $600. But it cannot be discussed properly without telling you about the place, the Hill of Grace vineyard itself.
Henschke’s entire wine lineup leads inexorably to Hill of Grace. Things start broad and the scale gets progressively smaller and smaller until you get to that vineyard where “we’re getting into ‘micro-scales’ there,” Stepehen mentioned. When we stopped by for a run-down of the vineyard with Keynes, it was like emptying the kids’ van right at the friggin’ Disney World gates. But before the ebullient winos could be let in, we had to step into an anti-pest solution to help prevent Phylloxera – something the Henschke crew needs to take very, very seriously, since most of the vines are planted on original, un-grafted rootstock from European cuttings.
In a word, the place is magic. Walking among the dry-grown, gnarled old souls at Hill of Grace, I had a feeling I hadn’t encountered since visiting the amazing Bechthold Vineyard in Lodi, which was planted at roughly the same time – a feeling that the vines and the land were not passing through history, that they were history, and that the one who was passing through it all, literally and figuratively, was me. A feeling that you are temporary, and are in the presence of something far more permanent.
A feeling that, a bit like witnessing childbirth, cannot readily be explained without actually being there.
2007 marks the 50th vintage of Hill of Grace, which is a lineage that extends longer than most of the people reading this have been alive. Hill of Grace the wine is Hill of Grace the place, it’s fifty years of that place being expressed in vinous form. And that intimate connection combined with its pedigree and longevity are, I suspect, what solicit such interesting reactions from other winemaking teams throughout Australia when I asked them about it. From the insiders at Yering Station in the Yarra, to those at Kilikanoon in Clare Valley you get a similar reaction to Hill of Grace, one that boils down to this: Hill of Grace has it all over its main Aussie Shiraz competitor, Penfolds Grange (another $600-ish-a-bottle Shiraz, which I also tasted on this jaunt). While Grange is amazing, they will tell you, it is also assembled in a way, made every year pretty much no matter what, and will only ever evoke Barossa as a region. Hill of Grace, made only when the vineyard can produce fruit capable of making the cut, will always evoke something more specific: a tiny, special plot of land unique on the planet.
Having tasted both, I’m inclined to agree with them, for the most part (though I’m sure as sh*t not refusing Grange if it gets poured for me, either).
2007 Henschke Hill of Grace (Eden Valley)
Elegant complexity, bottled. Stephen Henscke called 2007 “one of the more difficult vintages, due to drought.” But hey, nothing came easy to Beethoven, either. Yields were low, and the vineyard was undergoing some of its biodynamic conversion at the time. The wine is none the worse for wear, and it’s incredibly young with probably has decades to go. The earlier comparison to Lord of the Rings still applies – there are more layers and visceral beauty here than in any of that film trilogy’s most complex battle scenes. Berries, plums, tangy red fruits, spices, nutmeg, pepper, tar, Mexican chocolate, eucalyptus… it keeps coming like an invading army of awesomeness. The mouthfeel is pithy and vibrant, astringent and seductive at the same time. Later, it gets spicier, and it starts to lay on more meats than an NYC butcher shop.
But is it worth $600?
Well… the answer to that will depend entirely on how much you enjoy Shiraz.
On the whole, Shiraz simply doesn’t get any better than this, and the 2007 Hill of Grace is certainly the best one that’s ever crossed my path. If your favorite wines happen to be Shiraz-based, then my advice would be this: start saving, and try at least one bottle of Hill of Grace before you shuffle off this mortal coil. If not, then nothing I can write will convince you the wine is worth your money (or your time), even as a potential investment vehicle.
Simply put, Hill of Grace doesn’t have magical properties. As great as it is, it’s still just fermented grape juice at the end of the day. But it’s also a rarity, because it’s fermented grape juice that actually has rare context – real history, real expression of people, and real expression of place – and so it shouldn’t be too surprising that it commands a rarefied price.
Other Henschke recent releases tasted:
2009 Henschke Lenswood Croft Chardonnay (Adelaide Hills)
Named after an apple-grower (of course!), and hailing from a wetter, more elevated area that the Henschke’s initially called home in Australia, this is a Chard that has aromas fitting its locale’s apple orchard origins. Its citric, too, with a hint of spice and cream. Still tight and pithy (Stephen desribed it as “not Dolly Parton style”), it is wound up and looks to have a long life ahead of it.
2011 Henschke Julius Riesling (Eden Valley)
“Over generations, we’ve managed to amass a rather large family,” Stephen noted, and as it turns out, the Henschke’s are related to a lot of Barossans including the growers who supply this wine’s fruit. “Wound up like a spring” is how they described this wine, and that’s an accurate assessment of the steely, mineral-driven acidity that will see this wine through several years of development. But that doesn’t stop it from being gorgeous now, with lime zest, spiced stone fruit, and white flowers to spare.
2010 Henschke Lenswood Giles Pinot Noir (Adelaide Hills)
Named after a previous owner of the vineyard property… also apple farmers… this is a surprising Pinot. Blind, I might have pegged it for Sonoma Coast – bright berry compote, citrus rind, spices and a lovely, floral and almost soapy character. Anyway, it’s feminine and aromatic, with a little bit of earthy dirt. Tasting it, I wanted to settle in with a case of it on the porch, cook a boatload of salmon burgers, and get hammered on it with a half dozen of my friends.
2009 Henschke Henry’s Seven Shiraz (Eden Valley)
A Shiraz, Grenache, Viognier & Mourvedre blend. Henschke has embarked on a program of taking the best genetic material from their vineyards and using it for re-selection, with Henry’s Seven being one of the main recipients to date (“it will be Hill of Grace quality in fifty years time,” Stephen asserted). This was my least personal favorite of the lineup that we tasted, but I still found a lot to like in this wine: game meat, vibrant red plums, prunes, and a tangy red fruit core that was wickedly concentrated, thanks to the berries being produced by vines that average about seventy years old.
2009 Henschke Johann’s Garden (Eden Valley)
A stunner. Mostly Grenache with Mourvedre and Shiraz, it’s powerful that also doesn’t lack for grace. Not as spicy as you might at first expect from those varieties, it quickly makes up the difference in structure, intensely concentrated and complex/deep/dark/plummy fruit, raspberries and blue flowers. It has a rusticity that harkens to its origins (it was initially a side project which Stephen made to drink with his uncle), things get silkier on the palate where blue plums and tangy red fruits take over. What really sold me on this was the finish, which rivaled Hill of Grace in its length and complexity.
2009 Henschke Keyneton Euphonium (Eden Valley)
Second generation Henschke Paul Gotthard formed the first known brass band in the Keyneton area, with one of family members playing the euphonium. Name explained, now onto the juice: there’s just an insane amount of cassis and blackberry fruit on this Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/Cabernet Franc blend (the Shiraz vines are about fifty years old). It’s obviously young and has great structure, with lovely hints of what it will become later: pepper spices, meaty notes, and citrus pith… if you can wait, that is.