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2021 Henschke “A Congregation of Ancients” Release

A Timeless Quality

Over 25 years ago I spent some time recorking old bottles of Hill of Grace and Mount Edelstone with winemakers Prue and Steven Henschke and their agent and advisor Arch Baker. Bottlings from the early-to-mid 1970s were tasted, topped up, recorked and back-labelled. It was a profoundly exceptional experience. Soon after the wines became available on restaurant wine lists throughout Australia. Although Henschke was already well known and respected by the Australian wine community, the availability of museum vintages seemed to spark new momentum Hill of Grace and Mount Edelstone among wine collectors. For a few years the prices of Hill of Grace doubled, doubled and doubled again reaching parity with Penfolds Grange at auction by the late 1990s. 

A “push me-pull you” phenomena developed where the market for Hill of Grace and Grange were completely intertwined. If a Grange vintage rose in value, its counterpart Hill of Grace vintage would follow and vice versa. Behind these scenes Prue and Stephen Henschke had embarked on an ambitious programme to improve the performance of their vinestock material and to protect their vineyards from drought and disease. At the time it was unusual to see scientists taking a strong interest in organic and then biodynamic farming. 

The fragility, vulnerability and the provenance of the Hill of Grace Vineyard were profoundly highlighted during the 1990s. While it’s not the oldest vineyard in the Barossa, there is a magical realism that surrounds the Hill of Grace story. The vines were first planted somewhere around 1860 by Nicolaus Stanitski a family ancestor. Already by this time shiraz was selected as an ideal variety for dry-growing viticulture. The grape variety was probably first planted in the Eden Valley during the late 1840s by Joseph Gilbert at Pewsey Vale or the early 1850s by Henry Evans who had established his vineyard at nearby by Evandale with riesling, frontignac, espanoir (mataro) and shiraz. Although Hill of Grace is forever linked with shiraz, the vineyard didn’t start that way. It still has legacy varieties like mataro, riesling and semillon as well. Maybe there is a link between the two vineyards. Evandale Nursery was about the closest place to source vinestock in 1860. 

But when the Hill of Grace vineyard was first planted there was not much of a wine industry in the Barossa region. It was better known for its wheat. The major sources of wealth in South Australia at that time were copper and cereal crops (wheat, barley, cornflour, brans etc). Wool came in at a distant third when it came to exports. But wine was very much a feature of life among the first Silesian settlers. Most were Lutherans and extremely religious. Wine was made for the local community and church. Around the Barossa Valley the Hufendorf system of settlement promoted mixed farming, orcharding and weingartens. After Benno Seppelt took over Seppeltsfield around 1868 the wine industry began to flourish in the Barossa Valley. Many of the Silesian grape growers lined up their wagons to supply this 19th Century wonder and other wineries with their grape crop. Vineyards expanded as families and new entrants expanded their vineyards. The export market for South Australian Burgundy and fortified wines in the local markets began to crank up during the 1870s and the landscape of the Barossa began to change. The Hill of Grace Vineyard is steeped the visions of a Lutheran Community where living on Earth was ordered around faith and hope. The old grandfather vines neatly capture the essence of terroir where generations have tilled the soil and nurtured the vineyard under huge-blotted skies for over 160 years.

 

2016 Hill of Grace Shiraz reflects an ongoing cycle of seasons and family life. While steeped in 19th Century origins, it is defined by modern times. The 1958 Hill of Grace Shiraz began a new era and expectations for the vineyard. Its name, a direct translation of Gnadenberg, was coined by Cyril Henschke to appeal to a general audience. The wine, always a limited production, brought wide interest from wine drinkers, but it wasn’t until the late 1970s that its reputation began to firm. In my view it was the 1986 vintage that changed expectations and laid the foundations for a meteoric rise. Prue Henschke’s enlightened vineyard management (with the assistance of viticulturalist Uschi Linssen), Stephen Henschke’s precision winemaking and both their empathy for the land and respect for the generations before them make all the difference. 

 

Although the vintage characters vary, as you would expect of a single vineyard, there is a scent of place that is transmitted through every season. While the 2016 is a touch lighter than the great 2015, the wine is incredibly fragrant offering the combination of pure fruit, an underlying oak complexity and garrigue-like scent of sage. These characters are also present on the palate. The persistent viscosity, density, al-dente tannin, integrated acidity and vigour bring volume, richness and persistency. This is a remarkable follow up vintage; ultimately expressing a unique voice and transparency of place. Hill of Grace is the Penny Black of the Australian Wine Industry. 

 

While they are profoundly connected (especially through winemaking and sub-regional provenance) 2016 Mount Edelstone is a very different beast to Hill of Grace. But the history of the vineyard is also interesting and connected to the early days of the Barossa. It was planted by Ronald Angas in 1912 during the last days of South Australia’s “Red Burgundy” boom. By the time the vineyard was bearing the first world war had begun and the economic future of grape growing was once again uncertain. Nonetheless there was great optimism after 1918 and the inauguration of the Export Bounty in 1924, which promoted the export of fortified wine to England and the Empire, resuscitated profitability for many vignerons. Success at the 1956 Royal Sydney Wine Show with the exquisite 1952 Henschke Mount Edelstone Shiraz put Henschke Cellars on the map. The Mount Edelstone brand predates Hill of Grace and represents a centrepiece of South Australia’s post war wine renaissance. The renovation work, selection and plantings of colonial vinestock material during the 1990s combined with vineyard management has generally increased the colour, density and flavour intensity of the Mount Edelstone. Although it does not always show the ethereal beauty and presence of Hill of Grace, it is in many respects the reference Eden Valley Shiraz. Those sage notes bordering on mint (but rarely a feature) bring a whiff of vineyard character and contribute to a subtle tension on the palate. But overall, there is a neat balance of richness and volume against precision and vigour. This is nature and nurture working together in uncanny unison. While Hill of Grace highlights the beguiling character of a unique vineyard, 2016 Mount Edelstone is distinguished by underlying craftsmanship and sense of timing. While sub-regional definition is well defined, the wine purrs with the precision and power of a Merlin engine. 

Hill of Roses was initially imagined to counter act the release of a wine under the same name by another producer. This development was far too close to home. Other wine businesses were also treading on sacred ground, arguably taking advantage of three generations of hard work and diminishing the magical Hill of Grace name. Unfortunately, this type of conduct has become a feature of wine business and retail wine branding around the World. Perceptive benchmarking, clever packaging and creative marketing can evoke a purchasing response, that borders on misrepresentation. Nonetheless the story ended well. Henschke Hill of Roses has prevailed.

Around 1989 Prue Henschke planted a new vineyard block near the historic Parrot Hill Post Office and within the boundary of the Hill of Grace Vineyard. The Roses connection, by the way, is neatly aligned to the Rozensweig (translated as “rose twig”) family which owned the adjacent land at one time. The shiraz vinestock material in the Post Office Block derives from original plantings and has proven to perform exceptionally well, reflecting behind-the-scenes scientific research and selection. Not surprisingly the wine has a deeper colour and density than 2016 Hill of Grace yet it still possesses the scented hallmarks of the Gnadenberg enclave. There is obviously a feeling that the block has to reach a minimum of 35 years before it can be included in the Hill of Grace cuvée. But it must be very close. On the other hand, while its stature and provenance is unquestioned, it’s adolescence is there to be seen when compared to the real thing. Even so, the wine has a lovely fragrance, purity and density; only ever associated with a distinguished vineyard. 

The Henschke stamp of authenticity is also found in the 2016 Keyneton Euphonium, the 2018 Tappa Pass and 2018 Johann’s Garden. The wines are all offer fantastic value and a genuinely delicious Barossa experience. These are wines steeped in an honourable family wine making tradition and enduring generosity of spirit. The 2021 release really highlights the genius of vineyard site, the extraordinary gift of complimentary excellence and the reality of hard, physical labour and patience.

 

2016 Barossa Vintage / Below average rain during winter were followed by a warm dry Spring. After a hot December, the weather cooled with intermittent replenishing rain during January and early March. Harvest took place around an early Easter. A small but high-quality vintage.

 

2018 Barossa Vintage / Excellent winter rains and a mild Spring were followed by a generally warm summer with occasional heat spikes. Mild conditions and blue skies towards vintages allowed the fruit to ripen in near perfect conditions. A classic vintage. 

 

2016 Henschke Hill of Grace, Eden Valley – South Australia

Medium deep crimson. Intense and fragrant blackberry pastille, dark plum, herb garden, sage aromas, underlying vanilla, roasted chestnut notes and hints of star anise. Complex and pure-fruited with blackberry, dark plum, mulberry flavours, integrated vanilla, roasted chestnut (oak) notes, some chinotto nuances and fine supple and vigorous velvetine/ al-dente tannins, lovely buoyancy/mid-palate viscosity and fresh long mineral acidity. Finishes claret-firm with plentiful sweet and savoury notes. A seductive yet elegant wine with superb vinosity, complexity and resonance. Unmistakably Hill of Grace. A beautiful “sotto-voce” vintage. 14.5% Alc. Screwcap. Drink 2024-2040+ 99 points

Matured in 85% French and 15% American oak hogsheads for 18 months. (Around 29% new oak)

2016 Henschke Hill of Roses, Eden Valley – South Australia

Deep crimson. Fresh blackberry, mulberry, espresso aromas with roasted chestnut, sage notes. Generous and inky with deep set blackberry, mulberry, roasted coffee flavours, underlying roasted chestnut vanilla oak notes, lovely mid-palate richness persistent fine looseknit chalky – al-dente tannins and integrated mineral acidity. Finishes slinky firm with plentiful sweet fruit notes. Buoyant, generous and impactful with superb density, vim and vigour. A very strong sub-regional expression that unleashes the atmospheric spirit of the Gnadenberg enclave of the Eden Valley. From 27-year-old “Post Office Block” vines, a subset of the Hill of Grace Vineyard. 14.5% Alc, Vinolok. Drink 2025-2045 – 97 points

Matured in 100% French oak hogsheads for 18 months (30% new oak).

2016 Henschke Mount Edelstone, Eden Valley – South Australia

Deep crimson. Classical blackberry, dark chocolate aromas with roasted hazelnut/ chestnut, sage, almost light minty notes. Well concentrated and generous with pure blackberry, mulberry, praline flavours, roasted chestnut, vanilla oak notes, inky-deep richness and persistent chocolaty, touch al-dente tannins. Finishes chocolaty firm with chinotto bitter-sweet notes. A voluminous wine superb density and vigour and showing all the hallmarks of a great Eden Valley vineyard and intuitive winemaking. More powerful and concentrated than Hill of Grace, but beautifully balanced. The perfect alter-ego. 14.5% Alc, Screwcap. Drink 2025-2045 - 98 points

Matured in 80% French and 20% American oak hogsheads for 18 months (around 19% new oak).

2016 Henschke Keyneton Euphonium, Barossa – South Australia

Medium deep crimson. Fresh blackberry, dark plum, raspberry, dark chocolate espresso aromas with savoury roasted walnut/cedar notes. Concentrated blackberry, dark plum, mulberry fruits, attractive chinotto, negroni notes, sinuous velvety fine tannins and integrated roasted walnut oak. Finishes chocolaty firm with plentiful ripe dark fruits and savoury notes. Richly flavoured wine with lovely volume, texture, freshness and balance. Drink early or keep for a while. 14.5% Alc, Screwcap, Drink Now to 2035 – 95 points

2018 Henschke Tappa Pass, Vineyard Selection, Barossa – South Australia

Medium deep crimson. Lifted dark cherry, dark plum, blackberry aromas with praline/ dark chocolate notes. Generous and seductive dark plum, blackberry boysenberry fruits, fine looseknit chocolaty textures, integrated vanilla, spicy oak notes, attractive mid-palate viscosity and long fresh integrated acidity. Finishes chocolaty firm with plentiful dark fruits and savoury notes. A classic Barossa Shiraz with superb density, richness and vigour. Still elemental needing a few years to achieve completeness. 14.5% Alc, Screwcap, Drink 2023 – 2038+ - 96 points

2018 Henschke Johann’s Garden Grenache, Mataro, Shiraz, Barossa Valley – South Australia

Medium crimson. Fresh musky plum, raspberry redcurrant aromas with roasted walnut, espresso, aniseed notes. Lovely supple and creamy wine with plentiful raspberry, plum, redcurrant, nectarine fruits, fine looseknit textures and fresh long aniseed kick. Generous and fruit driven with lovely density, richness of flavour and line of attack. Best to drink while young and primary fruited. Drink now but will keep for a while. 14.5%, Vinolok, Drink Now – 2026 - 94 points 

 

Andrew Caillard, MW

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