Edgar's been spoilt yet again this month, this time with Henschke's Hill of Grace...
Imagine a barn-like room next to an old winery in full harvest mode. Every time the doors open, you can hear the bustle, and the smells of fermentation waft through. Inside there are long tables arranged into a square shape, and around the square sit the Henschke family, a selection of the world’s leading authorities on Australian wine including James Halliday, Jancis Robinson and Lisa Perotti-Brown, and then there is you. On the table in front of you there are 48 separate glasses with vintage numbers next to them and some agent of divine providence is pouring tasting measures of Hill of Grace. For me, this was a dream come true.
In a few hours of heightened perception we tasted through every vintage since the first: 1958. This would be special by anybody’s standards, but the sense of occasion was heightened further when Stephen Henschke remarked that it was lucky the first bottle of ‘58 was not corked, as there was only one other left at the winery. Truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Hill of Grace is the most revered single-vineyard wine in Australia. It was not the first, not even at Henschke: Mt Edelstone dates back to 1952, and the plaudits it received for the 1956 vintage encouraged Cyril Henschke to branch out further with Hill of Grace. The vineyard itself is a picture-postcard collection of ancient vines planted by settlers from Germany 150 years ago. In the background the Gnadenberg church proudly watches over the vineyard. More prosaic custodianship comes in the form of Johann Henschke’s exhortation to clean shoes in the anti-phylloxera bath. However, there is a prelapsarian feeling that nothing bad could happen here, in the beautiful Eden Valley. The theme of custodianship was taken up by Prue Henschke, whose biodynamic methods have breathed life into the soils. These old vines are not irrigated and produce incredibly concentrated, low pH musts of extraordinary aromatic intensity. When we tasted the wines, the signature of Chinese five spice recurred throughout, really highlighting that incredible alchemy which allows a wine to express a sense of place. Grange, eat your heart out.
Stephen introduced the wines broadly by decade. 1958 to 1969 were characterised by ripeness. At the time there was a tax on spirits but none on wine, with the result that producers tended to make more alcoholic styles. Open fermenters were used and winemaking was fairly “raw”. The 1970s saw a move towards fruit and away from leather and rusticity. Pressings were no longer used, ferments were temperature-controlled and smaller oak was favoured. The 80’s saw a more overt American oak style and increasing technical mastery of all aspects of the winemaking process under Stephen. Whereas the 90’s saw more French oak and a mastery of the viticulture under Prue: composting, using mulches and cane pruning are some examples.
For me, the themes which ran through all the wines were:
- The tannins are exceptional. They are powerful but none of the wines was drying out. There are so many layers of texture here.
- The power is restrained at all times. After 48 samples of Australian Shiraz, nobody had a tired palate. Even vintages with higher alcohols and full body were incredibly balanced.
- The colour development was extremely consistent. The oldest vintages were a russet brown, and the youngest were inky purple, and all the wines in between seemed to be a bridge between the hues of its neighbours. A small point, but one that illustrates the consistency of the fruit quality from the old vines.
- This consistency allows the vineyard character to shine. The five-spice note kept coming back.
- 1986 was a watershed in terms of maturity and style. The older vintages were more Pinot-like, whereas the younger ones showed more restrained power.
- The wines seemed to show their best between 20 and 30 years old. However, there was also a drinking window for the younger vintages thanks to the exuberance of the fruit on release.
This tasting encapsulated what is great about wine; that which takes it beyond sheer deliciousness and into the realm of fine art. On the one hand, being able to identify a vineyard character taps into our human desire to classify, recognise and know. All too often, vineyard character is elusive; here it came across with vivid force. On the other hand, tasting so many vintages at once evokes the aesthetics of impermanence. Tasting 1985 Hill of Grace was like seeing the first cherry blossom fall from a tree clouded in white. Great wine is not just great per se, but great for what it reminds us about life itself. That’s why I decided to call this piece “ontology and evanescence” instead of “50 shades of Grace”, which is what you were probably expecting.
For a link to the article written by Jancis Robinson: http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/a201303203.html