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The Henschke heart

When it comes to Australian wine, you don’t get much more history and prestige than Henschke. With some of country’s oldest vines, the Henschke family has been making wine for more than 150 years. Over the passing years, each generation has left their own mark on the business, and today it’s fifth-generation Stephen and Prue Henschke steering the ship, passionately upholding the family name and reputation.

Since stepping into their respective roles, Stephen as winemaker and Prue as viticulturist, the estate has grown from strength to strength, with the duo keenly focused on future-proofing the winery and investing in new styles of grapes and winemaking techniques, alongside meticulous and innovative viticultural management. Importantly, although respect is paid to their forebearers, the husband and wife team has ensured that Henschke is continually modernising and moving with the times. For a winery steeped in history such as theirs, this commitment to innovation has been critical to ensuring the Henschke wines remains relevant for consumers in the 21st century.

During a fleeting visit to London, where Prue and her sixth-generation daughter Justine were attending the Australian Women in Wine Awards, we sat down with Stephen and Prue to learn more about their family business.

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Stephen, you have a rich family history in wine, but how did you decide wine was something you wanted to pursue?

S: “I’d always had a real interest in it, but I didn’t know if I’d end up becoming a winemaker. I was always incredibly interested in marine biology, so I nearly went down that path. But then the opportunity came up to study at Geisenheim University in Germany, so I abandoned my plan to study at in Australia at Roseworthy and packed my bags to head north. Prue and I had met years before at university where we shared a subject in botany, so when I decided to move to Germany, we got married and made the leap together. Although I spoke some German from my schooling days, Prue didn’t speak much at all, so it was a big leap.”

 

You were in Germany for two years, how did this time influence how you make wines today?

P: “It definitely influenced our viticulture. At that time, Germany was really the hot bed for emerging viticulture practice – a research centre on a lot of work on trellis, clones and root stocks – you name it, they were doing it.

“Interestingly, during the time we were in Germany they actually had a huge issue with diabetes, so they were really focusing on reducing sweetness right through their whole diet, so they had dry wines, and that’s what we got attached to. We found the dry wines were actually better than the sweet wines, which were masking unripe characters.”

S: “Looking back, it was really beneficial in terms of the precision in their winemaking – everything from removing oxidation and using refrigeration, to using good filtrations and fining, all those sorts of things. But we also wanted to maintain the Henschke style, and didn’t suddenly want to start making sweet wines and become something we were not. In any case, your style should be driven by your climate, so there were only certain elements of what we learnt in Germany we could bring back home.”

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Could you imagine a life if you weren’t in wine – what would you be doing?

S: “It’d be deepest darkest Africa for you, Prue!”

P: “I did a lot of special projects in zoology during my studies and was offered the chance to go to East Africa to study baboons. I was also fascinated by botany, and had an honours degree in algae. There’s this amazing cold current that comes up underneath the bottom of Australia and we have some of the most diverse algae in the world. There was a lot of work to pursue down that path, I decided I wasn’t a good enough swimmer for that!

“When the opportunity to move to Germany presented itself I made the switch to wine, but having that strict botany behind me meant it was really easy to drop into viticulture because I had all the physiology and bio-chemistry.

“It’s been a great partnership, and it meant Stephen could hand over the very challenging viticultural side of thing. I’ve been doing a lot of research in the area, so it’s a huge benefit to have that focus on our long-term future of viticulture. It’s actually the part of the wine business that takes up the most personnel. We basically have one person every five hectares (and we have 100ha) so that’s half the personnel of the whole business working in the vineyard in hands-on viticulture.”

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Perhaps one of biggest legacies you’ll leave behind is your range of parcel wines. How did you come to start working with these alternative varieties?

S: “My dad was on the Barossa Vine Improvement Group, so he was actually quite involved and interested in other varieties. He was making a few interesting white­s from Ugni Blanc and Sercial, but in reds we really didn’t have much other than Shiraz, Cabernet and Malbec in those days. However, that’s also what consumers wanted. They were a lot more used to just getting varieties that made a nice big red wine.

“Because of our travels and interest in varieties, and seeing the potential for other varieties in certain places within our vineyard’s scope of Adelaide Hills and Eden Valley, we started planting some Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, Barbera and Grüner Veltliner which is looking spectacular. It’s really interesting to see how those varieties which back in the 80s were seen as pretty uninteresting, are now coming back out again of obscurity into popularity.”

 

On that note, how much weight do you give to consumer trends – do you let them influence what you’re doing in the vineyard?

S: “It’s interesting: you don’t really know whether it’s winemakers who’ve inspired people to drink different things or whether the consumer is actively looking for something new. It’s the ‘chicken or the egg’ scenario. However, I think as people become more confident and knowledgeable about wine, they’ll tend to branch out and try something different.”

P: “I think it’s really important to watch the market. We were innovators with Pinot Gris in the mid-90s when we saw that become one of the alternative varieties that was taking off, and now it’s reached that point where it’s saturated, almost to the point of being bulk wine. You have to work out when to start pulling back from varieties because we can’t afford to produce low value, low quality bulk wine. It just doesn’t work for us.”

S: “It’s also not part of our brand identity. Our economic model is to be better rather than bigger. To be better you have to really do everything by hand, you have to focus and push into that organic and biodynamic area and ensure you’re building the quality all the time.”

P: “Perhaps most importantly, if you want to go down the path of alternative varieties, you really have to know your land and soil profile like the back of your hand. These new varieties are popular but you have to know what you’re doing – you can’t just plant them anywhere, so site selection is a huge part of the process.”

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When it comes to food and wine, what is your pairing philosophy?

S: “We recently did some cheese and wine pairing with a local South Australian producer, and when we initially matched the cheeses, we found the fresh goat’s cheese was much better suited to the Pinot Noir than the mature goat’s cheese. So we swapped the sparkling and the Pinot over to suit the flavour of the cheese better.

J: “It’s always something we’re really careful about when we release Hill of Grace, and do media previews and launch dinners for our customers. We always start with that list of wines and give that to the chef, and then let them tailor the menu to the wines. When you say Shiraz people often think steak, so with Hill of Grace we’re trying to find other options like kangaroo and duck, which suit our more elegant style of Shiraz.”

S: “We did some interesting dinners during our travels in Spain, and I think one of the things that’s often missing is the person who tastes the wine with it, rather than just assuming it’s going to work or retrofitting wines to a menu.”