Grace of Henschke

Grace of Henschke

Part of Australia’s rich migrant history, the Henschkes have become a national wine treasure.












Published Selector Autumn 2009

Nestled in the Eden Valley stands a beautiful old Lutheran church named ‘Gnadenberg’, a German word meaning ‘Hill of Grace’. It has a loyal congregation who are drawn, no doubt, by the strength of their faith. But you have to wonder whether there are a few members attracted by a perk unique to this church; its communion wines are supplied by the Henschke family. In fact, on special occasions they’ve even been known to donate their benchmark wine, also named ‘Hill of Grace’.

Considered second only to Penfolds Grange in iconic status, Hill of Grace is a single vineyard Eden Valley Shiraz that usually demands upwards of $400 a bottle. A rare vintage, like the 2003, is valued at around $2000 and Australia’s benchmark wine investment classification, Langton’s, gives it its highest rating of ‘Exceptional’.

The Hill of Grace vineyard, which is opposite the church, was originally planted in the 1860s by a Nicolaus Stanitzki. It is now managed by fifth generation winemaker Stephen Henschke and his viticulturist wife Prue, who are viewed as Australia’s pre-eminent winemaking couple. Their joint achievements are many and include International Winemaker of the Year 1994/1995 and Membership of the 2005 USA Wine & Spirits magazine Hall of Fame.

It’s not only Hill of Grace that has positioned Henschke as one of Australia’s most successful wine dynasties. Their portfolio is extensive and they’re renowned for the diversity of styles they produce.

Many of the wine names pay homage to the history of the family and the region. This includes ‘Johann’s Garden’, a blend of Grenache, Mourvedre and Shiraz which is “named as a tribute to the early Barossa Lutheran pioneers, many of whom carried the first name of Johann.”

One such Johann was Stephen’s great-great-great grandfather, Johann Christian Henschke; the man who started the great Henschke winemaking tradition.

The beginning

Johann Christian arrived in South Australia’s Barossa region in 1841. As an ‘Old Lutheran’ he was part of a wave of immigrants who had left Silesia, Germany, to escape the religious persecution created by King Frederick Wilhelm. The 98-day journey had been tragically arduous, with not only his wife, but also two of their children dying on the way. With his two remaining children he faced life in a new country which, compared with Europe, would no doubt have appeared harsh, hot and full of flies.

By 1847 Johann Christian, a farmer and mason, had made his home at Krondorf village near Bethany with his new wife with whom he had another eight children. The wine link began in 1862 when he bought land in Keyneton. This area was called North Rhine at the time, as it was believed it could produce wines equal to Germany’s best (the anti-German sentiment that was rife during WWI led to the name change).

Johann and one of his sons, Paul Gotthard, planted vines on this land and Johann built a cellar into the side of the hill, which still exists today. Together they produced their first vintage in 1868.

As Stephen explains, records from this time are scarce and information came down through the generations mainly via word of mouth. From what they’ve gathered, this wine, “probably Hock, Claret and Burgundy from Riesling, Shiraz and Grenache” is thought to have been made mainly for family and friends.

It wasn’t until Paul Gotthard took over the property following his father’s death in 1873 that wine production increased. While he and his father had made table wines together, the turn of the century saw the rise of fortified wines and therefore a change in direction for Paul Gotthard and his winemaking son, Paul Alfred.

Fortifieds continued to be the mainstay of Henschke wines after Paul Gotthard died in 1914 and Paul Alfred took over. Under his control, winemaking facilities further expanded. He planted more vineyards, extended the original cellars and added brick and cement fermenting vats and underground storage tanks.

Stephen eloquently describes how these new additions were utilised in the winemaking process, “the dusty black grapes were picked and then crushed into open fermenters by the smoky old clutterbuck turning belts and pulleys, only to ferment with the most gorgeous pink colours and delicious fragrance of juicy berry fruits, before running off rich and heavy into underground tanks and barrels.”

Paul Alfred and his wife Johanne had 12 children. (Apparently Johanne was furious with her doctor on finding out, after the birth of her last child, that there was such a thing as contraception!)

Maintaining the property was a demanding task for the Henschkes of this era. As Stephen describes, “the 20s and 30s were filled with fetching and milking the cows, churning the butter, baking bread and Streuselkuchen (yeast cake), killing the pig and making the Wurst (the Schweineschlacht, as it was called when nothing was wasted from the pig, except the squeal).”

As his children grew up Paul Alfred managed to set his sons up on their own properties and the girls got married and went off to a new life with their husbands. Throughout the Henschke history the property, and therefore the winemaking tradition, always passed to the son who either showed the most interest or was simply left behind when all the other siblings had moved on. It was a combination of the two that saw the youngest of the 12, Cyril, take over the Henschke reins in about 1950.

Moving forward

Call it chance or fate but the fact that Cyril came to be the brand custodian was extremely fortuitous given his passion, talent, foresight and vision. The most significant early change Cyril made was to move away from fortified wines into table wines; quite a radical direction when you consider the enduring popularity of fortifieds at the time.

Table wines were the drink of choice for Cyril and his father and Cyril felt that not only was the region better suited to this style, but that it would have great market appeal. Keen experimentation followed, with Cyril becoming the first to make a dry white frontignac as well as dry Semillon and Riesling as separate varietals.

Another of Cyril’s great insights was that of single vineyard wines. His breakthrough success was with Mount Edelstone, which is a single vineyard, Eden Valley Shiraz. Cyril started off buying fruit from the vineyard’s original owner, before finally acquiring it for himself in 1974. The first Mount Edelstone was produced in 1952 and by the 1956 vintage the awards were rolling in. Every subsequent vintage has been a winner.

By the 1950s the Hill of Grace vineyard was in the hands of Cyril’s brother. Paul Gotthard originally purchased the prized land in 1891 and it had been in the family ever since. Cyril commenced the great Henschke Hill of Grace tradition with the first vintage in 1958.

Through the Churchill Fellowship, which he won in 1970, Cyril was also fortunate to travel the world, namely Germany, California and South Africa, in pursuit of new wine ideas.

Twenty-year-old Stephen, the middle of Cyril and his wife Doris’ three children, witnessed his father’s excitement on his return. Stephen recalls, “Cyril returned a changed man, bursting with ideas he wanted to try, from grape vine selection and breeding to new technology to assist in improved wine production, bottling and packaging.”

While Cyril was busy expanding the business and implementing his new ideas, Stephen was pursuing his own winemaking career. After completing a Science degree in 1973 and gaining winemaking experience at the Hunter’s Rothbury Estate, he set off for Germany’s Geisenheim Institute of Viticulture and Wine Technology.

By this time, the legendary partnership of Stephen and Prue was well under way. Having met at university they were married and thereafter set off for Germany together.

A botany and zoology graduate, Prue’s destiny was determined during their two years at Geisenheim. There her involvement in viticulture and plant physiology began, as she learnt the intricacies of grafting and breeding.

On their return, Prue took up a research position with Roseworthy College and Stephen, like his father before him, returned to the business brimming with new knowledge.

With mutual respect for each other’s expertise, Stephen and Cyril looked forward to years of working together to further improve Henschke wines. This dream, however, came to an abrupt end in 1979 following Cyril’s untimely death at the age of 55.  Thrust into the top job Stephen has certainly risen to the challenge, with Prue joining him as viticulturist in 1987. Through their leadership the company has reached unprecedented levels of success.

To mention all of Stephen and Prue’s improvements and accomplishments here would take up many more pages than are available. In a nutshell however, they achieve the Henschke mantra of “exceptional wines from outstanding vineyards” through understanding and utilising their natural environment.

Prue is a passionate advocate of organics and more specifically, biodynamics; a method she’s applying to all the Henschke vineyards. Well aware of the European origins of biodynamics, Prue and Stephen are trying to ‘Australianise’ the method, using the available resources to provide the best possible vineyard results. As Prue explains, “a lot of biodynamic vineyards are set up with European flowers but we’ve got a bevy of species here that are more adaptable.”

This is a philosophy, Stephen acknowledges, his forebears would have approved, “Prue is turning back the clock, putting our backs to the insidious 60s, 70s and 80s with its rotary hoes, chemical fertilisers, insecticides and über-mechanisation – back to my grandfather’s day of determinedly caring for the soil, the environment, the future.”

Another modern phenomena shunned by this proud family is that of the corporate takeover. Since the 1980s many family owned Australian wine companies have been acquired by national or multi-national corporations. Naturally, Henschke was viewed as an extremely lucrative asset, but selling has never been an option. During the height of this activity Stephen was fielding a dozen phone calls a week from potential buyers. As a result, he says, he became “quite good at telling people to get lost in lots of different languages.”

The reasoning, he explains, is simple. “Why would you sell when you’ve got a fantastic business with so much history and heritage, intellectual property, you’d just be crazy. It’s a lifestyle more than a business, a beautiful way of life. We can obviously survive and be able to pass it on, keep the whole section going, that’s the important thing because after five generations you feel like curators of a museum.”

A new era

The sixth generation has grown up absorbed in this lifestyle. Stephen and Prue talk fondly of childhood photographs that show their eldest son Johann, at two, holding a big wine glass, their daughter Justine, when just a toddler, sitting atop the big concrete fermenters dipping her finger in for a taste and a 10-year-old Andreas, who’s the youngest son, squashing grapes in the laboratory with Prue.

Justine also remembers that “there was no way not to be involved, there was no way to keep the business out of the home. Everyone was always talking about what was going on and asking for help in the winery, cellar door and vineyard.”

Now young adults, Johann, Justine and Andreas have never felt any parental pressure to go into the family business. In fact, Justine recalls asking her father for vocational direction to which he replied, “go and study what you want.”

They have chosen to remain involved though and it is a choice they’ve based on an intimate understanding of their heritage. Johann’s thoughts are, “I think we were all destined for some role in continuing it, whether it be direct or indirect involvement. It’s just too great a thing for our generation to give away and we need to keep going.”

Johann has gone on to study winemaking, finishing his Oenology degree in 2005. He’s just as passionate as his parents about biodynamics and following in his father and grandfather’s footsteps, has travelled extensively to gain an international vinous perspective.

Justine, having initially planned to enter the performing arts, is looking towards a future marketing Henschke wine. She’s gained experience with the company’s London distributors and has helped out with marketing and at the cellar door. Her aim, she says, is “to have the skills and knowledge to point it in the right direction.”

Andreas has just finished school and is considering the path he’ll take. He is fairly sure he’ll end up in the family business but, as his brother explains, getting involved is not a decision to be taken lightly. “It took me a couple of years to work out that I actually had the desire to come into the wine industry. That desire needs to be found and you can go from there.” Stephen adds, “in the end you do what you enjoy. It’s not all about money, it’s about what you want to do.”

Admiration, respect and co-operation between generations has been a constant theme of the Henschke history. Watching the sixth generation interact with their parents shows this tradition is alive and well. With the input and guidance of Stephen and Prue far from over and their children brimming with enthusiasm and fresh ideas we can look forward to many more chapters in the Henschke story.


Reproduced with the kind permission of Wine Selectors.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *