Celebrating 60 years of Henschke’s Legendary Hill of Grace

This essay was first published on the Club Oenologique

website on 12th April 2023

Here is a link to the full article

Stephen and Prue Henschke welcomed a group of Australian wine writers, and yours truly, to their newly renovated cellar door for a one-off celebration of Hill of Grace to mark 60 years of its production while at the same time launching the 2018 vintage.  Stephen’s introductory sentence noted that his ancestors were, “fleeing persecution to find a better life”.  They indeed came to the right place.  During the day, Stephen’s stories continually referenced his predecessors, their struggles, their commitment to the community, their faith and their vision.  Indeed, several Henschke ancestors are remembered on the present-day wine labels.  The entire Henschke clan was present at this momentous gathering, with Stephen and Prue’s children, Andreas, Justine and Johann, along with their partners and a further volley of their children all joining the celebration.

The Henschke wine story is an ever-evolving family affair.  Judging by the wines, and their evolution over six decades, who is to say that there are not more extraordinary chapters to come? As I left, after dinner, during which yet more older vintages were poured, Justine noted that we would do it again in ten years as long as the library stocks were still available. I imagine that the Henschkes have the self-control required, and I know they have the long-term vision not to raid the cellar too often, so I have made a provisional note in my diary for 2033.

Stephen Henschke

So, what is the background of this world-renowned wine? The Hill of Grace vineyard is undoubtedly a beautiful plot of land, sitting on an old riverbed framed by ancient stone ruins of the old Parrot Hill post office on one side and the Gnadenberg Lutheran Church on the other. Legend has it that early Silesian settler Nicolaus Stanitzki, who originally leased the block in the late-1850s and then bought it in 1873, planted Shiraz cuttings sourced from Hermitage around the year 1860.  Three decades after Nicolaus first planted the Hill of Grace vineyard, it was sold by his heirs to Johann Christian Henschke’s son Paul Gotthard.  Perhaps written in the stars, Nicolaus’s granddaughter, Johanne Ida Selma Stanitzki, married Paul Gotthard’s son Paul Alfred.  This union meant that these two families were linked forever as the founders of the Henschke wine dynasty.

Hill of Grace is a story of an ever-evolving family at the centre of some exceptional parcels of vines in Keyneton, in Eden Valley, South Australia.  This story is already a long one by any measure, but it is one of legends in Australia.  Hill of Grace is a direct translation of Gnadenberg, a name shared by the church and vineyard.  It was the moniker coined by Stephen’s father, Cyril Henschke, himself a fourth-generation winemaker, in the late 1950s.  This single vineyard, single variety wine, and its portfolio partner Mount Edelstone, another Eden Valley Shiraz, broke away from the pack of more familiar blended Aussie reds nearly seven decades ago to shine a spotlight on what Cyril was convinced was extremely special terroir.  His decision was not entirely a gamble, given that the dry-grown Hill of Grace vines were already 100 years old when he bottled the inaugural 1958 vintage.  Stephen and his wife Prue became custodians of his father Cyril’s vineyards in the mid-1970s.  This husband and wife team was always feted to succeed, with Stephen using his father’s winemaking guidance and Prue’s exploring her extraordinary talents in the vineyard.

 

Prue Henschke

There is no doubt that from the turn of the century onwards, the wines have more intensity and volume.  But the paler, lighter and more fragrant wines of the 20th century have indeed stood the test of time remaining, on the whole, energetic and balanced.  There is a theme, too, creating an indelible link, running from the very first wine to the recently released 2018 vintage, and this is, of course, the consistency of the plot of land itself.  Come rain or shine, the vines seem to understand their elemental responsibilities, and the results are always noteworthy and, more often than not, remarkable.  It is fair to say that Henschke Hill of Grace sits atop the pantheon of Australian Shiraz alongside Penfolds Grange, and yet they could not be more different in philosophy, style, timbre and taste.  Where Grange is often overtly muscular and extracted, bullying the palate and taking a robust stance in one’s flavour memory, Hill of Grace is more subtle, layered, velvety and unhurried.  When I reread my Hill of Grace tasting notes, I could be writing about top-flight Pomerol instead of South Australian Shiraz and this might explain why these wines seem immediately attractive and easier to understand than Grange.  I have often thought, particularly about older vintages of Hill of Grace, that they do not quite stand the test of time, but this is patently incorrect, as this remarkable tasting has shown.  Yes, these are tender, sensual Shirazes that senesce – full of grace – in the same way that a Pinot Noir might and, again, this makes them otherworldly, luxurious, calming and complete.  The fame of this wine is universal, and it has inspired the production of Hill of Roses, which is made from younger vines from a block adjacent to the Grandfathers (the original block from c.1860), while the Post Office Blocks 1 and 2, Windmill Block, House Block and Church Block make up Hill of Grace.  One day, when the time is right, one assumes that the Hill of Roses will cease to exist as the fruit will be subsumed into Hill of Grace proper.  Perhaps it is good news that Hill of Roses comes from Post Office Block 3, which is 0.94ha.   This eventual addition to the Hill of Grace footprint will boost the overall plot of worthy vines to a fraction over 5ha, a little larger than Burgundy Grand Cru superstar Romanée-Conti and a fraction smaller than La Tâche.  As such, there will only ever be a finite amount of Hill of Grace made, which will further increase its desirability as time passes.

Prior to this historic tasting, I was promised we would be putting 18 vintages under the microscope to chart the evolution of this historic wine.  On the day, the Henschkes generously opened no fewer than 26 vintages of Hill of Grace, and every wine told the story of its time.  To date, 57 wines have been made over 61 vintages (Hill of Grace was not produced in 1960, 1974, 2000 and 2011), and this fact alone demonstrates that this vineyard is indeed hallowed ground.

The Wines

1958 Hill of Grace (no declared alcohol level)

This stunning wine has a remarkable colour.  It displays a mahogany hue, but it is also cherry red at its core, and there is an overwhelming perfume of tobacco and chypre that greets the nose before any fruit emerges.  It is like slicing through an ancient vine trunk to find the tenderness within.  The fruit is silky, buoyant, saline, ripe and plummy, albeit with skin notes and fewer flesh tones on account of the age.  Texturally, this is an elegant wine with silkiness and traction on the palate, and while its best days, from a fruit perspective, are long gone, there is still a wine experience here that shows vigour and resilience.  Notably, in 1958, the ‘Grandfathers’ vines were 100 years old.  18.5/20 (drink now) 

1961 Hill of Grace (no declared alcohol level)

With a butterscotch rim and a tawny hue in the core, this is a beautifully fragrant vintage with floral tones and none of the singed saltiness found in the 1958 vintage. The nuttiness, dried leaf notes and fig tones are easy, open and welcoming, and there is a softness to this vintage that signifies a more relaxed and less urgent harvest. Red fruit hints are still pleasingly present alongside faint demerara tones and somewhat exotic barrel nuances. This is a stunning wine with plenty of acid cradling the finish, helping it to stand upright on the palate.  18.5/20 (drink now)

1962 Hill of Grace (no declared alcohol level)

The colour is a shade darker here, and it feels ever so slightly richer and heavier in the glass.  The nose shows more spice and fauna, making the mouth water – there is still life here, making this wine active and not passive, in the glass.  Coffee hints and a purple, as opposed to red, core of fruit notes emerge and with them come a more voluminous wine with mouth-coating talents. Granted this is another venerable wine with nowhere particular to go, but it is still standing proud and undaunted with superb length and definition.  19/20 (drink now)

1966 Hill of Grace (no declared alcohol level)

Lighter in colour, viscosity and weight, there is a heather and caramel nose here that, while charming, is not as vinous nor as fruit-present as the previous wines.  A little more angular, bright and crunchy with more salted caramel and faint barrel tones than red fruit, this is a fascinating wine hanging on well thanks to the acid profile and ultra-fine tannins.  Light, clean, cinnamon and vanilla-kissed, this is a lovely wine that shows a tender side to Hill of Grace.  18.5/20 (drink now)

1968 Hill of Grace (no declared alcohol level)

This is the centenary year for HoG. There is little going on on the nose and what notes one can glean are more on the vegetal side of the fence as opposed to the fruit side.  There is a faint mustiness, and while it is not off-putting, and this might not be the cleanest bottle, it is one the downslope of its life.  The palate confirms that this is the case, with loose-knit sweetness and a disjointed feel, and as the wine flows across the palate, earth and vegetable notes join the throng, dampening any hope for a fruity finish.  17/20 (over)

1972 Hill of Grace (no declared alcohol level)

With one of the palest hues and frailest perfumes, this is still a wine in balance and one with clean lines and a definite character. OK, it is a featherweight, but it still has length and drive and the finish is pristine with cherry and raspberry notes, wild herbs, and gentle oak and cake spice tones that make it a joy to taste.  Delicacy and poise are the watchwords here.  18.5/20 (drink now)

1973 Hill of Grace (no declared alcohol level)

There is a marked difference in colour here with a tone that signals more intensity, and this is backed up with a lovely, lush and succulent depth of fruit.  Bright and creamy, this is the first vintage that looks and feels like an identifiable, veteran, elite-quality Aussie Shiraz.  Of course, it still tastes 50 years old, but it is hanging on rather nicely, and there is spice and even hints of iodine grip on the finish, making it very enticing.  19/20 (drink now)

1978 Hill of Grace (12.5% alc.) 

A little softer and gentler than the 1973, and with some green hints, too, this is more of an aromatic wine than a gustatory wine, and the palate is a little hollow and sweet for my tastes.  It is tiring, too, moving slowly and without much cadence on the palate.  Having said this, it is not out of place in this line-up and, like the others, there is a crunch and edge that prevents it from collapsing altogether.  17.5/20 (over)

1982 Hill of Grace (13% alc.) 

The 1982 is the first ‘deep red’ wine, in terms of the overriding colour and also the nose.  This is a delicious Hill of Grace with energy, spice, depth, genuine ancient Shiraz balance and freshness. The red fruit is fading slightly, but this is still a beautifully refreshing wine.  18.5/20 (drink now)

1984 Hill of Grace (12% alc.) 

What a difference a couple of years makes, as this wine is darker still with more obvious grip and vinosity. This is the first wine with a back end that grows and expands in the glass. It has considerable depth and a touch of earthiness, yet this is undoubtedly a Hill of Grace-shaped wine with tannin and prodigious length.  This beauty is nearly four decades old but still shows dynamism and flair.  19/20 (drink now)

1986 Hill of Grace (12.5% alc.) 

1986 was the first vintage that was exported to the UK. With more depth, again, the spice grows in the glass and in addition to inviting exotic hints, there is a faint undercurrent of pepper.  The palate also has punch and sour, tangy moments, keeping the wine alive.  This vintage has a more animal feel, and it is starting to gather muscle and depth, but this is still a wine centred around admirable grace.  19/20 (drink now)

1988 Hill of Grace (13% alc.) 

This is a more rustic and disjointed wine with some bold fruit and spice notes but not the control or silkiness of the others. There is a faint toffee detail here that I find a little diverting and is a little more ‘amber’ and oxidised than the others. The length and volume of fruit are, however, impressive, but the calibre and tone of the delivery are a little random and the finish is somewhat hectic.  17.5/20 (drink now)

1990 Hill of Grace (13.5% alc.) 

I am surprised at the colour here, which is advanced and shows light molasses tones.  Given it is only 33 years old, I expected it might have been a shade or two darker.  But, on the nose, there is urgency and spice, and the palate further builds on these themes with combative red fruit and herb details.  What I like most about this vintage is the harmony between all of these elements and none of them break from the pack, staying in perfect step with each other and working as a team.  18.5/20 (drink now – 2030)

1991 Hill of Grace (13.5% alc.) 

With a slightly darker colour and a deeper well of fruit in its core, this is the first wine with a palpable pulse of tannin, and this makes such a difference, as there is now a ‘backboard’ for the fruit to use to resonate on the palate.  This, in turn, means that there is an appearance of more volume of flavour.  Alongside the fruit ripeness, mouth-watering acid and the emery-board tannins give rise to a rousing flavour performance, and the overall feeling is delectable. This is my favourite vintage so far because it shows classic Hill of Grace traits, is old, and yet, still active and challenging.  19.5/20 (drink now – 2030)

1992 Hill of Grace (14.1% alc.) 

There are red notes that creep into the glass, in this superb 1992, from both a colour perspective and a flavour one. This is another wine with tannin and acidity backing up the vibrant Shiraz flavours, and while it is not as polished nor silky as the 1991, there is still time for it to evolve. I marginally prefer the previous vintage, but the exuberance and excitement here are hard to ignore.  19/20 (drink now – 2030)

1996 Hill of Grace (13.8% alc.) 

This is a cultured and sophisticated Hill of Grace, and the silky texture and length are in a different league to many of the previous vintages.  Almost Burgundian in its supple velvetiness, this is a very welcoming wine.  While it is not a darker vintage or particularly full or tannic, there is more intensity here and this adds to its overall allure.  18.5/20 (drink now – 2030)

2002 Hill of Grace (14.5% alc.) 

The colour here is immediately three shades darker and, with the new closures introduced in 2002, colour is not something that slips away very easily any more. Darker, riper, more profound, fuller and more engaging, this is a superb wine and the cooler vintage conditions in 2002 make this an utterly thrilling creation.  Tense, bright, edgy and spicy, this is a wonderful HoG with stunning length and control and at no stage does it lose its momentum or drive while keeping its trademark vineyard character.  19.5/20 (drink now – 2035)

2004 Hill of Grace (14% alc.) 

Darker still, thanks to a warmer vintage, this is the first wine starting to look like it is derived from the modern Hill of Grace era.  Muscle, tannin, attack, earth and spice are all found here, and yet this is not a particularly fleshy wine but one built on undergrowth, soil and minerality.  While I like this wine less than the 2002, and this is purely a personal taste, plenty would fall for 2004’s elemental power and charm.  19/20 (drink 2028 – 2040)

2005 Hill of Grace (14.5% alc.) 

The vintage variation in each wine is amazing, all connected by origin, but as different as a legion of siblings.  This time we have pepper, and masses of it, with some fascinating sourness and a wilder edge throughout.  It seems like a less polished wine with a slightly uncontrolled palate, and it also feels a little hot and raw, but these tannins have some way to go, and they will undoubtedly evolve more for perhaps a further decade.  The main question is, will it finally settle down?  Perhaps not enough for my tastes.  18/20 (drink now – 2035)

2006 Hill of Grace (14.5% alc.) 

What a delicious nose with a much more controlled start to this wine than I found in the 2005. This is a cultured HoG with a long, grainy, even palate and a lip-smacking line-up of tannins, which run the length of the palate.  This is a spectacular wine, and it is still relatively closed. I can see it running down the theme line of some of the older vintages tasted today, which is very encouraging.  There is no hurry here, making this a wine of stunning depth and length. While modern technology and Prue’s viticultural discipline have inevitably made from much finer wines during this period, the sense of the vineyard itself still beams through in the glass.  19.5+/20 (drink 2025 – 2050)

2008 Hill of Grace (14.5% alc.) 

There is tension here, with more depth and power and a hint of ostentatiousness on display.  It feels more confident and less reticent, and also more worldly.  Granted, this is a bigger wine and more layered and modern, but it is more detailed and exciting than some of the more refined vintages, too.  The nose alone is incredible, and the fruit character and breadth of flavour are thrilling.  19+/20 (drink 2025 – 2040)

2010 Hill of Grace (14.5% alc.) 

There are green hints here, and it seems tense and acid-soaked under the powerful, youthful fruit. It has hardly budged an inch in six years since I first tasted it, and the fruit concentration is remarkable, with just the merest hint of silkiness. Coating this fruit is a lot of oak, seemingly much more than found on other vintages. The extraction seems powerful, too, making this a backward wine.  While all of the wines from 2002 onwards are sealed under screwcap, this is the most reluctant and introverted. I am convinced that in the fullness of time, the 2010 will be regarded as a genuinely great Hill of Grace, and I hope to go back to it over and over again.  20+/20 (drink 2030 – 2050)

2012 Hill of Grace (14.5% alc.) 

The 2012 is rather more saline and mineral than the more structured vintages surrounding it, with less obvious fruit and more earth and sandiness creeping in.  This is the most closed and quiet of the recent bunch, and it is being held back by a certain shyness that appears to be true ripeness of the fruit.  I would like to see more prominent fruit at this age, so this is a slightly baffling wine. Having said this, it is bound to evolve like clockwork, given patience.  19+/20 (drink 2032 – 2042)

2015 Hill of Grace (14.5% alc.) 

With an amazing nose and superbly controlled fruit, this is a honed Hill of Grace that treads the boards between plushness and restraint.  There is so much detail to be found here, making it a wine that does not rely solely on its volume of fruit for its charm.  The floral layers and succulence add to the overall experience, making this a particularly sumptuous vintage.  19.5+/20 (drink 2030 – 2050)

2016 Hill of Grace (14.5% alc.) 

This is one of my favourite wines in the line-up because it has the deepest core and a serious amount of detail on the nose and palate. It is not necessarily bigger or darker, although it is undoubtedly a strapping fellow, this is sensational creation with more refinement and an overriding sense of completeness.  Everything is intentional, and every element seems to fit in perfectly.  I tipped my score up half a point into the heroic, ‘perfect’ zone because it continued to evolve throughout the tasting.  20+/20 (drink 2030 – 2050)

2018 Hill of Grace (14.5% alc.) 

The 2018 vintage coincides with 150 years of Henschke family winemaking.  This is immediately juicy and forward, then it regains its composure, remembers its origins and finishes closed and firm.  This is a classic 2018 with a great fruit expression, yet the incredible concentration and inbuilt density of tannins are in perfect sync.  The length is impressive, and the fruit character is kept up from start to finish, and while the earth, five spice and pepper notes seem to sit back a little in the glass, they are buried in this wine.  Interestingly, only 20% new oak was used here; I suspect because the earth and spice notes are so prevalent in this vintage, a decision was made not to push them even harder by adding oak, and so it is a fascinatingly juicy wine.  19.5+/20 (drink 2026 – 2050)

 

MATTHEW JUKES SCORE CONVERSION CHART

As a wine taster and writer, I prefer you to read my words rather than focus on my scores. This is why I rarely score wines unless I write a large report like this one. I believe that scores, taken out of the context of tasting notes, are essentially meaningless.  I try to describe my featured wines fully such that you can imagine the aroma, shape and flavour of each one.  Scores don’t help with this.  You will be aware that a few different scoring methods are used in the global wine trade. Most of my wine writing colleagues have been tempted over to the dark side, using the 100-point rating system.  A few, usually older types, cling to the venerable five-star rating.  As you know, I favour the 20-point score.  It’s how I was taught, and it dovetails nicely with how I judge wines. For those of you who are not familiar with the 20-point scoring system, here is a table that translates it into various other formats.

 

20-point score100-point scoremedal5 star
20100perfect gold5
19.598/99gold5
1996/97gold5
18.595gold4
1893/94high silver4
17.591/92silver4
1789/90silver3
16.588high bronze3
1686/87bronze2
15.585bronze2
1583/84no medal1
14.581/82no medal1
1480no medal1