Return to Grace – Henschke release
Return to Grace
What makes a single vineyard a single vineyard? A vineyard could be anything from a few vines to a sprawling property of sheep station proportions. Is it enough to define it as a single, connected site? For the custodian of Australia’s most famous single vineyard, it’s much more than that.
No one knows when the Hill of Grace vineyard was first planted in South Australia’s Eden Valley. The only clue is a reference in the records of the Gnadenberg (Hill of Grace) church, which refers to the church overlooking the vineyard when the steeple was erected in 1860. At the very least, the vines celebrate their 150th birthday this year.
That is, fifteen rows do. These are the “Grandfather Vines,” as Stephen Henschke affectionately named them. Alongside the grandfathers, adjacent to the ruins of the old post office are ten rows of 1910 plantings dubbed “Post Office Block 1”. Then there is “Post Office Block 2” (1965), “Post Office Block 3” (1989), “Church Block” (1952), “Windmill Block” (1956) and “House Block” (1951). All Shiraz, all Hill of Grace and, in all, not more than five hectares. The quintessential single vineyard.
Or is it? When Stephen Henschke looks at a single vineyard he doesn’t see simply adjacent, interconnected rows of vines. “What if we kept on planting further down the paddock – would it be the same vineyard?” he asked. “Not unless it had the vine age to provide the same complexity in the finished wine.” To Henschke, a single vineyard is confirmed in the glass.
And until the vines reach that level of complexity, they don’t qualify for Hill of Grace. When does this occur? Post Office Block 3 celebrates its 21st birthday this year but it still hasn’t had its rights of passage. The fruit is instead bottled into a tiny blend of just a couple of barrels, named ‘Hill of Roses.’ “Last year we compared all the vintages of Hill of Grace and Hill of Roses since 2001 and concluded that Post Office Block 3 is not yet up to the standard to be included in Hill of Grace,” Henschke explained.
To showcase just what goes into this wine, for the release of the 2006 vintage Hill of Grace, Henschke staged a tasting that had never before been attempted in the 150 year history of this vineyard: every block of the new vintage of Hill of Grace Shiraz, tasted separately in the vineyard both as grapes and as fermented wine.
It sounds like an easy exercise to orchestrate. Far from it. Book the date too early and the vagaries of vintage might leave all of the wines that you had hoped to taste still hanging on those grand old vines. Too late, and the influence of oak maturation begins to distract from the nuances of uniqueness.
But in a stroke of luck that even the strict biodynamic regime of this vineyard cannot dictate, the stars and planets aligned, harvest arrived earlier than usual, and on the date booked months in advance, every block had been picked, and most had just completed fermentation. There is no better time at which to compare these contrasting styles. And what a contrast it proved to be.
Church Block was powerful and concentrated with milk chocolate, liquorice and spice flavours. The Grandfather Vines brought lifted, floral notes of violets to the bouquet and vibrant plum and stewed berry flavours to the palate. Post Office Block 1 was more delicate, with five spice exotics, while Post Office Block 2 displayed red fruits and vibrant acidity. Post Office Block 3 was the lightest of all and Windmill Block was lush, elegant and precocious, without the depth and persistence of the others. House Block displayed more focused cherry/plum fruits and textural tannins, without such pronounced complexity of spice. A remarkable contrast of styles from adjacent rows of vines on this small, flat site (more ‘grace’ than ‘hill’).
It will be two years before these parcels find each other and there’s every chance that Windmill Block will miss the cut. It will not be until 2014 that the wine ultimately emerges for the world to see.
This year it is the 2006 vintage that has the limelight. Before I say nice things about it I must first clarify that I have not long been a disciple of Hill of Grace. My conversion began with the release of the 2005 last year and has been confirmed, for now, with the 2006.
Prior to that time, I could not conceive of how a wine so ravaged by brettanomyces (barrel yeast infection that inflicts a wine with a horsey barnyard or hospital bandage character) could gain such a reputation and afford such a price. “We were trying to reduce our sulphur [preservative] regime during the 1990s and we didn’t understand at the time that this increased the risk of brettanomyces,” Stephen explained when I asked him what had changed. “As an industry, we know much more about brett now than we did a decade ago. We’re now much more stringent with our barrel management and we sterile filter prior to bottling to eliminate the risk.”
With the distracting influence of brettanomyces out of the equation, Hill of Grace is now a much more pure expression of the vineyard, and each component is given full voice to make its unique contribution to the whole.
If you’ve been off this wine for a while, 2006 is the vintage to return to grace.
2006 Henschke Hill of Grace, $610
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