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The Wine Show: episode eight – meeting the Henschkes

The Wine Show: episode eight – meeting the Henschkes

by Amelia Singer 21 June 2016

Amelia Singer heads to Australia and meets up with one of the country's finest ever winemakers, discovering a rich history that still influences the industry today.

More from this series:

Amelia is a WSET Diploma-trained wine expert and the founder of events business Amelia's Wine. She has experience of working on vineyards all over the world, and appears on ITV's The Wine Show.

With the EU referendum coming up, immigration seems to be the buzzword of the moment. Jobs, culture and national identity all come up in this multidimensional and complex debate. Throughout history people have been fleeing persecution or poverty, hoping to create a better life. I am not even going to try and go into the nuances of this topic here. However, what is undeniable is that thanks to immigrants in the past, momentous wines of the present have been created worldwide. They are the living products of a rich, complicated and tenacious history.

In this episode Joe and I are lucky to find ourselves experiencing two very different kinds of iconic wine. Joe gets the opportunity to partake and buy a barrel of a Premier Crus Auxey Duresses at the Hospices de Beaune wine auction, whilst I get travel to the other side of the world and visit Henschke, one of Australia’s oldest vineyards (and home to its most expensive wine). Both styles of wine are internationally renowned, pricey and yet, I would argue, the latter wine is not completely understood. Burgundy’s heritage and culture is a given. Australia’s long-running wineries in Barossa Valley – not so much. People love the concentrated fruit, spice and luxurious mouthfeel and yet have no idea of the century-old history behind it. Is it necessary to know, some may ask? Absolutely. That rich concentration could only come from 150-year-old vines. However, even more importantly, it gives us a context for these historic wineries, the inspiration behind them and the ambition for their future.

Barossa and Eden

 
 
My guilty sugar-coated pleasure of local Kuchen transported me right back to Munich. The whole feeling was quite surreal. It reminded me of when I visited the town of Frutillar in Chile – an area inhabited at the end of the nineteenth century by German settlers.

Amelia Singer

Before I visited the Henschke winery I decided to acquaint myself with the area by taking a little tour around the flat valleys of Barossa. My first stop was the town of Tanunda, whose initial inhabitants had been Prussian immigrants from as early as 1842. Walking around I was amazed to see all the signposts in German, Lutheran churches, Germanic names of buildings on plaques and even German bakeries. My guilty sugar-coated pleasure of local Kuchen transported me right back to Munich. The whole feeling was quite surreal. It reminded me of when I visited the town of Frutillar in Chile – an area inhabited at the end of the nineteenth century by German settlers. Yet behind the aesthetically pleasing architecture and delicious baked goods lies a tragic driving force; the desperate immigrants’ hope for a new life.

The rich history of the Barossa and Eden Valleys is partly defined by the diaspora of Silesian Lutherans who exited Europe in the mid 1800s. The first Lutherans came to avoid religious persecution in (then) Prussia. The first vines were planted in the Barossa (named after a region in Spain) in 1847 – the same year the first German-language newspaper was published in the area.

A language also developed in the region known as ‘Barossa Deutsch’ and is still spoken by some today. Not least of all by Dr Peter Mickan, head lecturer in Linguistics at Adelaide University. At the iconic Chateau Tanunda, Barossa’s first winery, I interviewed Peter about the local Lutheran heritage. I must admit I never learnt German at school and our brief interaction in this native tongue is nothing short of painful! However, my failed Barossa Deutsch attempts aside, it was fascinating to hear how Barossa’s wine industry owes its existence to these hard working, earnest Lutherans. These early German settlers all farmed smallholdings. Grapes were a popular cash crop so most families would grow their own vines. Far from boisterous winos, the church and their strong faith was at the heart of their community, which enabled the settlers to work hard establishing their settlements despite all the adversity that new frontiers present. The grapes provided not only a livelihood but also the communion wine. In essence, this crop held the community together.

 

Family values

 
 
I did not sleep the night before filming at the Henschke family home. Meeting Stephen Henschke, fifth generation Henshcke and present winemaker, for a wine geek is equivalent to thespians meeting Cate Blanchett. Both Australians are justifiably considered royalty in their specific fields.

Amelia Singer

In Oz’s arid outback, it really was a case of survival of the fittest for these Silesian settlers. The Henschke’s family is a testament to that. In 1841, after losing both his wife and child during the passage from Poland over to Australia, Johan Christian Henschke earnestly threw himself into his new life – firstly in Adelaide Hills and then Eden Valley. In 1862 he purchased land in the latter, upon which the Henschke estate, homestead and winery still exists and operates today. The first Henschke wines were sold in 1868, and were produced from Shiraz, Riesling and likely Grenache and Mourvedre. The oldest continuing vineyard in the Henschke family suite of vineyards is appropriately called ‘Hill of Grace’; Australia’s most famous vineyard and almost certainly the country’s most premium and recognized single-vineyard wine. What is less well known is that it is named after the German village of Gnadenberg to remind the early settlers of their Silesian homelands. Gnadenberg translates to Hill of Grace, but the grand irony is that there is no hill at the Hill of Grace vineyard!

I did not sleep the night before filming at the Henschke family home. Meeting Stephen Henschke, fifth generation Henshcke and present winemaker, for a wine geek is equivalent to thespians meeting Cate Blanchett. Both Australians are justifiably considered royalty in their specific fields.

And yes, being introduced to Stephen in his world famous vineyard was one of the most significant moments of my wine career – but not for the reasons I thought it would be. I knew that this vineyard was over 150 years old, producing some of the most expensive wine in the world. These wines are not your stereotypical Aussie fruity, oaky, alcoholic fruit bombs; their exotic spice and concentrated flavours evoke years of loving care. What I had not envisaged was how humble and genuine Stephen and all the Henschkes would be.

Points of difference

The tenacious Lutheran work ethic of the family’s immigrant ancestors is reflected in the winery ethos today. All the Henschke vineyards are farmed bio-dynamically and in as sustainable a manner as possible. The whole family are an indefatigable and enthusiastic unit. Stephen works side by side with his son Johan in the winery, Stephen’s wife Prue is head viticulturist and their daughter Justine is head of marketing. They all view their job as earth’s caretakers, never producing more than they needed even when faced with tempting opportunities. Everyone has an unwavering, unified, clear vision when it comes to their wine. ‘Their ‘weapon’ is the family’s unfazed approach to wine styles,’ explains ANA Airlines wine consultant and importer, Ned Goodwin, ‘and they stick to their guns when so many other producers are changing their line-ups at a whim.’

That’s not to say Stephen shies away from modernity – judging from the winery’s cutting edge machinery and his dog’s own Twitter account. The Henschkes may make stunning wine but they do not take themselves too seriously, as the annual Kegel competition (a traditional German bowling game) attests! Again, I apologise to viewers. My bowling skills are even worse than my German.

As I left the Henschkes, having just tasted their not even released 2010 Hill of Grace, I couldn’t get over what an incredible family they were. Their authentic heritage absolutely resonates in the wine glass. Out of a turbulent past comes a wine of immense beauty, power and a family united in love and vision of the world. Getting to know the Henschke wines is really getting to know about a family.

 
 

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