Ask a wine lover to name the top two Australian Wines and what answer will you get? Probably Henschke Hill of Grace and Penfolds Grange. Well, that was yesterday afternoon and evening. It was an incredible and actually quite humbling experience.
We started the afternoon at Henschke visiting the vineyard escorted by Melanie Keynes whose family name named the local town, Keynton. To English skins the afternoon sun seemed warm. The temperature was probably high twenties but it gets to mid forties round here and the parched earth and dead grass made it feel warmer. The vineyard is small but adjoins the local church, hence the name of the top wine, “Hill of Grace”.
These vines have never seen phyloxera, they are on their original roots and are some of the oldest vines in world. Unsurprisingly, the risk of the phyloxera bug finally arriving is taken seriously. Cars are checked for plant material at the state border and we were asked to step through a footbath before going into the vineyard.
The vines are farmed biodynamically with grape skins recycled to mulch beneath the rows, native grasses grown between rows and harvest dictated by the moon. Hill of Grace is always picked just before the full moon of Easter.
We then moved to the winery where we met Stephen Henschke, current owner of the business. He is a slight, quietly spoken, modest man with the total assurance of someone who knows they have something special to offer the world. Standing in the cool shade of the Henschke lawn we were privileged to taste through his current range of wines.
The wines start out with the Croft Chardonnay and Henry’s Seven red blend. These were lovely light fresh wines and exceptional value. The top wine, of course, is Hill of Grace from 100% Shiraz. The wine is amazing; it’s powerful and tight with lots of ripe tannin but the overall impression is of elegance first then complexity and balance, it just tastes right, never heavy, always interesting, always delicious.
The full list of wines we tasted:
• Croft Chardonnay 2012 – savoury, smoky, complex nose, medium weight, sweet fruit and freshly elegant
• Julius Riesling 2012 – linear, clean and with amazing clear lime fruit, long steely finish
• Henrys Seven 2010 from – a personal favourite, I loved the lighter fresh drinkable style, great balance of sweet fruit and savoury spicy character
• Keynton Euphonium 2009
• Cyril Henschke 2009 – middle weight and fresh but coupled to great power and length
• Tappa Pass Shiraz 2009 – sealed under the Vinolok style glass seal as it Hill of Grace
• Mount Eddlestone Shiraz 2009
• Hill of Grace 2008 – make no mistake this is a big wine, complex, supple and multi-layered. Different flavours emerge at different times and the length is incredible, but the lasting impression is of great elegance and you just want to keep on sipping.
• Julius Riesling 2002 – delicious, described brilliantly by Stephen Henschke as lime marmalade on buttered toast!
Henschke is to me the perfect boutique winery. There is an undiluted clarity of purpose and vision here. Probably something than can only be achieved at this small scale and with family ownership. That vision fully extends to the taste of the wines; ringing clear fruit, delicacy, elegance and above all perfect natural balance.
As if that were not enough in a day we then moved on to an evening in the company of Penfolds. We went to the company’s Kalimna Homestead vineyard, bought back in 1945. This is a lovely old farmhouse in a classic homestead style with wrap around veranda. It is now used for small scale meetings and tastings. We were hosted by Steff Dutton, almost intimidatingly impressive and confident as assistant winemaker, a hallowed position for someone under 30.
Penfolds is an interesting and historic company. Started by Dr Christopher Rawson Penfold and wife Mary in 1844 it grew steadily after 1945 to become the iconic brand it is today. Its top wine Grange was created by chief winemaker Max Schubert in 1951 using the, then controversial, European technique of barrel maturation. It was initially despised as a style. Something that is hard to imagine now.
Penfolds makes wines at all levels. The entry level is currently Rawsons Retreat though this is being sold off as it is seen as too low a price point. The next step is Koonunga Hill, then the famous “bin number” wines, then experimental “Cellar Reserve”, then luxury wines such as RWT and Bin 707. The top level is Grange and Yattarna Chardonnay.
In Australia, it is common for wines to be made by blending grapes from vineyards miles apart. What is unusual is that the top wines too are made in this way. Steff explained how the blending and selection process works. The wines are tasted by a panel of winemakers, if they make the cut they go into the blend, if not they don’t, simple as that. So, the quantity of Grange made each year depends on how many good wines are available. The same goes for Yattarna.
The wines we tasted were:
• 2010 Bin 10A Adelaide Hills Chardonnay – quite a ripe, full throttle, funky style with smoke and all the full battery of winemaking used
• 2010 Yattarna – much more linear and tight, probably too young at this age, but incredible intensity, clarity and length (we tried the 2004 with dinner and it was simply superb), probably my personal favourite
• 2010 Cellar Reserve Adelaide Hills Pinot Noir – ultra low intervention, not fined or filtered so slightly cloudy
• 2010 Cellar Reserve Adelaide Hills Merlot – minty and spicy medium body with great grippy ripe tannins
• 2010 Cellar Reserve Adelaide Hills Sangiovese – to me lacked the edgy rasp of a Tuscan version, a ripe plush style
• 2010 Cellar Reserve Adelaide Hills Kalimna Block 25 Mataro
• 2010 McGill Estate Shiraz
• 2010 RWT Barossa Valley Shiraz – name comes from red winemaking trial but the initials stuck! Definitely nothing experimental now just power, intensity and an incredible texture
• 2010 Bin 169 Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon
• 2008 Grange – where to start with this? The key features here are sheer power (and there is plenty) coupled with richness of texture and complexity of flavour. There are so many flavours to pick out it’s a case of the more you look the more you see. Opening one would be an undertaking, full attention required, not something you could drink with music on even much conversation. Incredible wine.
Reflecting on Grange a couple of days later it seems to me that the Penfolds and the Grange story are essentiallylinked to the story of Australian Wine. Australia needs a halo a wine to be the top of the tree and to show what is possible both in terms of style and price. As a large company Penfolds has it’s detractors and Grange has always created controversy, but I don’t think Australian wine would be where it is without it. Quite an achievement.
Melanie Keynes our host
Parched, baked and very dry, no rain for 9 months
The most famous view in Austrlian wine?
Hill of Grace vines
Inside the Hill of Grace winery
Steff Dutton assistant winemaker at Penfolds