The Henschke family has been making wine since Johann Christian Henschke planted a small vineyard on his diverse farming property at Keyneton, high above the Barossa Valley, back in 1862.
He was one of many Silesians who had fled their European homeland in search of religious freedom, and initially made wine to be enjoyed by his family and friends.
He would be very pleasantly surprised, no doubt, to learn that today the Henschke name is known around the world with the family's flagship Hill of Grace wine one of Australia's most acclaimed single-vineyard releases, much sought-after by collectors.
Christian Henschke's first commercial release was in 1868, setting the wheels in motion for greater things to come.
Each generation has helped build the business, still owned and operated by the family. Fourth-generation vigneron Cyril Henschke pioneered varietal and single-vineyard wines at a time when blended wines and fortifieds were in vogue.
His greatest legacy was the creation of Hill of Grace and Mount Edelstone in the 1950s, shiraz wines from Eden Valley that have captured the wine world’s imagination.
Today, the Henschke family produces around 30,000 cases of wine a year and has over 120 hectares under vine in both the Eden Valley and the Adelaide Hills. Wine guru James Halliday describes Henschke as “the best medium-sized wine producer in Australia” and says “Hill of Grace is second only to Penfolds Grange as Australia's red wine icon.”
The Eden Valley, Mount Edelstone, Hill of Grace and Lenswood vineyards are all managed by viticulturist Prue Henschke using biodynamic and organic principles.
Prue works alongside her winemaker husband Stephen and in 2006 the couple made the decision to go fully organic, including the use of some biodynamic practices. Sustainability is their watchword.
The famous Hill of Grace vineyard contains some vines that are 120 years old, while Mount Edelstone was planted in 1912.
One of the problems facing organic growers has been the control of under-row weeds, which is achieved in conventional vineyards by the use of herbicides. Under-vine weed control in the Henschke vineyards has been switched from herbicides to pine oil in the winter, and then in the summer an under-vine ploughing device which takes out weeds without damaging the vines is used.
In some of the vineyard blocks straw mulch is left under the vines, deterring weed growth and helping to maintain soil moisture, while the Henschkes also use organic sprays.
“We are looking for management systems that help the health of the soils, and help them retain moisture,” says Prue Henschke. “The soil components are manufactured by the microbes in the soil: they need food and the right conditions.
"We are combining organics and biodynamics to give an integrated system. This sort of fusion of sustainable wine growing, organics and selected biodynamic practices strikes me as an enlightened, rational approach, although it would probably be frowned upon by purist followers of biodynamics.”
Prue Henschke says different grape varieties demand different regimes, which is why she is constantly learning.
“The grapevine is an extraordinary plant,” she says. “Different varieties reﬂect a wide range of climate adaptability – grenache loves the heat and pinot noir produces its exotic ﬂavours in a cooler temperate climate. To produce the vivid varietal ﬂavours, the vines need healthy soils to survive by buffering them against the extremes of summer.
“Along with the minerals and water making up the physical part of the soil, organic matter and soil microbial activity are major players in the health of the soil and both are at risk from excessive cultivation and high levels of fertiliser.
“The inclusion of biodynamic principles in our vineyard management gives a two-fold beneﬁt – replacement of inorganic fertilisers with compost and the end of using herbicides.
“It incorporates the cyclic nature of our farm – from the manure of the cows and the eggshells from the chooks, to the recycling of our grape marc to produce compost, which in turn produces great wine.
“The inﬂuence of the moon cycles has always been a familiar feature – Hill of Grace is always picked just before the full moon of Easter and Mount Edelstone a week or so after. Throw in nectar- providing local native plants to help with pest and disease control and we have a garden of earthly delights – a food chain that replaces pest control.
”We see the nourishing of our land as a tool to connect between healthy soils and healthy people. We want to tread as lightly as possible on our land; land that is our home, our peace, our nourishment, pleasure and future.“
And the Henschkes are not standing still. Their three children now play an active role and Prue is trialling new grape varieties and clones in the three different vineyard regions: grenache, mataro and counoise in the Barossa Valley; tempranillo, barbera, nebbiolo and various clones of shiraz and riesling in the Eden Valley; and grüner veltliner and clones of pinot noir, chardonnay and merlot in the Adelaide Hills.
# This is a version of a story that originally appeared in Nourish magazine.