‘Graced by the Luminous Moon’ – Henschke Hill of Grace 2015 & other top releases
Henschke Hill of Grace 2015 launches on 6th May. Expressive, very complete, I had a sneak preview of this stunning 54th release last week. Tasting it ‘live,’ with Henschke’s fifth-generation winemaker Stephen and viticulturist Prue Henschke, the couple talked me through the 54th vintage of this iconic Australian single vineyard Shiraz. It is the 15th to be rated “exceptional” by Henschke since the Hill of Grace was launched, in 1958, alongside the 1959, 1972, 1978, 1984, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1994, 1996, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2020 & 2012.
Harvesting close to the full moon is optimal
The Henschkes have taken to attaching an epithet to each vintage of Hill of Grace. Whether fruit ripens early or late in any given year, they have noticed that most vintages of Hill of Grace occur around the full moon, after the autumn equinox (Easter). Although this date can vary by up to thirty-five days, it suggests that harvesting close to the full moon is optimal. Sure enough, in 2015, the final pick took place a week before the Easter harvest moon. Impressed by its “purity of aromas, depth of flavour and silky lustrous tannins,” the Henschkes describe Hill of Grace 2015 as “Graced by the Luminous Moon.”
I wonder what choice words they will come up with to describe the 2020 vintage (if produced) when, Prue reported, poor flowering, hail and frost produced “pitiful” yields. Scythed down by a brutal 80-90%, the Shiraz was, however, “spicy and vibrant, the tannins not dried out,” added Stephen. Focusing on the positive is in keeping with these strange times and, frankly, it was incredibly easy to do during this privileged tasting. Henschke Keyneton Euphonium Shiraz 2015, Henschke Cyril Henschke Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, Henschke Mount Edelstone Shiraz 2015 and Henschke Hill of Grace 2015 reinforcing the high calibre of the vintage.
Avid readers may recall that I tasted Henschke Mount Edelstone Shiraz 2015 in January at new UK importer, Liberty Wines’ portfolio tasting. It made the cut for my February Wines of the Month. However, with the benefit of the Henschkes’ input and the rare opportunity to review a bottle (and bottles of the other wines) over two-three days, I have written up this sensational wine again. My tasting notes on all four wines appear below. First, here is Henschkes’ overview of the 2015 vintage, followed by Stephen’s insights into the vintage classification process. You can find the classification status of every previous Hill of Grace release charted here.
Henschke 2015 Vintage Report
“A traditionally wet winter, mild spring and excellent fruit set provided a great start to the 2015 vintage after four vintages with below average yields. Spring was dry and led into a very mild, dry summer with no disease, resulting in fruit with higher natural acidity, and incredible flavour and colour concentration. January started with dry, hot and windy weather however by the end of the first week, relief came with 60-75mm of rain and a record-breaking coolest January in 11 years. The rain was perfectly timed for the old dry-grown vineyards, and the mild weather that followed from February through to April provided for a fairytale vintage.
Most of our white varieties and some Eden Valley shiraz were in before Easter, moving on to the rest of our Eden Valley red varieties soon after, and eventually winding down at the end of April as the rain and cooler temperatures set in. The 2015 vintage has provided stunning signature riesling and elegant shiraz that show extraordinary flavour, purity of fruit and acid balance with the potential for excellent ageing.”
Exceptional vintages – head and shoulders above the rest
When we spoke last week, I asked the Henschkes about what elevated the 2015 to exceptional status. Given Hill of Grace is a single vineyard wine, vintage variation plays a role. Recalling the excellent spring and mild summer, Stephen reflected, “I really loved the mild long ripening period.” With good yields, as well as superlative quality, he mentioned 10 years of biodynamic cultivation has helped too. Comparing 2015 with 2002 and 2010, he observed that such exceptional vintages “stand out in your mind, with magnificent fruit quality from day one.” Of course, he accepted, “it also depends on what happens in the winemaking.” Wines are classified following a bench-marking tasting with other vintages; those classified ‘exceptional’ “stand head and shoulders above the rest.”
Henschke Keyneton Euphonium 2015 (Barossa)
This blend of Eden Valley and Barossa Valley vineyards and grape varieties comprises 66% Shiraz (up to 50 years old), with 19% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc from vineyards, the oldest planted by Cyril Henschke in the 1950s/60s. Stephen explained that he and Prue introduced it to the portfolio “because we wanted something more savoury than the straight Shiraz.” Shiraz/Cabernet blends are an Australian classic. For the winemaker, the Cabernet Sauvignon brings intensity and mouthfeel, with textural, structural tannins. I asked about the role of Cabernet Franc. Planted in 1988, Prue reported that it is “phenomenally poor bearing” – virused, she reckons – “so it doesn’t play a big role” but, with lift, leans into the cooler climate expression of the Eden Valley. The Shiraz and Cabernet mingle attractively on the nose, with its sweet plum, blackberry and subtly menthol, mint and eucalyptus nuances. With a cool backbone of acidity, the fruit is saturating in the mouth. It’s not without volume, but it lands elegantly, with impressive persistence, line and layer, revealing bitter chocolate, tobacco, bay leaf, black pepper, dried herbs and tapenade. Light touches. Nothing heavy-handed here. The tannins are fine, gently rounded and unobtrusive. On the first evening, sweet plum and red berry fruits pass the baton to the Cabernet, which brings marked blackcurranty drive to the finish. On day two, the velveteen palate is spicier, more savoury, with liquorice, dried herbs and tapenade. A hint of smoky charcuterie too, until intense and youthfully lively, the red and black berry and currant fruit re-asserts itself on the finish. It proved itself to be irresistible with roasted leeks, pink fir potatoes and chickpeas with romesco sauce (this Anna Jones’ recipe in The Guardian). Harvested between 18 February – 15 April, it was matured in 20% new and 80% seasoned French oak hogsheads for 18 months prior to blending and bottling. Sealed under screwcap. Rated an exceptional vintage for this wine by Henschke; anticipated ageing potential 20+ years. Very good. 14.5% £37.50 at Mr Wheeler, £37.65 at Vinum, £38.99 at AG Wines.
Henschke Cyril Henschke Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 (Eden Valley)
Cyril Henschke Cabernet Sauvignon was introduced in 1976, in honour of Stephen’s father (1924-1979). Cyril Henschke planted Cabernet Sauvignon at the family’s Eden Valley vineyard in the 1960s. That it has attained such a high level of quality is, for the winemaker, “entirely reflective of site,” with its acidic, sandy loam and a slope which he likens to a solar panel. Given the long, mild vintage, with its big ripening window, the couple were excited about the tannin maturity (a softness, remarked Stephen) and fragrance of violets (which Prue associates with the vineyard). They compare the 2015 (rated exceptional) with 2010, 2005, 2002, 1996 and 1994. I admired this elegant, very complete Cabernet Sauvignon (with 1% Cabernet Franc) when I tasted it with Johann Henschke in January in London. Re-tasting it over three days only served to increase my appreciation. Especially on days two and three, when its violet perfume really came into its own. Though ripe and sumptuous, its pronounced blackcurrant with blackberry and mulberry fruit is incredibly persistent and nuanced. Beautifully integrated tannins offer little resistance, whilst rolling acidity pushes out the palate, lending great penetration to the perfumed whole, with its lifted cedar, pencil shavings (a lick of smoky graphite) and violets. Mellower, savoury undertones of cocoa nibs, tobacco pouch and mulch emerge going through. Bay leaf and a touch of mint on day three. Notes which, together with this wine’s fresh, persistent acidity, lend a drier (flavour-wise), more elegant profile than perhaps my description implies. Sheer fruit intensity, perfume and tannin maturity, rather than volume or sweetness, create a sensation of sumptuousness. With striking depth and length, this is a terrific varietal Cabernet Sauvignon from a part of South Australia dominated by Shiraz. Harvested between 31 March – 14 April, Henschke Cyril Henschke Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 was matured in 20% new and 80% seasoned French oak hogsheads for 18 months prior to blending and bottling. Henschke expect it to age for 25 years plus. 14.5% £90.55 at Vinum, £94.99 at AG Wines, £106 at Oz Wines.
Henschke Mount Edelstone Shiraz 2015 (Eden Valley)
Mastery of Shiraz might be a given in the Barossa, but the dizzily high quality of Henschke’s single vineyard Shirazes puts them firmly at the top of the pecking order. For Stephen, “centenarian vines really bring to another level of intensity, flavour and greatness.” Centenarian vines which, one speculates have not only survived, but also thrived, precisely because of the sheer quality of the Shiraz they produce. There is another factor at work. The multi-generational human factor – long, handed-down experience of the vines and the wines. Preparing for this tasting, I enjoyed reading this report of a 50th anniversary Hill of Grace vertical written by The Wine Advocate’s Lisa Perroti-Brown MW. I’m sure the observations about the evolution of viticulture and winemaking are of equal application to Mount Edelstone and I’m equally sure that, in 2015, Prue and Stephen have attained the goal they set themselves this decade, namely “to perfect the balance that we had.”
Centenarian vines really bring to another level of intensity, flavour and greatness
As I mentioned earlier, I singled out Henschke Mount Edelstone Shiraz 2015 in my February Wines of the Month. Up against Hill of Grace this time, for now at least, I’d single it out again – it is my pick of the flight. I caveat with ‘for now’ because, last September, I found the transporting sense of place, character and fine detail which I adored in Mount Edelstone 2015 in Henschke Hill of Grace Shiraz 2005 – another exceptional vintage (I gave it 97 points in this Decanter review). Leaving aside Hill of Grace’s price (which puts me firmly into academic purchasing territory), Mount Edlestone 2015 would be my pick for now because those beguiling terroir translucent qualities were compellingly evident from first to last pour over three days. I could barely bring myself to down the last glass and put an end to the experience! Tasting it this time, I asked Prue and Stephen about the differences between these two stellar vineyards. Whilst, said Prue, Hill of Grace and Mount Edelstone are both located at around 400m elevation on red brown earth, Mount Edelstone (planted in 1912) has more homogeneous soil. Deeper, with more gravel, it produces greater vigour (relatively speaking) and tends towards redder fruit, with more herbs, spiciness and fragrance. Qualities which, I imagine, are also attributable to having a cooler, east-facing aspect with, said Stephen, “lots of light, but no sunburn.” First planted in 1860, Hill of Grace, has four different soil profiles (about which more below and see also Perotti-Brown’s report) and, being west-facing, has more exposure, ripening earlier (although, in 2015, I note that it was picked after Mount Edlestone).
A Shiraz of fine filigree
Here is my fresh note, based on tasting Henschke Mount Edelstone Shiraz 2015 over three days. Signature dried sage and complex herb and scrub (bush) notes – strands of eucalyptus and minty pepper tree – leap out of the glass. A spicy hum of black pepper and lifted, floral pink peppercorn emerges with time in glass. Evocative scents, which transport me directly to Australia. A vineyard visit on a sunny day, the bush tinder-dry, the earth warm. Suffusing the spice and herb-riven palate, intense, yet delicate, dancing from tip to toe, they bring piquant complexity, warmth and a (gently menthol) coolness going through and on the ethereal, exceptionally lingering finish. The interplay – the dance, or tension – between the tannin and acid is similarly insistent, but gentle, allowing the fruit to steal over the palate pure and untroubled, without a hair out of place. Juicy bramble, blackberry, earthy raspberry and, on day three, sweet strawberry and plum, is buoyed by fresh mineral acidity, with an ironstone tang. The tannins are fine-grained and mineral (rather than oaky, though I pick up cinnamon on day 2 and subtle milk chocolate). Very much in tune with our times, this is a Shiraz of fine filigree. Wonderfully expressive already, I must admit I would find this truly outstanding Shiraz hard to resist, but the Henschkes expect it to age for 30 years plus. The fruit was harvested between 10th – 19th March. Henschke Mount Edelstone Shiraz 2015 was matured in 78% French and 22% American (22% new, 78% seasoned) hogsheads for 18 months, prior to blending and bottling. 14.5% £118.25/bottle at Vinum, £124.95 at AG Wines, £132/bottle at Oz Wines, £147.00 at Hedonism
Henschke Hill of Grace 2015 (Eden Valley)
Cyril made the first Hill of Grace single-vineyard Shiraz in 1958, from handpicked fruit vinified in traditional open-top fermenters (as remains the case). Half the 8ha vineyard is planted to Shiraz (the balance being Mataro, Semillon and Riesling), the oldest block of which – ‘The Grandfathers’ – was planted by Henschke ancestor Nicolaus Stanitzki around 1860. Assiduously attended by Prue – “almost like a person” and responding to kind treatment, said Stephen, just like a person, the block’s vigour has improved. Prue credits biodynamic cultivation and mulching with improving the organic matter and water retention of the soil. Re-training the vines onto a taller trellis has helped too. The other blocks in this less homogeneous (than Mount Edlestone) west-facing vineyard are Church Block, House Block, Windmill Block, Post Office Block 1, Post Office Block 2 and Post Office Block 3 which, planted in 1989, is by far the youngest (it is Prue’s selection massale planting). Deemed too young to include in Hill of Grace, Post Office Block 3 vines instead produce Henschke Hill of Roses Shiraz. The Shiraz for Hill of Grace is typically picked over 2 weeks or so, with The Grandfathers typically picked last, because it has the deeper soil (Post Office 1 is similar, said Prue). Describing the resulting wines, Stephen explained that “The Grandfathers is always the exotic part [with signature five spice] and the foundation of the blend.” The shallower soils, which ripen first, produce the smallest, most intense berries, with sage and pepper. Save for Windmill Block, which does not always make the cut in cooler years, the whole is better than the sum of parts, added the winemaker.
The Grandfathers is always the exotic part and the foundation of the blend
Deep, like the Mount Edelstone, but more introspective, seemingly drier, with a covert power, which becomes more pronounced over the three days. The signature five spice is there, with star anise most prominent on first taste. With time in glass, brooding, darker black cardamom. Dried sage, bay leaf, tea leaf and fine crushed black pepper follow through in the mouth, with penetrating fresh blackcurrant, blackberry and plum, with hints of malt, milk chocolate and vanilla oak. Well-defined, with incisive acidity and a fine but firm underlying fretwork of tannins, it permeates the palate, cleaving close – less ‘aromatised’ than the ethereal Mount Edelstone. Keeping its powder dry for the long haul, the layers are evident, but more compact, giving an impression of density, though it is far from dense. Like the Mount Edelstone, it is beautifully balanced and super-long, the tannins keeping pace with the fruit, the acidity an undertow, paddling, without breaking the surface. Going back, it seemingly built in the glass each day, becoming velvety, developing in spiciness and pungency too (black cardamom, liquorice, mulch), as if to underscore its power and age-ability. Whilst the Mount Edelstone’s siren song beckons, Hill of Grace 2015 especially will benefit from time in bottle. I have little doubt it will age for the expected 30 plus years. This stunning Shiraz – deemed ‘exceptional’ – was harvested between 17-26 March. The wine was matured in 86% French and 14% American (33% new, 67% seasoned) hogsheads for 18 months, prior to blending and bottling. RRP £540.00 Berry Bros Rudd, Hedonism, Philglas & Swiggot, Luvians, Old Bridge Wines, Noel Young & Oz Wines.