Henschke moves ahead by taking heed of history

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By David Sly

History is of great importance to Stephen Henschke. As the Henschke family celebrates 150 years of winemaking in South Australia through six generations, the celebrated winemaker has much to reflect on – and look forward to.

For starters, there is a new cellar door at Henschke’s Keyneton winery in the Barossa, featuring the stone walls of the farm’s original grain barn, to complement the adjacent cellars constructed in the 1860s by Johann Christian Henschke.

The new tasting space will be open to visitors from early November.

Being respectful of history is important to Stephen and his viticulturist wife Prue. “We all live in a continuing history, and times are moving fast,” Stephen says.

“I delve into history to make sense of what generations of my family have achieved. I’m a serious student of the past to learn what worked and what failed. Understanding this defines the provenance of what we have with our vineyards and winery, and why ours is like no other.”

The new cellar door at Henschke’s Keyneton winery.

This care is reflected in the painstaking recent reconstruction of The Julius Room, another private tasting room at Henschke’s Keyneton winery.

The room was moved stone-by-stone from within the belly of the winery to its new home among the gardens, still with it’s forked bough supports for the roof, original timber-framed windows, and with historical family photographs and documents lining the walls.

Stephen says his passion for uncovering history has accelerated recently, as his and Prue’s three children Johann, Justine and Andreas proceed through adulthood, and with the recent arrival of first granddaughter Matilda.

“You build on history, and this is our challenge as generations change and a winery of our modest size sets itself to move into the future,” he says.

The opening of the new cellar door coincides with the release of an outstanding crop of elite new Henschke wines – including the stellar 2013 vintage of the winery’s flagship Hill of Grace single vineyard shiraz, along with new additions to the portfolio, being the 2015 The Wheelwright Shiraz, and matured sparkling wine Johanne Ida Selma Blanc de Noir MD.

The 2013 Hill of Grace Shiraz.

Presenting these wines to the media for the first time, Stephen offered examples of Hill of Grace vintages across six decades for comparative tasting, dating from 1962.

“Here it is on the table before us – my lifetime with Hill of Grace,” says Stephen.

“It’s all about memories – memories that we cherish.”

Beyond receiving global accolades for the large suite of Henschke wines, Stephen also likes to shine a light on his family’s achievers, especially those whose toil was not widely recognised during the war years, when German influence in the Barossa was frowned upon and quelled by government administrators.

This includes gifted sculptor and stonemason Albert Julius Henschke, whose 1920s masterwork, carved from Angaston marble, is the giant angels that stand as centerpiece of the National War Memorial on North Terrace, Adelaide.

He also carved war memorials in Tanunda and Freeling, but was refused a commission for the Gawler South war memorial in 1920 solely because of his German name.

Winemaker Stephen Henschke.

Stephen even embarked on a campaign to restore the original Germanic name of the small river that runs close to the Henschke winery, called the North Rhine by the area’s Silesian founders, then changed to the Somme in 1918, reflecting strong anti-German sentiment after World War I.

It was one of many German names in the Barossa changed under the Nomenclature Act of 1917, but Stephen’s rigorous public campaign saw it officially gazetted once again as the North Rhine River.

He’s not just curious about his family’s German history. Stephen has become a student of Aboriginal culture and influence throughout the Eden Valley, learning about the movements, settlements and harvesting by different Indigenous people in the long history before colonial settlement.

“Through this, I’ve learned a much deeper history, that gives me a more complete understanding about the story of this land,” he says.

Prue Henschke in the Mt Edelstone vineyard, located in the Eden Valley. Photo by Dragan Radocaj.

Stephen, who was recently invited by the University of Adelaide to deliver a public lecture in the city about what happened to the Barossa’s German descendants between the two World Wars, tells tales of Henschke history from the heart, with a mixture of awe, deliberation and pride.

The family is also the subject of a commemorative hardcover book, Hill of Grace: 150 Years of Henschke Under Southern Skies (Hardie Grant Books, $60), tracing the history of the Henschke family’s flight from religious persecution in Germany during 1841, through its continued nurturing of the Hill of Grace vines at Keyneton, planted from the early 1860s.

The book is completed by historical photographs, colour plates by Barossa photographer Dragan Radocaj, and tasting notes of Hill of Grace vintages, from their first bottling as a single vineyard expression in 1958.

“History is such an important part of who we are and what we do,” says Stephen. “We’re fortunate that we have it on the page, in pictures, and in the incredible living library of wine that comes out of our cellars.”

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