Last week on an incredibly soggy Wednesday eve, I braved the relentless rain and skidded across Wandsworth bridge to the West London Wine School for a Henschke masterclass hosted by Simon Woods, who was recently crowned Online Wine Columnist of the Year at the Louis Roederer Wine Writers' Awards.
Fresh from a trip to South West France, an ebullient Woods began by lamenting the typically British weather, though talk soon turned to the eight wine spread from the pioneering Eden Valley winery founded by Johann Christian Henschke in 1868. Legend has it that Johann fled Silesia by boat for the Barossa with his wife and four children, but arrived a single father of two having suffered three bereavements en route.
Having established the winery in Keyneton, Johann's great-grandson Cyril went on to make the switch from fortified to table wines, pioneering single varietal, single-vineyard wines. The winery is now run by 5th generation Stephen Henschke and his wife Prue – he makes the wine, she runs the vineyard. The pair are potty about organics and biodynamics (organic certification is due in 2011), and follow the principles strictly, picking Hill of Grace just before the full moon of Easter and Mount Edelstone a week after.
Other elements to their alchemy include sprinkling crushed eggshells from Henschke hens on the soil, burying cow horns filled with ground quartz, and planting yarrow flowers fermented in a deer's bladder into the soil, then dousing it with nettle tea.
With such whacky winemaking methods, I was curious to see what these lunar wines tasted like. What struck me about the range was that each wine had its own character representing the ever changing challenges of season, place and variety. The Eden Valley is higher, cooler, wetter and stonier than the warm, undulating Barossa, but I found myself drawn to both of the styles.
Highlights included the mineral, fresh and limey Julius Riesling 2007, which Woods described as 'like licking wet pebbles face down on a beach'. The Louis Semillon 2007 also impressed with its textured palate and orange blossom aromas, while the Croft Chardonnay 2007 from the Adelaide Hills had a powerful nose of rich buttered popcorn, peach and nut, and yet had a fresh, rounded, mineral palate.
As for the reds, there were two clear front runners: Keyneton Estate Euphonium 2004 from the Barossa and Cyril Henschke 2004 from the Eden Valley. The former, made with Shiraz and Bordeaux varietals, was Cabernet dominant, with black currant, black cherry and mint upfront. Voluptuous and opulent on the palate, I found notes of vanilla, cedar, smoke, tar, eucalypt, pepper and spice, with a black olive finish. Going back to the Cyril after 1/2 an hour, it had really opened up, with rich black fruit, licorice and mint on the nose and lush, fleshy, velvety fruit on the palate. Rounded and mouthfilling with a lingering finish, it emerged the superior wine. But for three times the price, you'd hope so.
The innovations at Henschke are far from over. After a stint of world travel, Stephen and Prue's son Johann is getting his hands dirty in their various vineyards and putting his own stamp on the wines. And being named Johann, he has some seriously big shoes to fill.