Henschke Wines is doing all it can to keep its 'grandfathers'
alive, writes Jeni Port.
THEY'RE called "the grandfathers" though technically they're
grandmothers - grandmothers still capable of breeding and producing
annually - which would be an unsettling thought if they had blood
instead of sap running through their veins.
They're old, their looks are gone and their youthful perkiness went
years ago, leaving them short, wide and low to the ground with a lot of
crusty padding around the middle.
Pushing grapes out vintage after vintage since the 1860s will do that,
but these grandmothers in South Australia's Eden Valley are there for
the quality of their grapes, not looks.
And it's that quality, and the continued health of these and other
ancient vines, that occupies the minds of Stephen and Prue Henschke, of
Henschke Wines, as they come to terms with the vines' approaching
mortality in a crazy, changing global environment.
The "grandfathers", planted by Mr Henschke's great-grandfather Paul,
are the source of grapes for Henschke's poised and elegant Hill of
Grace shiraz. Lose them and others such as Henschke's 80-year-old Mount
Edelstone vineyard, and you lose an important slice of Australian wine
history, not to mention essential breeding material for the future.
Australia's old vines are dying. It's part of a natural process, but
climate change appears to be accelerating the pace of that decline.
"Potentially, we could lose them," says Mr Henschke, the grandfathers'
Drought is the most dangerous culprit. "A vine normally lives in a 500
to 700 millimetre rainfall," says Mrs Henschke, a botanist and
viticulturist. "Now, we have between 400 and 500 millimetres."
Drought has brought with it increased spring frosts, the result of dry
winters. Mrs Henschke estimates she now sees eight frosts a year,
although that's just the average. "In 2007, we had frost 25 times in
three months!" she says.
And then there's the heat, consecutive punishing 40-plus degree days
that were a feature of 2008 and this year. How can the vines survive?
Mrs Henschke hopes she has the answer in bio-dynamics. What? Isn't that
moonlight rituals and cosmic beliefs that make Scientologists appear
No, says Mrs Henschke. Just a bit of common sense and respect for the
She goes into her back garden and lifts a piece of tin off a
half-buried wine barrel. Cow poo (donated with love by the Henschkes'
22 cows), egg shells and other bits including valerian water are
composting nicely and will eventually be the source of a healthy tonic
to be sprayed on the vines.
At the grandfathers' block, four kilometres north-west of the cellars
in the deep silt of Moculta, we arrive at a vineyard swathed in cotton
That's the vision and the reality. Swaddled with netting to protect
them from birds and heat, the old vines are almost hidden underneath
mounds of triticale wheat straw. Under the straw is compost to improve
the soil's organic carbon. Between the rows is a cover of native
grasses to help retain moisture.
Mrs Henschke sponsored wine students to develop a foliage lifter, a
system of pulleys that can drop leaves over grapes like a veranda and
prevents grape sunburn. Surrounding it all is 32 hectares of newly
planted trees to keep soils intact in case of "flood events".
Everything revolves around keeping the old vines alive. At the start of
March, with vintage beginning, the Henschke vineyards had gone 80 days
without a drink from the sky or the dams (there are four, all dry).
Rain fell on March 3 and was thankfully received.
To know what is at stake, to understand the levels of flavour and
complexity that come from old vines compared to young, you have to
Mr Henschke brings a sample out of new French oak of a 2008 shiraz off
the Post Office Block 3 vineyard, a 20-year-old vineyard planted with
cuttings from the nearby grandfathers.
It's a brilliant purple swishing in the glass. The scent of violets,
licorice and spice rises. For once, the descriptor "precocious" seems
to fit the moment, in a nice way of course, with its display of an
early, sophisticated charm. It has the pedigree but not the age to wear
the Hill of Grace label.
Next, a sample of 2008 shiraz from the grandfathers. This will be
released as Hill of Grace in perhaps another four years.
It's darker, denser and seems to move slower in the glass. The scent of
allspice and nutmeg is strong. "That is the old vine character," offers
Mr Henschke. "It's not an oak thing." Actually, oak seems to be the
last thing that stands out in the wine, something that is often
commented upon in old vine reds. They appear to enjoy a natural
Old vines by themselves do not promise a transcendent trip in the
But, if the planets are aligned and the grape variety, the region and
the maker are sympathetic and nurturing, they can provide a rare
nobility that simply isn't found in wine from young vines.
It has been estimated that at the start of the 21st century more than
half of Australia's grapevines were less than 10 years old.
Suddenly, our old vines now take on the class of national treasures.
Jeni Port travelled to the Eden Valley as a guest of Henschke