Australian Legend

Does Hill of Grace merit its star ranking in the wine world?
Hill of Grace. Along with Grange, it is one of the two Australian wines that can claim iconic status in any wine loverÆs lexicon. And unlike Grange, it is the product of a single vineyard, owned by the finest medium size wine producer in Australia û the family-owned Henschke, based in the Eden Valley in South Australia.

The vineyard which is now Hill of Grace, a translation from the German ôGradenbergö û a nod to the HenschkeÆs Silesian origins û was acquired by the family originally in 1891, but it was in the 1950s and 1960s after several changes of ownership within the family that Hill of Grace assumed its position as one of AustraliaÆs greatest wines.

The man most credited with the emergence of Hill of Grace was Cyril Henschke who updated and improved the companyÆs winemaking approach with the objective of creating a broad portfolio of high quality table wines (red and white), with Hill of Grace as the flagship. He also realised very early that the future lay in bottling his own wines and selling them under the Henschke label, rather than in bulk, and in creating single vineyard wines. Hill of Grace has been bottled as such since 1958.

After his tragic death in 1979, his son Stephen took over and today it is the husband and wife team of Stephen, responsible for the winemaking, and Prue, responsible for the viticulture, who are running the show. Recently, they also bought out the other family shareholders and now fully control the company, with the determination to pass it on to the next generation intact û their son, Johann is currently studying wine at university.

Hill of Grace is essentially 100% Shiraz (Syrah or hermitage) although the vineyard itself also produces parcels of riesling, semillon and mataro (Grenache). Occasionally, a touch of mataro has been included in the wine, although usually it doesnÆt ripen enough for this. The vineyard is divided into a number of different areas or blocks which are all picked individually and assessed and vinified separately. The wine finishes its fermentation in new oak, a mixture of American and French, and is aged in barrel for approximately two years. No artificial yeasts are used in the secondary fermentation and there is no further racking or fining. The individual parcels are all tasted and assessed prior to the final blend and bottling, with those reckoned to be sub-standard omitted.

The key to the intensity and flavour of Hill of Grace is very old vines and ultra-low yields which coupled with meticulous winemaking produces wines of both elegance and depth, with concentrated, sometimes almost chocolatey fruit, and spicey, gamey aromas and flavours.

It was thus with a keen sense of anticipation that I materialised at NicholiniÆs at the Conrad Hotel in early March for a vertical tasting of nine vintages of Hill of Grace organised by Asian Private Capital. The assembled tasting panel comprised a shipping magnate (John Koo), visiting British Master of Wine (Jasper Morris), a top private banker and wine lover (E. Michael Fung), wine writer and consultant (Debra Meiburg), WatsonÆs Fine Wine broker (Eric Desgouttes), and myself. The tasting and subsequent (delicious!) dinner were impeccably arranged by the Conrad's resident manager, Giovanni Viterale and his team.

The vintages tasted were 1999, 1998, 1995, 1992, 1991, 1990, 1989, 1988 and 1986. They were not served blind and were tasted sequentially young to old, then also drunk over dinner û just as a reminder that this is, after all, the purpose of fine wine: to be drunk and enjoyed with food, not just to star at a comparative tasting event.

For this tasting, as a gesture to our visiting British Master of Wine, we used the 20 point scoring system, generally preferred by English wine writers. And the results? Well there was a fair degree unanimity in answer to the question does Hill of Grace merit its current status in the wine world. This tasting confirmed that this is undoubtedly a premier division wine in global terms and in the very front rank of syrah wines. It stands comparison with, if stylistically different from, JabouletÆs Hermitage La Chapelle and the Hermitage of Chave, both from the Northern Rhone, to name two benchmarks for this noble grape variety.

The panel also felt that two distinct stylistic themes seemed to emerge; a broad, almost burnt fruit leather and spice aroma, and a rich, expansive, broad flavoured palate, and a tighter, distinctly cool, more subtle, minty and ôpurerö fruit style û but both had considerable length. In the first category were noticeably 1998, 1992, 1989 and in the second 1999, 1995, 1990. And in one vintage, 1986, the two styles seemed to coalesce in perfect harmony.

As for the individual vintages, the 1999 received consistently very high marks with Jasper noting its ôelegance and persistenceö, Eric its ôsoft tanninsö and ôpotentialö while Debra commented on its ôjuicy fruitö and ôbalanceö. I liked the deft oak treatment and essence of vanilla. A clear score of 18 and a wine with a great future ahead of it.

For 1998, the feeling was that this was a less successful year with Michael remarking that it seemed ôsimpler, earthierö than the 1999, John also noting ômore one-dimensionalö, and I noted it as ômore looseknitö although everyone agreed that it had a very seductive and appealing nose. Again, a fair degree of consensus at 15.5.

The 1995 was more controversial with marks ranging from 13 (Michael) to 18 (Debra). Essentially, in the style of 1999, but a very closed slow developing wine, the debate centred on whether all the various elements would come together in harmony, or whether the wine would ever fully integrate. Jasper was confident that it would and marked it highly while Debra felt it had ôfine tannic structure, balance and restraintö. Overall, it averaged 16.5.

We were back to a high degree of unanimity on 1992 which was generally regarded as completely ready for drinking with Eric loving its ôvelvety tannins and sweet fruitö, John agreeing but also noting it as ôslightly over the topö ie a touch out of balance while Jasper thought it ôlacked the nobilityö of the great vintages. I liked its ôrounded palate and sweet finishö and we scored it 16. The 1991 was the most disappointing wine in the line up as a result of some oxidation, and as such, we didnÆt score it formally, but allowing for that, it was clearly a wine of quality and interest, and I would have scored it 17 on a good day.

1990 is by all accounts one of the great Hill of Grace vintages and we were expecting a knockout punch with this wine; as such, while very good, it was a slight disappointment. John scored it lowest, although acknowledged it is ôclearly going through a dumb phaseö and might come round. Jasper commented on its ôcomplexity and eleganceö while Michael also felt it had ômore to giveö. On average 17.5 but it improved noticeably through the evening suggesting a latent quality not immediately evident in the glass.

The 1989 is a wine that is perfect to drink now. Debra talked about its ôripe fruit, class and silkness û almost too silky not enough gripö while I felt it had a ôpronounced nose of leather and spice û richness and lengthö. Michael was less enthusiastic and felt that it was ônot as fine as some û flattering because itÆs at peak maturityö. In general, however, it was in the top bracket of the wines tasted and emerged with a score of 18.

The 1988 was totally different in style and perhaps the least appealing of the wines on offer. We all picked up on the dryness/austerity and lack of fruit impact with Jasper opining ôfruit lacking, was better 5 years agoö while Eric felt it was missing something and ôa bit dull and lacking vibranceö. Over the course of the evening, it did show much better, but with the best will in the world a score of 14.5 fairly reflected mainstream opinion.

And finally the 1986. In the tradition of saving the best until last, this was the wine of the tasting and a supreme example of Hill of Grace when fully mature. Jasper just went ôYeah!ö on tasting this wine and remarked on its weight and ôfine detailö. John noted its ôfreshness and vigour allied with a subtle tannic structureö, and Eric the ôrichness and lengthö of the finish. Debra also commented on the ôfinely etched tanninsö while MichaelÆs take was its ôharmony and balanceö. I loved the notes of ôcoffee and spiceö coupled with ôelegance and integrated flavoursö. A star wine and definitely the pick of the night. It rated 19.

Since Stephen and Prue assumed control, the portfolio of Henschke wines has been expanded considerably and overall quality has continued to improve. Mount Edestone is a wine which can rival Hill of Grace itself, while the Cyril Henschke Cabernet is a fine elegant Bordeaux blend. Equally, Lenswood Croft Chardonnay is one of AustraliaÆs best examples and Henschke also produces top quality Riesling, Semillon and Gewnrztraminer, among many others. Nevertheless Hill of Grace remains at the pinnacle of this familyÆs splendid portfolio and on the evidence of this tasting û and from what is said about the 2001 and 2002 vintages û it is going from strength to strength. Inevitably, it is produced in very small quantities, is hard to find, especially older vintages, and is therefore expensive, but everyone who loves Shiraz at its finest should seek out and try this classic example.

The 1999 Henschke Hill of Grace is available in limited quantities at WatsonÆs Wine Cellar at HK$3,888 per bottle and the 1998 at HK$4,998.
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