We sat down with Stephen Henschke in October 2019 and had planned to feature his interview in this issue of WineSpeed, in honor of Australia Day, January 26. His interview means all the more to us now as we’ve learned that his Adelaide Hills vineyards, which represent 25% of the winery’s total production, were destroyed in the bush fires engulfing southeastern Australia.
Fifth-generation Stephen Carl Henschke took over as head of the now 152-year-old family winery in 1979, following his father, Cyril Alfred, as winemaker. After receiving his Bachelor of Science Degree at Adelaide University in 1973, Stephen worked at Rothbury Estate winery in the Hunter Valley. In 1975, he spent two years at the Geisenheim Institute of Viticulture and Wine Technology in West Germany, which included internships at wineries in Geisenheim and Baden. On his return to Australia, he enrolled in Wine Science at Charles Sturt University in New South Wales, and began working with his father at the winery. Stephen and his wife Prue (in charge of viticulture at Henschke) were among the first winemakers to plant pinot noir in the cool Adelaide Hills in the early 1980s. In 1988 and 1989 they worked vintages in Burgundy and Bordeaux to research viticulture and winemaking in those regions.
Karen interviewed Stephen Henschke for WineSpeed in October 2019.
KM: Many family-owned wine estates in Australia and around the world are being bought by large companies. Do you think Henschke will always remain family owned?
SH: Yes, I do. It’s important that the history and heritage of pioneering family wineries remains alive in those wineries.
KM: You currently work with both Prue (the estate viticulturalist) and your son Johann who is also a winemaker. How is it working in a husband/wife/son team?
SH: The experience of growing up at the winery pays dividends in understanding the history, vineyards and winemaking focus. Overseas study and work experience provide another really important paradigm shift. Johann, [as well as my other children] Justine and Andreas, have all had these experiences and are able to offer their own unique skills and understanding of the wine industry and community.
KM: All three of you (you, Johann and Prue) studied at Geisenhiem Institute. Why have you placed such an emphasis on studying in Germany?
SH: Partly our German heritage, shared by the Barossa/South Australian pioneers of the 1830-40s, but mostly the excellent viticultural and wine research in Geisenheim, Germany, and the winemaking discipline.
“It’s important that the history and heritage of pioneering family wineries remains alive in those wineries.”
KM: Besides the Eden Valley, what other region inspires you most and why?
SH: Oregon, as a new viticultural region for pinot noir and associated varieties.
KM: I’m not going to ask what’s your favorite type of wine. But what wine or type of wine do you like the least?
SH: I enjoy wines and styles that work well with food, but not wines that are over-extracted, high in alcohol, over-oaked, green, very tannic, out-of-condition, unfinished and/or showing obvious winemaking faults!
KM: Do you ever do anything to keep your palate in shape?
SH: No, I just regularly enjoy wine from all across the world.
KM: In addition to wine, what’s your other favorite beverage?
SH: I enjoy a well-made beer at the end of a long, hot day. Otherwise our pure, fresh rainwater!
KM: Tell us something about you that would surprise most people to learn.
SH: My son Andreas and I are hot-air balloon pilots. We regularly take our friends and family on flights over the undulating hills of the picturesque Eden Valley.
KM: If you had to describe Henschke wines to someone who had never tasted them, how would you describe them?
SH: For us, Henschke wines show spicy, fragrant varietal characters, with purity, good balance, depth of flavor and texture, elegance and a sense of place (Henschke vineyard site expression). Most of all, our wines have an ability to age.
KM: What do you consider your greatest achievement?
SH: Writing a book on our family history and releasing our third single-vineyard wine to mark our 150th anniversary. The wine, named “The Wheelwright”, is from 50-year-old Eden Valley shiraz, and joins a beautiful line-up of Eden Valley single-vineyard shiraz wines including “Mount Edelstone” (100-year-old vines) and “Hill of Grace” (the heart of which comes from 150-year-old vines). This gives us three single-vineyard shiraz wines from across the Eden Valley spanning 150 years of viticulture, with different soil types and aspects exhibiting unique, spice characteristics.