While you’ll never hear her shouting it from the rooftops, Prue Henschke has been one of the most important figures in the evolution of Australian wine. Prue is the viticulturist and a director of the over 140-year-old Henschke family winery in the beautiful Eden Valley region. Henschke are one of the most historic and renowned names in Australia wine, but this is one wine dynasty that isn’t resting on its laurels…
The Henschke Estate
Prue manages over 100 hectares of vineyard extending across the rolling hills between Eden Valley and Lenswood in the Adelaide Hills. She has been a pioneer in restructuring the vineyards, overseeing the introduction of new trellis types and an improvement in soil management using composts and mulches, which has led to the adoption of organic and biodynamic practices. Prue has used her expertise to bring back the native flora into the vineyard by using local grass swards and nectar-providing plants for beneficial insects.
Because of her work across the Henschke vineyards, and her collaborative work in Australia and overseas, Prue is renowned as one of Australia’s top viticulturists. She was awarded the Viticulturist of the Year at the 2016 at the Australian Women in Wine Awards, just one accolade in a long list of achievements for Prue. Of course, you don’t drink awards, so how has her work in the vineyard been translated into the glass? Simply, the wines Henschke are making today the best wines they’ve ever made: elegant, thoughtful wines that are quietly helping to lead the change in perceptions of Australian wine around the world.
‘My mantra is living within the landscape. We owe it to the world to live within the landscape where you are. It’s really, really important to look after it.’
Prue Henschke, Viticulturist
Henschke: The history of an Australian wine dynasty
This story starts long before Prue Henschke was working the vineyards in the Eden Valley, Barossa and Adelaide Hills. It was around 170 years ago that Johann Christian Henschke travelled from Silesia to settle in the new colony of South Australia. He departed in the summer of 1841 with his wife and four children, but the voyage was anything but a happy one. Johann’s wife, six-year-old son and nine-month-old daughter all perished on the journey from Kutschlau, in the province of Brandenburg, to South Australia. It would be a terrible understatement to say that this was traumatic for Johann and his two surviving children, but as will become clear these Henschkes are a determined bunch. Johann set about creating a new life for his boys, and this eventually lead them to the emerging Barossa region.
Before making it to the Barossa, Johann and his boys spent some time in the Adelaide Hills. It was here, in the town of Lobethal, that Johann met his second wife, Dorothea. Together they would have eight more children, an important part of helping to shape a winemaking dynasty. Johann and the family moved to Krondorf in the Barossa Valley in 1847 but it wasn’t until 1862 that the first steps to winemaking immortality we taken. Johann purchased a property in Keyneton, an area that was quickly becoming known for producing exceptional wines. Here he planted a vineyard with his son Paul and together they built a small cellar and produced the first vintages of Riesling and Shiraz for sale in 1868.
After living a fascinating and rich life, including planting the seeds for a family line, Johann passed away in 1873 and the reins were passed to Paul. Paul continued the grape growing and winemaking traditions he’d learned from his father, using the farming methods of his former homeland. While increasing vineyard plantings and wine production, Paul also purchased what was to become one of the world’s most famous and renowned vineyards. A small vineyard near a quaint church in a beautiful corner of the Eden Valley. A vineyard that would come to be known as the Hill of Grace vineyard.
Stephen and Prue Henschke: Following in the footsteps of winemaking giants
Fifth generation family member Stephen Henschke showed an interest in winemaking at a young age, and so headed off to the local University of Adelaide to study for a science degree. It was here that he met Prue, who was also studying for a science degree but was focused on botany and zoology.
You’d be hard pressed to find a better combination for a wine power couple than someone who was focused on the wine and someone who was focused on the vine. And while initially Prue was interested in a broader range of plants than just vines, this broad approach has helped her become one of the most thoughtful and innovative viticulturists in Australia. But we are jumping ahead in the story, let’s re-join Prue and Stephen.
After completing their respective degrees, Prue and Stephen headed overseas to work at the Geisenheim Institute of Viticulture and Wine Technology in West Germany. It was here that Prue first became involved in viticulture, sparking what would become a lifelong passion. Initially with vine grafting and breeding before a volunteer project on isolating rootstock inhibitors in rootstocks in the Botanic Institute well and truly set Prue on the path to becoming a viticulturist.
After two highly valuable years in Germany the couple returned to Australia to study the Wine Science course at Charles Sturt University, a course created by legendary Australian vigneron, Brian Croser. This ensured Prue and Stephen were up to date with the latest innovations in Australian grape growing and winemaking. While Stephen took these learnings home, taking over the running of the family winery in 1979, Prue headed to the nearby Roseworthy College (now part of the University of Adelaide) to work as a technical research officer. At this time, and ever since, Prue has worked alongside some of the greatest names in modern Australian viticulture. People like Drs Richard Smart, Peter Dry and Patrick Iland have not just help shape the Australian viticultural landscape, their research and innovations are now used around the world. And while Prue has learned a lot from these legends, she has also contributed a huge amount to the progress of Australian viticulture over the years.
Prue Henschke – Cool climate resurrection and evolution
The Eden Valley had been the home to the Henschke family vineyards for well over a hundred and fifty years. Prue and Stephen have always respected this place and the family traditions, but they have also never feared progress and innovation. In the early 1980s Adelaide Hills was a very small, emerging wine region with huge potential, but there was a heck of a lot of work to be done to realise this. Cool climate viticultural expertise was rare in Australia, but Prue and Stephen were two people who had studied and worked at one of the world’s foremost cool-climate viticulture and oenology schools. If anyone was going to have a fair crack at nailing cool climate grape growing and winemaking in Australia it was likely to be them!
In 1981 they purchased an apple orchard in Lenswood, one of the cooler parts of the Adelaide Hills. In a delightful little quirk of fate they were returning to the place where Johann had first settled all those years ago. Prue and Stephen set to work planting a vineyard, creating a living ‘research station’ where they could test theories on cool climate viticulture, site selection and canopy management. This research, some formal, some informal, has led to insights which have been vital for the growth and development of cool climate wine production around Australia. Other, more specific, learnings have been taken by Prue Henschke and translated to the original vineyard sites in the Eden Valley.
‘Keeping the longevity in the vineyard is really the main task… I’ve done a lot of work to look after the soil condition… Going to organics and biodynamics has helped this… We retain a lot more moisture in the soil and we’re looking after the microflora. It’s keeping that soil really healthy.’
Prue Henschke, Viticulturist
Prue Henschke: Working with nature to produce the extraordinary
From managing the canopy to ensuring optimal soil health to caring for precious old vines, Prue Henschke has developed a holistic system that ensures her vines produce amazing fruit in balance with the natural landscape. The exceptional fruit from these vines make wines with an outstanding reputation that stretches around the world. From Adelaide Hills Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to Eden Valley Riesling and Shiraz, her wines reflect the modern Australian wine paradigm: thoughtful, sustainably produced wines that reflect a sense of place. Reflecting the places that Prue Henschke has tended with care, ensuring the Henschke legacy will continue for many, many generations to come.
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