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The complicated art of crafting a wine icon

Hill of Grace

South Australia can lay claim to several wines that have achieved the status of icon in terms of their quality, value and desirability, but just how many stars have to align before a wine can claim icon status?

The ancient, gnarled shiraz vines on Henschke’s four-hectare Hill of Grace vineyard in Barossa’s Eden Valley are so delicate that their grapes can only be picked by hand or the vines’ straggly arms risk breaking. Planted in 1860, they are brittle and produce tiny berries of extraordinary flavour intensity – but vintage conditions decide just how much of this finite resource can be harvested, and in recent years conditions have been cruel.

This is what makes a true icon wine, having such particular character that remains rare, fragile and precious. The 2020 harvest has underlined this fragility, with especially low yields due to harsh weather events during vine flowering.

It’s a hardship the Henschkes have endured before: just one barrel of Hill of Grace was produced in 2003, none in 2000 and 2011, and extremely tiny vintages in 2013 and 2014. Fortunately, the unveiling of Hill of Grace 2015 – released to the world on 6 May with much fanfare, at $865 a bottle – has given winemaker Stephen Henschke plenty to smile about, even in a fraught year when Henschke’s Lenswood vineyard was torched by bushfire.

Fruit volumes in 2015 were good and quality is especially high, with Hill of Grace 2015 standing as an exemplary single vineyard expression, showing a symphony of nuanced flavour: characteristic dried sage, Chinese five spice and black pepper notes atop a bowlful of vibrant blackberry and dark plum.

While the Henschkes are delighted with the glowing reception for this wine, they know there are only modest supplies for several future releases now maturing in barrel. Such is the fragility of an icon.

Keith Hentschke (no relation to Stephen) developed Hentley Farm vineyard, winery and restaurant from the ground up in the western Barossa from the late 1990s, with ambitions from the start to achieve iconic status.

A former executive at Orlando Wyndham (home of Jacobs Creek wines), Hentschke had his gaze firmly fixed on premium quality when he released the first Hentley Farm wines in 2002, immediately pricing his best shiraz as a luxury item. “At the time, St Hallett Old Block Shiraz was $45 a bottle, and we came out with a $60 shiraz,” explains Hentschke. “I knew from experience that it was very hard to elevate a brand once people identified it at a certain price point, so I took the risk of shooting high from the outset.”

Three years later, he purchased a neighbouring vineyard and created an icon wine at an even higher price point, Clos Otto. It was audacious, ambitious – and, as Hentschke now admits in retrospect, a frightening leap. But it worked. The chutzpah was vindicated when James Halliday Wine Companion awarded Hentley Farm its Australian Winery of the Year in 2015.

2017 Clos Otto Shiraz

Critics and consumers agree that Clos Otto fits the bill. Sourced from a 1.5-hectare portion of the Hentley Farm vineyard, the new release 2017 Clos Otto ($210 a bottle), produced by winemaker Andrew Quin, is a study in purple-fruit intensity and power, combining silky richness with opulent layers of deep flavour.

Now two decades into Hentley Farm, Hentschke admits the wine world questioned his audacity in immediately claiming prestige, but he was determined to elevate Hentley Farm far beyond ordinary commodity wine. “I had no interest in making something boring. Like any artist, I want to create something exciting.”

Penfolds’ chief winemaker Peter Gago creates icon wines of a different stripe. The brand’s elite Grange shiraz is deliberately built as a luxury blend but it sources fruit from multiple sites across many growing regions, rather than being an expression of a single vineyard. The idea is to capture the best of vintage in a single wine and, while grape quality selection is stringent, Penfolds has famously never released figures of how much Grange – costing $900 a bottle for the current 2015 vintage – is produced in any vintage (but it is believed to be about 9000 dozen).

The company is now creating something even more exclusive. In August 2020, Penfolds will release G4 – a blend of four Grange vintages. It marks a dizzying new zenith in Penfolds’ quest for evermore exclusive icon wines.

This process has a precedent. Penfolds launched G3 in October 2017, which combined Grange from 2008, 2012 and 2014 (which was not released commercially as an individual vintage until 2018). Only 1200 bottles were produced, at a price of $3000 a bottle.

Gago cheekily said at the time he did it because he could, to see what it would be like to blend youthful Grange with older, more developed components.

It seemed a peculiar strategy to blend such a wine across vintages – given that Grange is presented as a definitive representation of shiraz from any one vintage – but three years later, Gago is taking the same impish glee from experimenting further with an established icon, with a view to create something even rarer.

Gago gets to play with this experiment only because of the sustained excellence of fruit that Penfolds sources from a network of more than 200 independent growers, with no more than 20 chosen each vintage for inclusion in Grange.

Still, once a grape grower achieves that high level of recognition, there’s no guarantee of repeat success, such is the fragility of iconic status.

“Even if you’ve got a special site, luck depends on the season,” says Brian Thomson, whose non-irrigated Moolanda vineyard near Lyndoch in the Barossa produced grapes for Grange only once, in 2012. “Its quality depends on whether we get decent rains or not. Nature gives no guarantees. Premium grape growers are at its mercy – always.”

David Sly

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