Hill of Grace – the one and only – by Rocco Esposito »

Fifty years of tasting of Australia's most special wines

By Rocco Esposito
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Rocco Esposito of Project Forty Nine, Beechworth, NE Victoria

Rocco Esposito of Project Forty Nine, Beechworth, NE Victoria

Henschke Hill of Grace
Henschke Family
Henschke Hill of Grace vineyard


‘Hill of Grace’ carries an enormous mantle on its shoulders… the single and most famous vineyard in Australia ever. It has enthused wine lovers since 1958 and has expanded its fame throughout the world over the years.

Located in Eden Valley in South Australia, Henschke Hill of Grace symbolizes family continuity, hard work and stamina.

A few of us were taken to visit the place where it all began: the vineyard itself, planted in the Australian gold rush era by Nicolaus Stanitzki.

Like many others, Nicolaus escaped religious persecution in Silenia (the now South-West Poland), made his way to Port Adelaide and later established himself in Eden Valley. It was here that Nicolaus and other compatriots built a little church in 1860 named Gnadenberg which overlooks the vineyard planted the same year, and which took on the same name.

In 1891 the vineyard was purchased by the Henschke family (Paul Gotthard) and remained under the family banner till now, six generations later.

It was Cyril Henschke who in the early 1950s became a pioneer of single vineyards and single variety wines, devoting himself to craft table wines rather than fortified wines, which dominated the market at the time. In 1952 Cyril created his first single vineyard wine: Mount Edelstone. 1958 saw the birth of the shiraz that made the Gnadenberg vineyard famous: “Hill of Grace”.

The vines – called the Grandfathers – are now 150 years old, so majestic and robust, beautifully intertwined and surprisingly dry-grown.  A surprise that is, simply because even in the most difficult torrid summers (such as 2013), the vines have performed incredibly well, resistanting to lack of water.

Setting the tone was Louis Henschke, the grower who believed in nurturing the environment by using organic principals and later recognized that quality in wine derives from the vineyard. Prue Henschke has now introduced biodynamic practice.

The vines are absolutely in tune with the place, producing fruit of outstanding quality, giving great energy to the wines.

After meeting at the vineyard and walking through the vines, we all made our way to the winery (a few minutes' drive) where sixteen of us were invited to taste 50 years of Hill of Grace, a remarkable historic tasting which combined with the release of the much anticipated 2008 vintage.

We tasted 48 wines (three vintages weren’t made) from the oldest to the youngest, all of which trailed and mirrored the idiosyncrasies of winemaking and viticulture as well as the different vintages.

The tasting – chaired by Stephen Henschke and Andrew Caillard MW – was split into decades.

This first decade showed the slight move from fortified winemaking to table wine, vigorous and wonderfully structured. Packed of spices and tea leaf essences, some of the wines had a slight iodine note adding that fine touch of saltiness. Some of the wines had plenty of juiciness and firm texture, suggesting the fruit has surely been allowed to ripen a little longer. Round edges and bright acidity sum-up the palate.

1958 is clearly a great wine, incredibly rare with 1963 and 1967 following the great debut in style, all well framed and still in very good condition. All wines were made in open fermenters, and left in big barrels.

The second decade streamlined the lightness and the brilliance of the Hill of Grace. Some wines showed more pristine fruit than others. Some more violet note than others too. Again, a slight iodine note jumps up at first disappearing shortly after. A light note of confectionary fruit makes its way in by taking a step back (particularly on the palate) which soon after evolves in fine savory notes with dry herbs and pantry spices.

What I like about this bracket also is the tannin profile in the wines: they are managed – glossy first and sandy immediately after – underlining the “Hill of Grace” elegant style. In 77 there was the introduction of cooling system in the wines, particularly in ferments. Slow build-up and better structure in the wines are well shown. Also, the use of smaller barrel is quite evident.

There was more intensity shown in the third bracket. Tannins are very chunky and waiting to settle. Most of the wines are still showing the wood-notes.

1986 is surely the wine of the bracket (by miles); 1984 came-in as a surprise while 1989 was a turning point. The latter was perhaps more a transitional point for Hill of Grace with more pungent oak and darker colors. All seriously impressive in style, savory and fragrant at the same time with great balance and bundles of energy.

The fourth decade is probably the most tannic bracket of them all.

Soon after the 1990 (by far my absolute favorite), the fruit in the wines becomes a little shy, to the point that wood makes its way in to hide the pristine dark fruit. They are very much heady, some of them carrying sweet cassis-like notes and some carrying loudly herbal notes. There is however a hint of freshness right through. This is why I think these wines are very much like single malts at first, bursting into a great depth of freshness.

The last decade sees a complete change in style; there’s so much going on here. It feels like the vines have found their comfort zone. Complexity, depth, intensity, character, tension and most of all attitude are some of the terms I used in the tasting notes.

The tannins (albeit still relatively chunky) are very much in line with palate weight and depth. There is a lot of vibrancy and energy – it’s just remarkable. A long way to go, without a doubt; I’d love to see this bracket of wines in 20 years.

A glorious line up of wine. My absolute favorites (in chronological order) were 1967, 1975, 1977, 1986, 1990, 1998, 2004 and 2008.

It is very special and indeed very hard to find the right words to explain the experience I had at Henschke. There is an over all consistency right across the wines. Some of them have fingerprints all over echoing however the vintage and the style. Nonetheless the richness of the fruit delivers what we all want and what we all look for in wines: the place. 


The hospitality industry has been home to Rocco Esposito for more than 20 years and he has specialized in wine expertise and service from the beginning.

Born and raised in Italy, he moved to Australia in 1998 and chosen the path of wine by working in restaurants such as Cecconi’s in Melbourne for several years, consultant and wine buyer for private enterprises and in 2004 he set up his own restaurant/wine bar in Beechworth: Wardens Food & Wine.

In 2009 Rocco was the recipient of ‘The Age Good Food Guide Wine Service Award’ as well as rated by The Age Melbourne Magazine as one of the top 100 influential people.

Rocco was formerly at Vue de monde Group working as Wine Director - he extremely enjoyed working with such a professional and iconic group.

He is currently the Hospitality Manager of All Saints & St Leonard’s Group, one of the elite food and wine destinations in North East Victoria set in the most historic part of the state – Rutherglen. He also is the director of his own business “Drink Wine Consultancy”.

Being very particular and selective about wine, Rocco also enjoys judging in various wine shows; he recognizes and values the importance of the rigor, which goes into show-judging methodology.

Rocco is particularly excited by his new venture in Beechworth – PROJECT Forty Nine – where the main aim is to establish and run his own vineyard and make his own wine. Read more about Rocco Esposito in this interview by Jeni Port here »


  • Eden Valley & High Eden (SA)

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June 18th, 2013
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