The Australian - Wish Magazine
TRIAL BY FIRE
This vineyard will rise again
I t started simply enough – a lone tree falling over power lines on a baking hot day as fierce winds swirled through the Adelaide Hills. As the power lines dropped, they ignited the tinderdry scrub and before long the resulting fire was unstoppable, as it raced from Cudlee Creek to Lobethal and then through Lenswood. In a normal season its advance would have been slow, but the Adelaide Hills were parched, thanks to record low rainfall.
Winemakers Stephen and Prue Henschke had seen it all before. In 1983, the Ash Wednesday bushfires razed their property at Lenswood. At the time it was an old orchard with only a couple of hectares under vine. The vines were left untouched by the fire while the fruit trees were torched. The owners read that as a sign their vineyards would be safe should another fire roar through, with the moist, leafy mass acting as a brake against the fiery inferno.
But they never imagined the conditions they would face last December. The normally green vineyard floor was replaced by soils that were firm and dry underfoot, covered by sunburnt grasses barely hanging on to life. This was far from a normal season.
Lenswood is some of the finest coolclimate grapegrowing land in the country. The combination of altitude, proximity to the ocean and high natural rainfall gives the wines an elegance and subtlety, with the rainfall in particular generating a lushness in the local vegetation.
Its cool and humid climate has traditionally provided the perfect home for orchards, which is also why the Henschke’s chose Lenswood as their outpost in the hills, away from their warmer base in the Eden Valley. While Eden is also unique for crafting great wines, especially shiraz and riesling, the Lenswood vineyards provided Stephen and Prue a place to branch out into coolerclimate grape varieties such as pinot noir, merlot, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and, Prue’s pet project, grüner veltliner.
After the fires of 1983, Stephen and Prue slowly planted out their Lenswood property. By 1988 most of the property had been painstakingly developed, with the vines then taking between five and 10 years before their wines were ready to bottle under the Henschke name.
Then, in almost an instant, 90 per cent of their vineyard and almost 40 years work was wiped out, as a fireball obliterated all before it.
“The fire was so hot – to burn posts into the ground and leave only a ghostly shadow of ash,” says Prue. In the bush surrounding the vineyard the undergrowth was vaporised, with only a moonscape of charred trees and rockery left behind. The same was true in the vineyards, as the fire leapt from hilltop to hilltop with an ember storm, sparing just 2ha of pinot noir planted low down in a hollow between two slopes.
Prue and Stephen still cannot quite believe the level of destruction. “It stuns you to think a fire can be so brutal,” Prue says. Their sheds and equipment were not spared. “We lost all the machinery as well. That was spooky. A black mass of bodies of things and you struggle to work out what they were. There are just skeletons.”
The vines were also damaged, but were not dead. And while the trunks would have to go, their valuable roots could still be saved. But they needed water, and fast. Salvation would come to the vineyard in the form of helping hands reaching out from friends and colleagues alike.
“That was amazing,” says Prue. “We had offers of help from a lot of people, including from one of the lecturers from Adelaide University. We had 45 students turning up.”
Melted irrigation lines were ripped up and new pipes laid down to get precious water to the vines. Batteryoperated chainsaws were purchased to cut out the now nearlifeless wood, and the first steps towards erecting rudimentary trellising were taken.
But the road back is a long one. The 2019 vintage Henschke Lenswood releases will be the last for a number of years, with many seasons required to get the vineyard back to where it was. Green shoots, which have already begun to emerge, will slowly be fashioned into vines capable of carrying fruit. And then it will be some time before the fruit quality is high enough for the wines to again be bottled under the Henschke name.
Those first helping hands in the vineyards, though, have not only laid the foundations for its rebirth, they have also helped to start the personal healing for Prue, Stephen and their extended family
“It was a relief that there was so much help that can happenononedaywheneverytaskseemsinsurmountable,” says Prue. “That relief turns you around from the distress.
Joseph Hill Gewürztraminer 2019 A quite dry and unusually understated gewürztraminer style with pretty rosewater and custard apple fruits making for a very drinkable aperitif.
Archer’s Vineyard Chardonnay 2017 A classically elegant modern Australian chardonnay style showing bright citrus and floral fruits with crisp acidity and well balanced spicy oak.
Percival’s Mill Grüner Veltliner 2019 An exotic and gently aromatic grüner with powerful pineapple and pear fruits plus a touch of spice. Crisp with a textural richness, it shows good melon fruit intensity on the palate with a lingering finish.