The land in South Australia's Murray Mallee isn't an ideal spawning ground for a premium Barossa wine label. Conditions are tough -sandy soils, long hot summers and in some years, barely enough rain to settle the dust.
Yet for Keith Hentschke, creator and managing director of Hentley Farm Wines, the farmland of his childhood at Lameroo nurtured a passion for the wine industry that has driven him to create one of the Barossa most exciting boutique labels to emerge in the past 10 years. "I grew up in the Mallee on my parent's cereal and sheep farm at Lameroo," says Keith. "Oh, and we had the only vineyard in the region for more than 100 kilometres."
Sixteen year old Keith was charged with the task of managing the family vineyard, affectionately known as ‘the beach'.
"We called it the beach because it was full of sand and water just like the coastline-except the sand was on top and the water was hidden underneath, deep in the ground," he muses.
Nevertheless, his passion for the land grew out of the dry dirt and he headed to Roseworthy to study agricultural science and wine marketing. "My interest in wine was there from early on, but straight out of uni I worked for Elders-a rite of passage for most ag science grads I think!"
Entering the wine industry in 1992, working in packaging and production at Orlando, the seed to develop his own premium wine label was planted. After a stint as chief operating officer at Fabal and taking on the same role at Nepenthe in the Adelaide Hills, Keith was ready to make his own mark on the wine world.
"I had always been a fan of big, full bodied Barossa reds, so I started asking industry colleagues about the best place to grow grapes to match this style of wine.
Unequivocally, I was told to head to the west/north-west of the Barossa and find the red brown earth," Keith recalls.
While it sounds like an adventure from the pages of Robinson Crusoe, Keith strategically located parcels of land from an old 1950s soil map of the region and finally acquired 100 acres along the
Greenock Creek at Seppeltsfield in 1997.
"It was originally a mixed farming property, established in the 1840s, so immediately I felt a synergy with the place," he says. "While there was some vineyard, we undertook additional plantings, followed by a major round of new plantings in 1999."
By investing in new vineyards Keith could control a lot of the science behind the process, carefully selecting blocks for their orientation and aspect along with the four different clones of Shiraz that go into the premium Hentley Farm range.
"At the end of the day, I'm a farm boy, so to me there is nothing more obvious than getting things right in the vineyard before you can even think about making good wine," says Keith. "From very early on we have micro-managed the growing process."
Walking through the rows of ripening grapes after a recent wave of unprecedented heat, his knowledge of the land seems to be paying dividends.
"Things aren't looking just too bad given the extremes of this vintage," says Keith. "The fruit we use for our wines is entirely estate grown so we can manage each step in the grape to glass process to produce an absolute quality result."
With just seven vintages in the bottle, that ‘quality result' is being noticed world wide. "We produce only single vineyard wines from our Barossa estate for a very high-end, niche market, under the Hentley Farm label," explains Keith. "This approach has been consistently noticed by the top wine writers of the world, such as Robert Parker in the US. We have been able to enjoy 95 plus rankings from day one.
"We have deliberately gone down the single vineyard path to produce wines that are truly reflective of where they come from and this seems to be appreciated by our consumers. Our wines are sought after by high-end wine investors and our focus is on independent retailers and fine dining restaurants in both Australia and overseas.
"It also makes for a pretty intriguing business. There is no safety net with single vineyard production-if the vineyard doesn't produce fruit that is up to scratch, there just isn't a wine."
Despite the talk of the "top end of town", Hentley Farm's heart and soul-the farm itself-is a world away from the silver service dining rooms of Sydney, New York and Bangkok.
"While our wines unashamedly compete internationally, we wanted to balance this with a very down to earth cellar door experience," says Keith of the newly opened tasting room.
"I think that comes from my background- I have always been connected to the land, so it was important to bring that part of my life to Hentley Farm.
"We have painstakingly restored the old cottage, taking care not to clutter the original architecture with anything modern or too flashy."
With the thick stone walls, still covered with the daily tally and yearly wool clip of its former life as a shearing shed, the cellar door has cemented Hentley Farm's place as a premium player in the western Barossa.
"While our find here in Seppeltsfield was lucky, it wasn't an accident," says Keith. "Our wines are off vines less than 20 years old, which just goes to show that the terroir of a region is more important than vine age.
"We have been able to go head to head with the best wines in the world. At first, I didn't think we could do it, but I now know that we can compete with anyone on the world stage."