Dr Edgar Riek, Canberra’s great wine pioneer

That deadly stretch of the Federal highway, starting at Brooks creek, has two bright points. One is the spectacular view of Lake George as you drop off the escarpment through Geary’s Gap. The other is the little cluster of vineyards on the left just as the road heads away from the lake.

Driving that way last Monday afternoon at about 3.30 the lakeside road was already in the shadow of the escarpment. Then the hills dropped back from the roadside and there were Dr Edgar Riek’s and David Madew’s vineyards, on gentler slopes between the road and escarpment, enjoying a dose of rare winter sunshine.

Edgar Riek was out pruning. Good reason, I thought, to break the journey and pay my respects to one of Canberra’s wine pioneers and hopefully taste the 1995 wines.

Edgar, a CSIRO scientist, planted Lake George in 1971 the same year that Dr John Kirk, a colleague at the CSIRO, established vines at Murrumbateman. Both men have made major contributions to the Canberra wine scene and to the broader Australian wine industry.

Edgar Riek’s passion for wine started long before table wine was widely consumed in Australia. He was a founding member of the Canberra Wine and Food Society, still operating out of the Forrest clubhouse that Edgar and other enthusiasts built several decades ago.

Riek, an etymologist, was bitten deeply enough by the wine bug to purchase the sun-drenched Lake George site and try his hand as vigneron. As there was little information at the time as to which table wine varieties might grow best, Edgar planted forty grape types including several native American and Chinese varieties.

3.25 hectares of vines now share the 7.25 hectare site with a Bay tree, commercial prickly pear, sundry nut and fruit trees, and the odd peacock — a bird that goes down particularly well with Edgar’s pinot noir, especially when it is cooked by Josephine Farmer.

As the vineyard took root in the 1970s, Edgar became a driving force behind the Canberra Wine Show, building it from nothing to being what many in the industry regard as the most important wine show in Australia. Thanks to Edgar’s efforts, the wine industry views Canberra with a rare fondness.

Edgar acknowledges very strong support in the formative years from Murray Tyrrell (who these days buys part of Edgar’s crop) and Ray Kidd. Kidd was head of Lindemans at the time and supported Edgar’s introduction of museum classes into the show by trotting out a wide range of old wines from the Lindeman/Leo Buring cellars.

As Edgar’s vision of Canberra as the peak Australian wine show developed, he was further helped in his thinking by David Farmer during regular Friday afternoon think tanks, and received strong support from Len Evans, enthusiastic chairman of judges at Canberra.

Under Riek, Canberra introduced foreign judges, a qualification that wines have a medal from another show to qualify, and an auditing system to ensure that what the judges saw was also what the consumer was offered. This was a radical step at the time as it formally recognised the commercial importance of wine show awards.

This Canberra initiative provided consumer protection and went beyond the old notion of seeing wine judging merely as a means to ‘improve the breed’ within the context of an agricultural exhibition. Improving the breed still is an important element of wine shows. But Edgar and his colleagues, including current Chairman of the Show Committee, Bill Moore, understood the consumer connection and acted on it.

Edgar stepped down from the wine show committed several years back and now, at age 75, tends his vines and makes small batches of very good, highly distinctive wine in a couple of sheds in the vineyard.

The vineyards are impeccably groomed, all neatly hand pruned by Edgar (300 hours work between May and August), weed free, and with neatly mowed green stubble between the rows.

Over the years, Edgar has made virtually every wine style possible out of pure curiosity and to see what the vineyard does best. Unlike most wine makers, he has the capacity to stand back and see shortcoming in his own wines and the vision to make further improvements.

He makes each year about two buckets full of a delightful pinot grigio (also known as pinot gris); a wonderful and powerful ‘sauternes’ style semillon that needs 10 years cellaring; various cabernet blends; a richly-perfumed, silky, lush merlot; and increasingly Burgundy-like chardonnay and pinot noir.

These last two are what Edgar now sees as both a challenge and a strength of his vineyard, It has taken more than twenty years, but the chardonnays and pinot noirs of recent years have gone leaping and bounding ahead. They are wonderful, idiosyncratic wines and a joy to drink. Edgar’s wines are hard to find, but both Georges and Lloyds carry some stock.