Lake George renaissance part 2 — Lake George vineyard

Sometimes a vineyard’s fate depends on succession, or lack of it – a story well illustrated by Canberra’s first two vineyards.

In 1971 CSIRO scientists Dr Edgar Riek and Dr John Kirk, unknown to each other at the time, planted vineyards on the western foreshore of Lake George and at Murrumbateman respectively.

Kirk’s Clonakilla passed smoothly from John to his son Tim and today enjoys a global clientele.

Riek’s succession, though, didn’t run as smoothly as he’d hoped after selling Lake George Vineyard in 1998. But late last year the owners, Theo Karelas and his son Sam, decided to get the vineyard and winemaking back into shape.

Sam says that even though he made the Lake George wines in recent years, he had no background in winemaking. As well, working in the family’s Four Olives Deli Café at Manly, Sydney, left little time for the vineyard.

It needed full-time care. And their determination to give it that coincided with Hardy’s plan to exit Canberra. This, in turn, caused Hardy’s Canberra winemaker, Alex McKay, to consider his options for the future.

With enormous respect for Alex’s talent and fearful that he might leave Canberra, Edgar Riek approached the Karelas family. They seized the opportunity. And after discussions with the family early this year Alex agreed to make the Lake George wines and oversee a rejuvenation of the vineyard.

The arrangement with Theo and Sam Karelas allows McKay time to develop his own brand as well. (While that’s a story for another day, we can look forward to the release of Alex’s two gold-medal winning Canberra shirazes in August).

Out at the vineyard on a freezing Sunday, Alex is clearly impressed by the site that Riek chose back in 1971. He says the soil is great – ‘it’s friable, it’s well drained and it has the right pH balance’.

The site also has a unique aspect, exposing it to humid sea breezes. This, believes Alex, means less moisture stress for vines – and that’s particularly important in our otherwise dry climate.

He points to a building to the south, beyond the adjoining Madew vineyard. Throughout the drought, it seems, the water tanks there remained two-thirds full purely from condensation run off, courtesy of the sea breezes.

Despite the sea breezes, though, the six-hectare vineyard suffered in the long drought.  Alex appears confident, though, of restoring the vineyard – and shows a twenty-year-old photograph of Edgar Riek standing in front of neatly hedged vines with trimmed swards of green grass between the rows.

Alex intends to ‘nurse the vines along gently’ and not use too many sprays. He started the rejuvenation with soil tests across the property and from this developed a range of composts that have since been spread among the vines, along with supplements to address mineral deficiencies.

Like all accomplished winemakers, Alex knows that he can’t make a silk purse out of sow’s ear – or a top-notch shiraz from second grade fruit.  So the whole 6-hectare vineyard’s being reworked to produce the best possible quality.

The focus is going to be on the red varieties shiraz, pinot noir and tempranillo and on the white chardonnay and pinot gris. But a few patches of old cabernet sauvignon, malbec and viognier are to remain to make one-off small parcels or perhaps, in the case of viognier, to find its way into blends with shiraz.

The rejuvenation program includes grafting from one variety to another; grafting to better clones of the same variety; grubbing out old vines and replanting with better-suited varieties; and progressively re-trellising right across the vineyard.

Eighty-seven-year-old Edgar Riek began grafting shiraz onto pinot noir about a year ago; a block of merlot and cabernet is to be grafted over to tempranillo and shiraz this winter; and parts of the chardonnay and remaining pinot noir blocks are to be progressively grafted to better clones.

A block of shiraz at the lowest point of the vineyard is to be grubbed out and replanted to the white pinot gris – the lower, cooler location being better suited to whites.

The only new planting is to be seven rows of tempranillo on a plum site mid-vineyard that’s already been ripped in preparation.

Alex says that the gradual transformation from T-trellising to single-wire vertical shoot positioning will be accompanied by cane pruning. Together these will provide a more manageable canopy and help to optimise yields – key elements in producing high-quality fruit.

As Alex leads the charge in the vineyard – with help from Edgar Riek and Nick O’Leary, another of the young talents from Kamberra – Sam is planning the cellar door facility.

Like neighbouring Lerida Estate and Madew, he wants a substantial offering to attract both Canberra residents and travellers from the busy Federal Highway.

He envisages a large facility with both indoor and outdoor dining capacity – perhaps an outdoor pizza oven and, almost certainly, with a focus on cheese from boutique makers, both local and foreign – something that’s been a great success for him in the Manly deli.

Although Lake George has few wines to offer at present – the 2007 vintage being the hottest on record and one of the most difficult – it’s on track to deliver the vineyard’s full potential in coming years.

It seems that Edgar Riek’s vision might come true after all – thanks to the resources, will and entrepreneurial skill of the Karelas family and the outstanding talent they’ve recruited to deliver the goods.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007