Lake George renaissance

Lake George’s two oldest wine estates – Lake George Vineyard and Madew Wines – seem to have fallen off the radar in recent years, leaving relative newcomer, Lerida Estate, to keep the flame burning.

But there’s a renaissance in the making. Madew is on the market. And Lake George owner, Theo Karelas, recently engaged former Kamberra winemaker, Alex McKay, to reinvigorate the vineyard and winemaking – with help from Dr Edgar Riek, the vineyard’s founder.

A revitalised Lake George Vineyard and Madews, operating alongside Lerida, could make this little strip the most-visited part of Canberra’s scattered wine scene. Being at a peaceful remove from the busy Federal Highway is no disadvantage – as the success of nearby Lynwood Café demonstrates.

This really is a very charming location. Search ‘Lake George, Australia’ on Google Earth for a bird’s-eye view of what travellers see when travelling by road between Canberra and Sydney. Heading north from Canberra, the Federal Highway climbs then traverses the Lake George Escarpment before plunging down to the lake at Geary’s Gap.

Continuing north along the western shore of the lake, the escarpment literally crumbles steeply downwards, occasionally spewing rock debris onto the road.

Approaching the northern end of the lake, the slope from the escarpment eases before opening out onto the plains around the village of Collector.

The Lerida, Lake George and Madew vineyards form a contiguous line along these comparatively gentle slopes of the Lake George escarpment and are accessed from the old Federal Highway, now a quiet backwater next to the freeway.

The vineyards lie between the escarpment to the west and Lake George to the east. For those not familiar with the area, ‘Lake’ might be seen as an ironic term. As locals know the lake, vast as it is, comes and goes over time.

After a run of wet seasons it laps the side of the road, mystifying new visitors with its fence posts jutting above the water. In prolonged dry spells, sheep graze the grassy landscape and visitors might glimpse a puddle in the far south towards Bungendore.

When Edgar Riek established Lake George Vineyard in 1971 the lake was there and filling. It has come and gone several time since. And it makes me wonder what influence the presence or absence of such a large body of water – or land – makes on the grape-growing environment along the foreshore. The changes must have an impact.

The Lake George vineyards share other unique grape-growing conditions, too: soil that includes both rubble from erosion of the escarpment as well as deep gravels from old shorelines; the late afternoon shade provided by the escarpment towering above; an elevation of around 700 metres above sea level; and considerable variation in ripening times over short distances – Jim Lumbers, for example, cites a three week gap within Lerida Estate’s 7.5 hectares.

Two years after Riek established ‘Cullarin’ – the original name of Lake George Vineyard – naval captain Geoff Hood planted Westering Vineyard immediately to the north. David and Romily Madew acquired Westering in 1994, expanding the vineyard and building a winery, restaurant (grapefoodwine), cellar door complex.

In 1997 Jim Lumbers and Anne Caine, inspired by Edgar Riek’s pinot noirs, established Lerida on Riek’s southern boundary.

About a year later, Edgar Riek, by now in his seventies and concerned about succession, sold Lake George Vineyard to the Karelas family but stayed on as consultant for the 1999 and 2000 vintages.

Throughout his time at Lake George Edgar had been deeply engaged with the wine industry – partly through the role he played in establishing the National Wine Show – and his wines, despite the tiny volumes, enjoyed a high profile. These faded from view after his departure.

David Madew, on the other hand, showed flair for publicity, establishing Madew’s opera amongst the vines and the ambitious grapefoodwine complex – an enduring piece of infrastructure for the Lake George area. What becomes of Madew under new ownership remains to be seen. But the foundation is there to build on.

As Lake George Winery faded and Madew focused on events, Jim Lumbers and Anne Caine invested heavily in Lerida Estate.

From 1997 they established 7.5 hectares of vines with a strong skew toward pinot noir. This remains their passion, but they also have in the vineyard pinot gris (a white mutant of pinot noir), chardonnay, shiraz, merlot, cabernet franc, shiraz and viognier.

After a fairly rustic start to winemaking – I recall tasting wine outdoors from barrels stored in a shipping container in the early days – they built a beautiful winery, cellar door, café complex designed by Glenn Murcutt.

They’ve been moving up the grape-growing, winemaking learning curve rapidly. And now with Malcolm Burdett and skilled French ‘stagiers’ assisting at each vintage, the wines show increasing polish.

Maturing vines, careful vine management, rigorous fruit selection and competent winemaking have all contributed to a major lift in quality for Lerida. The latest offerings at cellar door (overlooking the lake and within the café) represent real value, with high points for me being the 2005 Reserve Shiraz and 2006 Pinot Noir.

Jim has some wonderful 2007 reds maturing in barrel, including shiraz, merlot and pinot. Again my favourite was the shiraz – already showing strong cool-climate peppery varietal character plus mid-palate richness – followed by a very promising merlot.

This is a winery to watch. It seems well resourced and driven by Jim and Anne’s passion – shared by Malcolm Burdett. However, it’s a little early in the journey yet to say what Lerida’s greatest wines will be. It takes many decades to see what varieties work where, especially in a climate as variable as Canberra’s.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007