Karelas family buys Madew Lake George vineyards

Last month without any fanfare Canberra’s Theo Karelas and family, owners of Lake George Winery, acquired Madew Wines, on their northern boundary. The purchase brightens the outlook for this unique and historic stretch of vineyards.

Yet two years ago the future of Lake George as a Canberra sub-region appeared to be defaulting to Lerida Estate and its energetic owners, Jim Lumbers and Anne Caine. The neighbouring Lake George Winery was in decline and the for-sale Madew Wines had ceased production.

But in late 2006 Theo Karelas decided to revitalise his Lake George property, setting the scene for the Madew purchase just over a year later.

Karelas and his son Sam had bought Lake George from its founder, Dr Edgar Riek in 1998. But in an interview last year Sam said that while he’d made the Lake George wines after Riek’s, departure 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, he said. And the family’s determination to give it that coincided with Hardy’s plan to exit Canberra. This, in turn, caused Hardy’s Kamberra 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 in 2007 Alex agreed to make the Lake George wines and oversee a rejuvenation of the vineyard.

With the help of Riek and former Kamberra Winery colleague, Nick O’Leary, Alex achieved this substantially during winter 2007 and reaped a record, high-quality harvest in 2008.

Meanwhile the Karelas family had been negotiating with David Madew and settled on the property in time for vintage. Alex shifted the Lake George winemaking gear into Madew’s shed and made the Lake George wines there. There was no fruit from the Madew vineyards.

The Madew purchase included the land, vineyards, winery, house and the grapefoodwine restaurant/function/cellar door building. At about the same time, says Sam, his family purchased a vacant forty-hectare block on Madew’s northern boundary to allow for further vineyard expansion.

Sam expects to have a cellar door up and running in the stone cellars under grapefoodwine in the next few weeks. After that the number one priority will be to rejuvenate the vines, which appear to have been untended for several years.

For this, Sam says, ‘Dad and I have given total control to Alex and Nick. They are the best in the district’.
Alex McKay says he hasn’t completed a survey of what’s in the Madew vineyards yet. He believes that the mix is ‘not too redundant’ and probably about seventy per cent white, thirty per cent red.

There’s a fair bit of riesling, a variety which has, in the past, produced good wines. And tastings of the very small amount of Madew stock suggested that the vineyard produced generally high-quality fruit.

It’ll be all hands on deck there this winter to prune (probably with a chain saw), graft and re-trellis where necessary. Alex believes that the severe pruning will probably mean a 2009 crop of only about twenty to thirty per cent of normal.

But by pruning severely and limiting the yield next year, the vines will be healthier in the long run and yield normally in 2010. He says that because Sam and Theo will do what it takes to get the wines right they’re prepared to accept the small 2009 harvest.

Of the forty hectares on the new block adjoining the Madew property, Alex believes that perhaps twelve to six hectares could be planted to vines.

The Madew name won’t be retained and the combined properties will operate as Lake George Winery. Sam estimates current combined plantings at about seventeen hectares, with potential, across the three blocks to increase this to perhaps about thirty-seven hectares.

Lake George Winery, then, will embrace two of Canberra’s earliest vineyards – Lake George itself, founded as Cullarin Vineyard by Dr Riek in 1971; and the former Madew vineyard, founded as Westering vineyard by Captain Geoff Hood in 1973.

The substantial grapefoodwine building will serve several purposes. The cellar door is moving downstairs into the stone cellar, which will serve, too, as a barrel cellar; and the upstairs restaurant will continue as a function venue, with Lynwood’s Robert Broadbent running the kitchen. Sam says this may become a restaurant again in the future.

With the cellar door due to open and the first of the wines made by Alex McKay expected to come on sale in the next few months, we could be in for a treat.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2008