Lake George vineyard to be carved up, young guns go their own ways

There are changes afoot in the Canberra wine district, following the departure of two of the district’s most influential winemakers from Lake George Winery late last year. Nick O’Leary left the winery in winter 2009 and Alex McKay followed in December.

Part of the Lake George property is up for sale. And O’Leary and McKay are now making their wines separately – O’Leary at his in-law’s Affleck Vineyard and McKay at a leased winery near Murrumbateman.

The Karelas family bought Lake George Vineyard from founder Edgar Riek in 1998. At Edgar Riek’s urging, following Hardy’s departure from Canberra, Theo Karelas and his son Sam hired Riek, O’Leary and McKay to oversee a complete overhaul of the vineyard in 2007. McKay was to make the wines. And McKay and O’Leary had freedom to develop their own labels, Collector and Nick O’Leary.

Then in March 2008, the Karelas family acquired the adjoining Madew property including land, vineyards and a winery-, cellar-door-restaurant complex. McKay and O’Leary led a rejuvenation of the neglected vineyards and consolidated the winemaking equipment into the Madew cellar. The combined properties produced wines under the Lake George Winery label and the Madew name was dropped.

Speaking from overseas last week, Sam Karelas said he was selling Riek’s original Lake George property but would continue trading from the Madew property under the Lake George Winery name. He said he would continue to operate the restaurant.

Alex McKay said though he left Lake George half way through the growing season, he made two wines from the vineyard in 2010 – a tempranillo and riesling.

He says left Lake George because the winemaking obligation there had become a bit much with his Collector brand beginning to work well and demanding more attention.

In time for the 2010 vintage he arranged to lease a small winery owned by Vikki Fischer at Murrumbateman. Fischer made her Cardinia wines there. But, says McKay, as a working mother with three children she found little time for winemaking.

McKay says it’s an efficient little winery and by adding a few bits and pieces it easily handled vintage 2010.

He made “some nice parcels of shiraz, which was a pretty good achievement in a tough vintage” but hasn’t decide yet whether there’ll be a “reserve” bottling as well as the standard Collector Marked Tree Shiraz.

He also has a single barrel of sangiovese, sourced from Wayne and Jenny Fischer’s Nanima Vineyard, Murrumbateman. But it “may never see light of day”.

The standout wine in 2010, he says, is a Rhone style, oak-fermented white blend of marsanne, roussanne and viognier. “I’m very happy with it”, he adds (given McKay’s modesty, that probably means sensational). He’s also pleased with a 2010 riesling made for the Half Moon Vineyard at Braidwood.

McKay continues to work closely with O’Leary. “There’s a fair bit of overlaps on our grape sources”, he says, and it helps if they both keep an eye on the vineyards. They bring different perspectives, McKay adds. But, more importantly, as vintage approaches each year, they spend a great deal of time visiting and influencing the management of vineyards they’re buying from. Ultimately, fruit quality drives wine quality – and their fussiness in this area shows in the wines they make.

On Friday 2 July, for examples, judges at the Winewise Small Vignerons Awards awarded the trophy for best shiraz to Nick O’Leary Canberra District Shiraz 2009 – further cementing Canberra’s leadership with this style of shiraz.

O’Leary’s success in this credible wine show follows similar applause for Collector Reserve Shiraz 2008, made by O’Leary’s long-time winemaking mate Alex McKay, at the 2010 Royal Sydney Wine Show.

McKay says that when he and O’Leary source fruit from local growers they don’t cherry pick the amount to suit their own brands. If they like a block of vines, they’ll buy the lot as it’s neater for the grower and, it seems, opens other winemaking options – like their just released joint-venture Bourke Street Shiraz 2008 ($19).

McKay says there’s a limit to the volumes they can make and sell at the prices their own brands command (currently around $30 for the standard Nick O’Leary and Collector and $46 for Collector Reserve).

But there’s an opportunity, especially in restaurants, for good quality regional wines at a more affordable $20.

They make all of their shiraz as if it’ll be a component of the premium wines, says McKay. But as they move from oak maturation to final blending, for style, quality or volume reasons they eliminate some parcels. In 2008 these shiraz parcels became the first Bourke Street wine, released recently after a year in bottle. It’s a terrific drop. And there’s a 2009 in the wings, along with a few other wines, to be covered here when they’re released.

The 2009 vintage of Collector Marked Tree Shiraz and Reserve Shiraz are to be released in September and they’ll be reviewed here at the time. We’ll also review O’Leary’s trophy-winning 2009 Shiraz in the near future.

And we’ll just have to wait and see who buys the original Lake George and what they do with it, and how the Karelas family fares with the piece they keep. We’ll catch up with Sam Karelas when he returns to Australia and pass on any news.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010