Howland and Wiggs buy original Lake George vineyard

Last November as Canberra’s grape vines burst into life, Peter Wiggs and Peter Howland walked onto the original Lake George vineyard, accompanied by its founder, 90 year-old Dr Edgar Riek. Wiggs and Howland had just bought the vineyard from Theo and Sam Karelas, its owners since 1998.

Riek’s presence was more than symbolic. He planted Cullarin (the property name) in 1971, experimented with dozens of varieties, and devoted thousands of hours to perfecting the vineyard and wines, sold under the Lake George Winery label.

Even when Riek, then 78, sold Cullarin in 1998, it was keep the dream alive for another generation. But he says he’s been disappointed to see the vineyard marking time for most of the last twelve years – except for a welcome but brief period of rejuvenation under Alex McKay and Nick O’Leary, following Hardy’s departure from the district.

That brief period of new planting, grafting and re-trellising saw the vineyard almost double in size, and the introduction of shiraz and tempranillo.

Howland certainly connects Riek’s vision to his own. He views the property as “Edgar’s garden – a library of vines” and describes Riek as “the greatest resource of all. He comes out here every couple of weeks and has so much knowledge”. Riek says it’s wonderful seeing his dream coming back to life again.

Howland says that he and Peter Wiggs began searching for a small, established, cool-climate vineyard some years back. They’d been particularly fascinated by Cote-Rotie style shiraz and short-listed several regions, including Canberra, capable of making the style.

When they discovered Cullarin up for sale, they visited the site, dug around and ultimately bought the property, including about five-hectares of vine and four sheds. The Lake George Winery name, however, remains with Theo and Sam Karelas next door on the former Madew property, which they acquired in 2008.

Howland writes, “I will be viticulturist with responsibility for both the vineyard and winemaking. Our focus is on making high quality shiraz, pinot noir and chardonnay. Production for 2011 will be approximately 800 cases, rising to approximately 1,500 cases for 2013. Our plan is continue the revitalisation of the vineyard that was began by Alex Mackay. We will also be re-establishing the winery and hope to open a cellar door in 2013 (to coincide with release of the 2011 vintage wines).

Howland says he arrived at the vineyard last November, “just after budburst. It was not in great shape at all, then rain brought up all the weeds”.

However, that’s all under control now, he says, and despite the rain and consequent mildew problems in by the district, the vineyard carries a good crop of healthy fruit. The few problems he sees are in dense canopies on an old T-trellis system. Fruit on a more open vertical-shoot-positioning system, established by McKay and O’Leary, seems perfect – confirming a first impression that the whole vineyard should be converted to the system.

Over time, Howland plans to build up good soil nutrition using biodynamic principles – good soil nutrition being key to healthy vines. And healthy vines, of course, produce tasty fruit – the key to good wine.

By the time this year’s crop ripens (it’s now at veraison stage, where red varieties begin to colour and bullet-hard berries soften), one of the sheds will be fitted out as a winery.

Howland sees his coming vintage at Lake George as a time for trial and observation of the vineyard’s pinot noir, shiraz, pinot gris, viognier, cabernet, malbec, chardonnay, tempranillo and mourvedre. Afterwards he can decide what stays, what goes and what gets expanded.

Howland studied oenology at Adelaide University and has made wine in Italy, the Hunter Valley, Western Australia and Argentina. He has an interest in online retailing through Suitcase Wines, offering individual vineyard wines from around the world, and Hidden Talent, devoted to small-batches from boutique winemakers.

Peter Wiggs is a managing partner of Archer Capital, an Australian private equity investment business claiming “the longest track record of any leveraged buyout manager in Australia”.

Archer led the management buyout of Cellarmaster Group from Foster’s in 2007. Cellarmasters is a vertically integrated wine direct marketing group making, packaging, selling and delivering wine direct to its customers in Australia and New Zealand. (Shortly after this article’s publication in the The Canberra Times, Archer announced the sale of Cellarmaster to Woolworths).

With Howland’s expertise in vineyard and winery and Wigg’s money and background in business management, Edgar Riek’s vision may finally be realised.

Sadly, the wines won’t appear under the Cullarin or Lake George Winery brands. But whatever name Howland and Wiggs select, the wines will be entirely from the original vineyard. This is terrific news. Edgar Riek is still smiling.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2011