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Lake George, Canberra District Anthony McDougall

Top Vineyards

Anthony and Sarah McDougall are the current stewards of Lake George Winery, one of the Canberra District’s first vineyards. Founded by the legendary Dr Edgar Riek, the site was planted with chardonnay, semillon, riesling, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and merlot, though that composition has been tweaked over the years, with varieties such as tempranillo, viognier and pinot gris joining the roster. Today, the McDougalls have moved away from synthetic herbicides and are busy employing innovative options to reduce their imprint on the environment, as well as ensure long-term economic viability.

In 1971, Dr Edgar Riek became the first to plant grapevines for commercial wine production in the region, though the Lake George Winery, which he is famous for, was planted a couple of years later on a neighbouring property. That site is the first Canberra District vineyard you’ll encounter if you’re heading down the Federal Highway to the nation’s capital. With the vast expanse of Lake George stretching out to the east, it’s a magical place, and at 700 metres altitude, it’s also a cold one.

The 8-hectare vineyard on alluvial gravels was first planted in 1973, with additions made in 2000 and grafting over of some vines occurring periodically, most recently in 2015. Today, the vineyard is planted to chardonnay, semillon, riesling, viognier, pinot gris, shiraz, tempranillo, pinot noir, muscat and cabernet franc. The vines are all on own roots and no irrigation is currently used.

Lake George is the first Canberra District vineyard you’ll encounter if you’re heading down the Federal Highway to the nation’s capital. With the vast expanse of Lake George stretching out to the east, it’s a magical place, and at 700 metres altitude, it’s also a cold one.

Anthony McDougall has been the viticultural custodian of Lake George Winery for around two years, enduring the nightmare vintage that was 2020, where crop loss was just part of the challenge. After surviving the worst drought the district had seen in living memory, the script was flipped and record rainfalls saw Lake George – a generally dry lake – filled for the first time in four years.

“This year started with grasshoppers that stripped our vines in the outer rows as a result of having nothing else to eat,” says McDougall, “this was followed by unrelenting dry hot weather and then came the smoke. For weeks, the smoke blanketed the region, something I have never seen before, with New Year’s Eve reminding me of scenes from Blade Runner. Then going from one of the direst drought years to six months later having thick grass throughout the vineyard, and some weeks the soil moisture is at a level where it can become inaccessible for tractors.”

Whatever the extreme vagaries of the weather, McDougall has been implementing practices to restore his soil and combat erosion along with the attendant nutrient loss in some sections, with the rains also necessitating a rebuilding of overgrown drainage channels. In his time there, he has eliminated herbicide use, encouraging grasses between rows.

“Since we have transitioned from using herbicides the vineyard has responded,” McDougall says, “Returning to a much more natural level of grass throughout the vineyard, and the barren ground under vines has been replaced by grass and mulch, holding in the natural soil nutrients. If ever we needed a wakeup call, it was vintage 2020, and now is the time for change. We are lucky our vineyard is dry grown and has deep soils, which has sustained it through the drought. However, we are likely going to need to turn to options for irrigation to provide protection from future droughts.”

“Since we have transitioned from using herbicides the vineyard has responded,” McDougall says, “Returning to a much more natural level of grass throughout the vineyard, and the barren ground under vines has been replaced by grass and mulch, holding in the natural soil nutrients. If ever we needed a wakeup call, it was vintage 2020, and now is the time for change. We are lucky our vineyard is dry grown and has deep soils, which has sustained it through the drought. However, we are likely going to need to turn to options for irrigation to provide protection from future droughts.”

The process of rebuilding eroded areas and rebalancing the soil profile will see McDougall plant additional riesling to focus more keenly on a regional and site-specific strength, but it will also see him diversify. “We’ll then focus on expanding the vineyard to plant some additional drought-tolerate varieties with rootstock that is phylloxera resistant, such that if Canberra is impacted in the future.”

This idea of future proofing is a critical one for McDougall, not just due to the impacts of climate change, but also to make the business sustainable in a low-impact way that ensures its economic sustainability by establishing “a balance between labour cost and innovative tools for managing the growth from year to year. That means finding new ways of doing things with less, and removing our dependency on chemicals through innovative practices.”

“We are considering options for grazing livestock and/or ducks or other natural options to maintain the area in a sustainable way and reduce our consumption of diesel from mowing etc."

While McDougall is pursuing traditional options to problem solve, innovation is always at the front of his thinking. “We are considering options for grazing livestock and/or ducks or other natural options to maintain the area in a sustainable way and reduce our consumption of diesel from mowing etc. …and we’re looking at automated, solar under-vine mowers to reduce diesel consumption, however the price point at this stage is not yet an option for us, but it’s something we will look to move to in coming seasons.”

McDougall’s use of technology in a low impact way is nothing new either. “We’re the first vineyard in Australia to have trialled automated lasers for bird control, which means we are able to walk down 80 per cent of our rows right up to picking without having to put out nets. This reduces our labour and machinery costs, which has since offset the capital costs. Not to mentioned we have a green laser show in front of our house every night, which helps to reminds the kids when it’s time for bed.”

The future plans for Lake George Winery are rooted in environmental and economic sustainability for the vineyard and winery operation, but with nearly 120 hectares of land, they’re also built around an economic viability that is centred on the preservation and appreciation of the immediate world around them.

“As part of building a sustainable business we are looking at expanding our options for onsite accommodation and building single tracks for mountain biking and walking trails,” says McDougall. “The goal being to have a sustainable and diverse business that supports people from all over Australia and the world, coming and enjoying the beautiful views of Lake George for years to come.”

While McDougall is a grower first, he works across and appreciates every aspect of the business. “For me the ‘glory’ is having a beer at the end of the harvest,” he says, “with picking bins bulging full of grapes, knowing that the hard work in the field has been done, but I work closely with the winemakers, especially as we are nearing harvest to make sure we have a solid plan for getting the best out of the vineyard. I am one of the lucky ones that gets to grow the grapes and, when feeling inspired, make the wine. I love the fact that the industry spans from hard work in the vineyard, through to bucket chemistry in the winery and creating amazing experiences in the cellar door.”