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Winemaker Nick O’Leary

Nick O’Leary makes wines firmly rooted in the Canberra district, the place where he grew up and lives. The officially designated wine region of Canberra District is a small triangular area with 60km sides that stretch from Yass in the north, Bungendore in the east and Canberra in the south. This cool climate ‘Bermuda’ triangle has swallowed up over 33 wineries, around 140 vineyards and includes the areas of Murrumbateman, Lake George and Wamboin. Much like its attractive undulating geography (which gives it three distinct sub-regions) the District’s winemakers keep sticking their heads up and being noticed, snatching awards and kudos without a huge groundswell of mainstream wine drinker recognition.

That’s something that 34 year old Nick O’Leary is determinedly doing his best to change. He was a finalist in the 2011 Gourmet Traveller WINE Young Winemaker of the Year and won the Trophy for Best Riesling at the 2012 NSW Wine Awards. Most recently, at the 2013 National Wine Show his 2012 ‘Pyrenees’ Shiraz won Gold and he picked up Silver for his 2011 Shiraz and Bronze for his 2011 ‘Bolaro’ Shiraz. All of which has cemented his James Halliday Australian Wine Companion 5 star rating firmly to the corrugated iron of the winery wall.

The Stodart is one of the big trophies to win on the show circuit. Nick says it’s especially pleasing because “it’s an historic trophy, there are some great names on it. It’s good for me personally and it’s good for the district. We want people not to go for brand names and to recognize the Canberra District.” He laughs when we say he’s being generous, “You’ve got to share the love”.

The Stodart Trophy – “A trophy for winemakers”

There’s a Stodart family legend that has roots in 1960s Brisbane. Kay Stodart, wife of Brisbane businessman Toby Stodart, was experimenting with a recipe which called for a small amount of red wine. She asked Toby to pick up some wine on the way home, and as was not unusual for the time, he could only get a flagon. Their daughter Kate Stodart tells that this led to “the question of what do we do with the rest of it, drinking it and liking it, and so their interest in wine began”.

At that time, Brisbane’s small-town lack of dining sophistication led to an active interest in informal food and wine clubs. The late Len Evans convened memorable wine tastings and, meeting Toby and Kay, suggested they address the lack of wine awards presented to encourage the fledgling industry. In 1970 they established the Stodart Trophy for the best one-year-old dry red table wine to be awarded at the Royal Queensland Wine Show, and the trophy has been awarded continuously ever since.

One of the past winners explained the importance of the award by stating that this was “a trophy for winemakers”. Kay and Toby’s six children have ensured that the Stodart Trophy has continued. This year (2014) it was awarded to Nick O’Leary.

 

Nick’s father grew up in the Adelaide Hills and his uncle is David O’Leary of O’Leary Walker so the family has a history in wine. In the mid-90’s while Nick was at school, he did some work experience in the Clare Valley. But the formative experience, he says, was when he worked in the late Jim Murphy’s Canberra bottle shop. “Jim was very generous in opening up a lot of good older bottles of wine for us to try, especially Australian Clare Valley Rieslings, so I had the chance to try those and some great older Shiraz. And that’s really where my interest began. I knew I wanted to make it myself.”

Nick had planned on studying winemaking, but found himself graduating with a degree in Marketing and Sales. He started working in wine wholesaling, selling to restaurants. He didn’t enjoy what he describes as “a hard job, and I only did it long enough to find a job in winemaking.” That opportunity came when he met Hardy’s Kamberra Winery head winemaker Alex McKay in a pub. “I was about 21 and I didn’t really ask for a job, I demanded one! He was pretty young then too and I don’t think he expected me to actually turn up at the door. I started at the bottom of the ranks and rose as quickly as I could from the cellar, to cellar supervisor and eventually I was a winemaker at vintage and used to run the winery night shift.”

He describes that period as a big learning curve, but a great opportunity because he saw a lot fruit coming into the winery drawn from Tumbarumba, Gundagai and places around Canberra. Looking back he said, “It was a great way to learn and it developed organisational skills. I was managing lots of ferments and you have to learn to manage time wisely.”

In 2006 the news came that Hardy’s were going to pull out of the Kamberra Winery and the area. that the impact was felt across the District, mostly because their investment had been seen as a vote of confidence by a big company in the small region. Nick says “When I heard we’d be made redundant I wasn’t disappointed and began thinking ahead, seeing it as an opportunity to start my own brand. I got straight on the phone and rang a few growers I knew and in 2007 I made my first vintage.”

He was fortunate to have access to a winery through the family of his wife, Amy. “I was making a few things there at Afflecks while I was at Hardy’s and they said if I wanted to use the winery to make my own stuff I was more than welcome to. When I got serious I started leasing the winery, and I’ve expanded it with a lot of tanks and equipment. I bought as many grapes as I could afford, borrowed a bit of money and I’ve been re-investing and building the business up since. We started off at 300 cases for the first year and we’re now up to 4000.”

“At that volume it’s still personal,” he says. “I still clean the presses and wash bins and get my hands dirty.” Nick believes that as soon as you get bigger and have to employ staff, you lose that personal touch to winemaking. “And like a lot of the bigger guys, you then find yourself sitting behind computers. I find you get better results if you have more interaction with the wines yourself. I’m just a small scale winery that’s hand’s on, and that’s the way I’d like to keep it.”

That comes with the need to sell your product a price point that keeps you in business and attracts sales. In the Canberra bars and restaurants that sell Nick O’Leary Wines it is noticeable that they’re great value, with other regional wines on their lists many dollars more expensive. So we ask Nick to explain more about his pricing strategy.

“It’s important that when you start a business that you’re offering a product that’s not only good but great value for money. Without people buying it you don’t have a brand. I haven’t changed the price on my Riesling for seven years, the Shiraz has had one small price increase. I do have some more expensive wines, I have a premium Shiraz and Reisling but they’re only made in the very good years. It’s not something that has to be made every year. In the great vintages they’ll be released and in small volumes”.

“My main vineyard is Wayne and Jenny Fischer’s Nanima Vineyard in Murrumbateman and I’ve got a very good relationship with them that goes back to the beginning. I feel as though that is my vineyard and that is the home of my wines, where they come from.”

Which leads to that eponymous label.

Nick laughed. “I couldn’t think of anything else! I was coming up with brand names I didn’t really like and a friend said ‘Why don’t you call it Nick O’Leary Wines?’ Done! It’s important to have a label that stands out in the fridge. I’ve always liked all those classic simple labels like Leo Buring.”

Nick O'Leary with friend and fellow winemaker Alex McKay
Nick O’Leary with friend and fellow winemaker Alex McKay

Along with, now firm friend, Alex McKay (who after leaving Hardy’s also formed his own award winning label Collector Wines, Nick started the Bourke Street wine label. Named slyly after a small street in the middle of the town of Collector, it came when they decided in 2008, 2009 that they wanted to invest in a few vineyards and buy their fruit. But they didn’t want to put pressure on their own brands by having to take inferior fruit. “We decide do another brand that would offer value for money and we make Canberra District Shiraz and Tumbarumba Pinot and a Chardonnay. We didn’t make any wine last year because of frost. Nick explained “It’s marketed in a different way to our own wines, often in different venues. It’s our entry level to tasting the Canberra District.”

Looking ahead? His own vineyard perhaps? Nick said “I only look at things in five year blocks and I can’t see myself buying a vineyard in that time. I wouldn’t rule it out it’s not something you jump into.”

2013 was clearly a special vintage for the Canberra District. Milder, without the extreme heat or frosts that had hammered recent years. There are signs from other growers in the region that it is a vintage will produce more award winning wines and we’ll get to drink that love.
Fred Harden
(this first appeared in a shorter form in SoVino December 2014)

Nick O’Leary Wines website
Alex McKay’s website Collector Wines
Canberra District Wines website