Nick O’Leary carves a Canberra niche

You don’t have to own vineyards or a winery to make your own wine. Ask Nick O’Leary, owner of one of Canberra’s hot new brands. You’ll find his wines on Canberra retail shelves and wine lists. But there’s no winery and no cellar door, just a web site ( And even that bears a ‘sold out’ sign.

Little wonder there’s no wine left, though, given the quality O’Leary achieved so quickly and the accolades that followed. These include rave reviews from Australia’s leading commentators, and an impressive string of awards at reputable wines shows – four gold medals for the current-release 2008 shiraz and a gold and two trophies for the 2009 riesling. Though sold out on O’Leary’s website, both can be found in stores and wine lists around town.

So what propels a newcomer so decisively into the limelight? The answer lies in careful fruit sourcing, attentive winemaking and sound judgement. Clearly, by the quality of his wines, O’Leary knew what varieties to use, where to source top-notch grapes and how to convert them to medal-winning wines. How come he knew all this at a tender 26 years?

Like his mentor and mate, Alex McKay, O’Leary worked at Kamberra Winery until late 2006 when Constellation Wines Australia (formerly BRL Hardy) sold up and made him redundant. But by then he’d served his winemaking apprenticeship under McKay, starting in 2003 as a cellar hand and working through the ranks to cellar supervisor then vintage assistant winemaker, running night shift for the whites.
O’Leary says he’d always wanted to be a winemaker and when Constellation left town he decided to stay on and build his own Canberra brand. By the end of 2006 a good grounding in winemaking made the decision natural. As well, he understood Canberra’s strengths and knew where to source good grapes.

He says, “Hardys gave me a good exposure to new technology and new techniques. I gained a good overview of wine and from where we were, we had a good ear to the ground”. And as well as making wine, O’Leary tasted widely and continues to do so. “I drink a lot with Alex and others who are not winemakers”, he says, finding inspiration in German riesling and “I love rieslings from the Clare and Eden Valleys”.

He and McKay assembled enough good shiraz from the 2006 vintage to blend and launch their own Nick O’Leary and Collector labels in 2007.
Then in vintage 2007, O’Leary bought about 10 tonnes of riesling and shiraz from growers he’d worked with during the Kamberra years, making the wine at Affleck Winery, owned by his in-laws, Ian and Susie Hendry.

The wines hit the mark immediately, largely attributable, says O’Leary, to the grape quality. He sources these principally from Wayne and Jennie Fischer’s Nanima Vineyard, Murrumbateman, but buys as well from Mike and Denise McKenzie’s Murrumbateman vineyard and from Wallaroo Vineyard, Hall.

These growers all understand the connection between fruit quality and wine quality, O’Leary explains. They’re prepared to do the hard work of shoot thinning and crop thinning – essential in getting crop levels just right, maximising flavour and balance. O’Leary works closely with his growers, “spending lots of time in the vineyard, especially just before harvest”, he says.

O’Leary and McKay maintained their connection after leaving Kamberra. In 2007 both joined the Karelas family at Lake George. They embarked on a major rejuvenation of the vineyard and made wine there in 2007, 2008 and 2009 – initially in Dr Edgar Riek’s original winery, then in the larger cellars next door after the Karelas family acquired David Madew’s property. The two left Lake George in late 2009.

But the Collector and Nick O’Leary labels live on. And they’re about to be joined by a joint brand to be launched in May or June. The initial wine, says O’Leary, is a 2009 vintage Canberra shiraz, likely to sell at a modest $18 a bottle. It’ll be joined later by chardonnay and pinot noir, both from the 2010 vintage. While these will be from Canberra, O’Leary anticipates sourcing future material from Tumbarumba as the cooler climate there better suits these varieties.

And what’s in store from Nick O’Leary wines in 2010? He says, “It was a challenging vintage. I haven’t seen one like this with rain towards the end of harvest”. But there’ll still be good wines from good producers, O’Leary says. In general whites came in ripe at lower sugar levels than usual and made sound, delicate wines. The reds “are not as robust as the 2009s, but they’re balanced. Whether they’ll live as long, I don’t know”.

We’ll see O’Leary’s 2010 riesling in a few months. And the 2009 shiraz should be a cracker when it’s released later this year. The riesling will sell at about $25 and the shiraz at $28.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010