Gongs for Nick O’Leary Canberra shiraz and riesling

Winemaker Nick O’Leary recently attracted the national limelight, yet again, on Canberra’s great specialties, shiraz and riesling. Nick O’Leary Riesling 2012 won the top-scoring gold medal and trophy at the NSW Wine Awards in October. At about the same time, O’Leary’s shiraz 2011 and Bolaro shiraz 2011 earned gold medals at the Royal Melbourne Wine Show – against shirazes from all over Australia.

Bolaro (O’Leary’s new reserve shiraz) shared the top spot with Best’s Great Western Bin 1 Shiraz 2011 – which went on to claim the Jimmy Watson trophy as the best one-year-old shiraz in the show.

O’Leary’s success underlines the real legacy of Hardy’s all-too-brief presence in Canberra: the winemaking and vineyard knowledge O’Leary shares with fellow former Hardy winemaker, Alex McKay; and dozens of small independent grape growers attracted into the business by Hardy contracts.

The big dollar items – motivated largely by ACT Government largesse – count for nothing on the Canberra wine scene. The Kamberra winery at Watson remains a white elephant. And who’s heard anything lately of the 80-hectare vineyard just upstream from the lower Molonglo sewage farm?

Canberra-raised O’Leary credits his first wine mentor, the late Jim Murphy, for fanning his enthusiasm for wine. Working at Market Cellars, O’Leary frequently tasted old shirazes and rieslings from Murphy’s private collection. “Jim was hard but fair as a boss and not shy in opening good wines for his staff”, recalls O’Leary.

Later the young O’Leary enjoyed work experience alongside his uncle David O’Leary (now of O’Leary Walker) at Annie’s Lane winery in the Clare Valley.

But the real wine knowledge came after he joined Hardy’s Kamberra winery as a cellar hand under winemaker Alex McKay. He worked his way up the ranks, becoming vintage assistant winemaker, cellar supervisor then night-shift winemaker.

It was a nursery of learning”, says O’Leary, as the winery processed a range of varieties from Canberra, Tumbarumba, Hilltops and Griffith. Kamberra participated in a number of winemaking trials within the larger Hardy’s group and McKay, exposing McKay and himself to large-scale tastings across numerous wine styles.

Hardy’s departed Canberra shortly before the 2007 vintage. But O’Leary found it easy to stay on, despite the risks of embarking on his own business. He’d been making small batches of his own wine from 2004. And he’d developed a relationship with Amy Affleck, daughter of Affleck Wine founders, Susie and Ian Affleck. From 2007 he made wine for the new Nick O’Leary label from their winery out on the Bungendore escarpment.

The Afflecks continue to make their own estate-produced wines there. But in time for the 2010 vintage, O’Leary completed major upgrades to the winery, particularly in adding refrigerated storage for 60–70 thousand litres of wine.

The wines have been in the front ranks right from the beginning. And this gets down not just to good winemaking, but nurturing relationships with the 16 grape growers he and Alex McKay source their raw materials from.

The recently successful wines, and another yet unreleased, tell the story of that relationship and how good husbandry in the winery completes the circle.

Nick O’Leary Canberra District Riesling 2012 $25
O’Leary sources the grapes principally from Wayne and Jennie Fischer’s Nanima vineyard, Long Rail Gully vineyard and Four Winds vineyard at Murrumbateman, with the balance from the Karelas family’s Westering vineyard, Lake George. He says he harvested 60 per cent of the fruit before the big rains and remaining grapes on the first sunny day afterwards – a narrow window before the fungal disease botrytis cinerea took over.

Selective hand picking ensured largely sound fruit arrived in the winery. There O’Leary gently pressed the whole bunches, avoiding extraction of phenolics, then cold-fermented the wine using a neutral sparkling-wine yeast. The latter means no extra aromatics to interfere with the naturally floral character of Canberra riesling.

Demonstrating the variability of show judging, the wine won, in the space of a few weeks, a bronze medal at the Canberra Regional Show, nothing at the International Riesling Challenge and the top gold and trophy at the NSW Wine Awards.

Tasted at leisure, it reveals floral and lemony varietal aroma and similar flavours on the intense but delicate palate. The high natural acid of the vintage accentuates the flavour intensity and suggests good cellaring ahead.

O’Leary holds a reserve 2012 riesling in the cellar for release later this year at around $40. He says it’s a 50:50 blend of material from Westering and Nanima vineyards. The latter comprises two new clones, Geisenheim and Pewsey Valley, established on a separate block at the request of O’Leary and McKay.

Nick O’Leary Canberra District Shiraz 2011 201 $28
O’Leary says this wine demonstrates the benefits of good vineyard management and liaison between the growers and makers. Good growers, especially after the destructive 2011 season, realised the need for intense vineyard management and crop reduction to suit the season. At Nanima vineyard, “driving force of the wine”, a well-drained site helped, but “great also great management” produced the goods, says O’Leary. The Fischers shoot thinned, and at veraison dropped half the fruit off the vines, enabling greater flavour concentration and quicker ripening. He sourced the remaining high quality grapes from Wallaroo Wines, Hall, and Long Rail Gully, Murrumbateman. The wine contains about five per cent viognier, though this is not obvious in the aroma or flavour. Judges awarded a gold medal in Canberra as well as Melbourne.

This is magnificent cool-climate shiraz – revealing Canberra berry fruit, spiciness and even a touch of pepper, emphasised by the cold vintage. The medium bodied palate presents, too, a savoury element and a pleasing, lean, dry palate – though the fine tannins provide adequate flesh.

Nick O’Leary Bolaro Canberra District Shiraz 2011 $55
By a strange quirk of fate, this wine shares more than an equal billing at the Melbourne show with Best’s Great Western Bin 1 Shiraz. O’Leary explained, “In Canberra Hardy’s recommended clones from their experience in South Australia. Most didn’t work. It’s expensive but more suitable once are being introduced”.  In this instance the Fischer’s grafted the Great Western clone onto the roots of a lesser clone. “It’s one of the great shiraz clones for Canberra”, says O’Leary.

And its first outing tends to confirm that. The Melbourne judges ranked it slightly ahead of the standard shiraz –perhaps noting the extra savouriness, flavour depth and firmer structure of a very classy, cellarable wine indeed.  “I made Bolaro for the future”, says O’Leary.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2012
First published 14 November 2012 in The Canberra Times