Canberra winemaker Nick O'Leary in vintage form for 2014

Natasha Rudra
Winemaker Nick O'Leary at his cellar door in Bywong.
Winemaker Nick O'Leary at his cellar door in Bywong. Photo: Jamila Toderas

Nick O'Leary brings two bottles to the rustic table at his cellar door, tucked off the beaten path in the hills of Bywong. He pours a swirling splash of shiraz into a glass and takes a sip. "There's red berries and a lot of spice, pepper and other bits and pieces," he says. "That was the thing with 2013, just an optimal ripening period, there's no shrivel characters in the wine so we've used about 35 per cent new oak."

And then a splash of something he's very proud of - the Bolaro shiraz, a soft, fine wine that he describes as "tightly wound", like a flower. The tannis are fine, it's a wine that you can open later to catch in fuller bloom. "It's a shame that my kids were born in 10 and 11 which were wet years, I would have kept this for their birth years," O'Leary jokes.

It's been a big year for O'Leary. The 34-year-old winemaker is finishing 2014 with a clutch of trophies for his shirazes.

His 2013 shiraz won the Stodart Trophy at the Brisbane Wine Show earlier this year and picked up Best Red Wine and Best Shiraz. Meanwhile his Bolaro shiraz took out the Best Wine of Show and the Best Shiraz trophies at the NSW Wine Show. And he was awarded the Edgar Riek Trophy at the Royal Canberra Wine Show - a trophy that means a lot to him because Dr Edgar Riek, one of the doyennes of Canberra viticulture and winemaking, is a great mentor.

"It's cementing that shiraz is definitely something that works for us. I've had six trophies this year. The regional shows aren't really as big as the NSW show but you take a trophy of either of those calibre every three or four years so I was just lucky -  I've won Best Shiraz and Best Riesling in the last four years," he says.

O'Leary acknowledges he does better with the shirazes at the shows though he's still known for the riesling. "White wine making is very precise and decision making has to be done very carefully and no mistakes can be shown, especially in riesling," he says.

"But reds... you can put your personality in a little more and the varying styles and the way you do something can make a difference. Whereas white wine making is an exact science. I always say riesling is made in the vineyard and all you can do is pretty much ruin it from that point. I do enjoy the red wine making a lot more because it's a little bit more relaxing."

The way things are going, winemaking might be the only way to relax. O'Leary makes his wine at his in-laws' place, Affleck Vineyard, and is in the process of expanding the operation. putting in bigger tanks and possibly getting a bit more help so that vintage is not a one man operation involving one man called Nick O'Leary. He takes us out the back to show us where they've been excavating through solid rock to start laying the foundation for the shed expansion, his black Labrador, Charlie, waddling amiably after us. It's always been just him - working right through the night, putting a swag on the rough concrete floor to catch a few hours of sleep - but now it's time to get a little bigger. "I was on top of the tank fixing something at 3am and I realised, this is probably not the safest thing to be doing," he remembers with a laugh.

Then there's judging on the wine show circuit - six this year - and the trips to Sydney and Melbourne to promote the wines and talk to the growing number of people who enjoy them.  "You're up there marketing the district as well and get the Canberra name out there. Even though Sydney is so close it's still amazing how many times people haven't heard of Canberra wines," he says. "We're still a very young district, if you went to Margaret River, there's a lot of money in those cellar doors and a lot of prestige and big dollars. Whereas here a lot of the wineries were set up by ex-scientists and it's not a so-called rich district."

O'Leary says there's a great community of young winemakers who are all supportive of each other in the Canbera region - he names Nick Spencer and Hamish Young at Eden Road, Alex McKay of Collector wines, Chris Carpenter at Lark Hill and Bill Crowe at Four Winds, Richard Parker at Long Rail Gully. Even our columnist and food critic Bryan Martin, winemaker at Clonakilla and Ravensworth, gets an honorary guernsey.

But he reckons the best thing about winemaking right now, even looking past the great haul of trophies and gold medals, is the Canberra community. The people who drink the wines of their region and talk about them, and are justifiably proud of them.  "We've already got tremendous support locally - I think we've got well over 50 restaurants that list the wines and all the independent retailers have been very supportive pretty much from the start," he says. "There's huge support for local wines, there's been a real shift ... it's nice to see locals wanting to not only eat local but drink local too. People are just so enthusiastic."