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O'Leary Walker toasts new season with a South African twist


A Clare Valley winery known for its traditional wine styles is branching out into more easy-drinking alternative varieties in a bid to attract younger drinkers.

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O’Leary Walker Wines today launches the first wine in its Seasonal Release project – a 2019 Pinotage.

The variety produces a medium-bodied red resulting from a hybrid of Pinot Noir and Cinsault developed in the 1920s. It has become South Africa’s signature red wine but is believed to be one of the only wines of its style currently produced in South Australia.

David O’Leary and Nick Walker started the winery in 2000 and have weathered the ups and downs of the Australian wine industry for two decades, while forging a reputation for quality traditional wine styles from Clare Valley and Adelaide Hills.

But the coronavirus pandemic and changing wine tastes has the winery and its two cellar doors evolving quickly to keep up.

O’Leary Walker has increased its food focus at its Clare Valley cellar door and last week launched a new website to help it cater to a growing online customer base.

The winery opened its Clare Valley cellar door in 2010 and a second one near its Adelaide Hills vineyard in Oakbank in 2015.

O’Leary said it had increased its attention on its cellar doors this year, following the appointment of a full-time resident chef and a greater focus on events.

He said about 80 per cent of the winery’s sales were traditionally to restaurants, placing pressure on its bottom line through coronavirus shutdowns and restrictions in recent months.

“There’s been a big shift in people’s habits and we still want to get our wines on-premise, but cellar door one-on-one is becoming a very powerful tool to show people our wines and sell them direct,” he said.

Like many cellar doors, both sites have reported increases in foot traffic and sales in the past couple of months as border lockdowns force South Australians to holiday in the state’s regions.

O’Leary Walker will release a Pinotage this week. Photo: Sam Pearce/Frame Creative

“The last four or five weeks the cellar doors have been incredibly busy – our patronage on Thursdays, Fridays and weekends has been unbelievable,” O’Leary said.

“One of the side benefits of that as well is people are visiting areas they haven’t been before and they are finding out that the Clare Valley is a bit of a hidden gem.

“We also put a lot of effort into our new website and we’ve been working hard on the food offerings in Clare as well, because you need a few strings to your bow in cellar doors these days – people want food and they’re pretty discerning when it comes to the quality.”

Walker and O’Leary already had about 40 years of winemaking experience between them when they started their partnership in 2000, making them one of the most experienced duos in the industry.

Now the next generation of winemakers is stepping up to complement the traditional ways of the winery’s founders, which has focused on staple Australian varieties such as Riesling, Shiraz, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Jack Walker – Nick’s son – and Luke Broadbent have worked in the business for more than five years and are now expanding the range to create some fresh flavours to appeal to younger wine drinkers.

The emerging winemakers have been put in charge of the Seasonal Release project, which kicks off with today’s launch of a Pinotage.

Varieties being considered for future releases include Nero, Grenache and Grüner Veltliner.

All of the varieties are grown in the Clare Valley.

“Part of the reason for the seasonal releases is so we can cater a little bit better to seasonal drinking conditions, so they’ll be released every three months and the wine will be chosen to suit the time of year it is released,” O’Leary said.

“The Pinotage is coming out as we’re emerging out of Shiraz weather and those big bold wines you enjoy during winter, whereas this is something more suited to the spring and we’re looking at whites and a Nero next to give our consumers something different to try in addition to our flagship wines.

“It’s really important for us to have people wanting to do a return visit to our cellar doors, so in addition to our regular new releases we want to have different styles of wine to encourage people to keep coming back and have something different to try when they do.

“Things change as well and people are looking for more lighter style reds and juicier, easy-drinking so we’re trying to develop and broaden our winemaking horizons.”

Jack Walker said the Seasonal Release project was born of a desire to create small-batch wines to meet seasonal drinking conditions.

“We want to showcase emerging new varietals, regional selections, single-vineyard wines and distinct winemaking techniques so that we can give our customers something new to get excited about,” the fourth-generation winemaker said.

The winery produces a total of about 14,000 cases a year in the Clare Valley from grapes grown in the region,  as well as at a 16-hectare Adelaide Hills vineyard owned by O’Leary’s sister, Sue Cherry, in Oakbank

O’Leary Walker had initially planned 20th-anniversary celebrations for August but was delayed following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic earlier in the year. While a few smaller events will take place in the coming months, the winery is working towards a 21st birthday party in 2021.

The Pinotage retails for $28 a bottle and only 150 cases have been produced. It is available online, at the Adelaide Hills and Clare Valley cellar doors and at select SA retailers.

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