Ryan O’Meara Express Winemakers

Top Winemakers

Ryan O’Meara’s Express Winemakers will be a decade old in 2021, a somewhat mature business with a distinctly youthful vibe. Employing a minimal-intervention approach, and with no adds excepting enough sulphur at bottling to protect the wines, he crafts a range of Great Southern wines from organically farmed fruit that lean heavily on brightness, texture and sheer drinkability. And, with one of his original guiding principles firmly intact, they’re also democratically affordable.

O’Meara’s wines are seriously made from seriously good fruit, but his wines are all about engagement, rather than meditation. He makes a pét-nat from sauvignon blanc, pinot noir and pinot gris called ‘Foamo’; a grenache and mourvèdre rosé; a riesling and semillon orange wine, aptly enough titled ‘L’orange’; an ultra-light red whose name, ‘Drinking Wine’, gives clear description of style and application; a flor-raised riesling; a barrel-fermented chenin blanc; and a skinsy blend of sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, semillon and pinot noir, called ‘Grape Fields’.

O’Meara studied viticulture and winemaking at Perth’s Curtin University, graduating in 2004, with his first full vintage in the same year at Chestnut Grove in Manjimup. In subsequent years, he alternated between northern and southern hemisphere harvests, working at Cape Mentelle, as well as in Great Southern and the Yarra Valley, while overseas he worked in California, the Languedoc, Tuscany and Rueda, Spain.

Later, he also ventured to Spain’s Ribera del Duero, in 2016, to work vintage with the iconoclastic Alfredo Maestro, but it was in 2011 that Express Winemakers was born. “At the start, the idea was to create unique and tasty wines that were affordable, but since leasing vineyards in 2016, it has evolved into being more about organic farming and low-intervention winemaking,” says O’Meara.

It wasn’t until 2017 that Express Winemakers would get big enough for him to axe the day job, so he maintained winemaking gigs in the Great Southern – including at Forest Hill, the region’s first vineyard – and it’s a place that O’Meara cherishes. “The Great Southern is an isolated outpost on the West Aussie wine map. It allows for creativity without judgement, and it has fostered a bunch of like-minded vignerons,” he says.

For O’Meara, making wine under his own label was always going to be done his way, rather than compromising for commercial reasons. “If I was going to live below the poverty line, I may as well do it on my own terms,” he jokes. “We make wines that we want to drink – thirst-quenching, tasty ones from a pretty epic place to grow and make. And we try to do it in a way that doesn’t fuck up the planet.”

With a particular affection for wines with vibrant lines of natural acidity, O’Meara says that cool climate was a necessity, and it was the “uncrowded coastlines and distinctive rieslings” that kept him in the Great Southern. “I’ve tried to work with the local climate by picking early to help maintain the natural acid, as well as avoid botrytis infections that can occur if you hang your fruit too long. It also helps create more balanced wines.”

Starting by buying contract fruit, O’Meara now farms several sites himself. “I’ve taken a number of vineyards that have either been conventionally run or completely mothballed and started managing them organically. Not using systemic fungicides or herbicides is a good start, which has resulted in vines slowly building up a natural resilience against disease. Lately, I’ve been focusing more on improving soil life with a bunch of organic material. Hopefully I’ll see the results over the next couple of years.”

O’Meara stresses that they only work with organically grown fruit, though not all is certified. “We farm most of it ourselves,” he says, “but also buy fruit from a couple of certified organic growers. The wines see no additions except for a little sulphur before bottling. These two simple things require a lot more attention, but we feel they are essential to create the wines that we want to make, and the wines that we want to drink.”

When sourced fruit is used for the Express wines, it’s from prime vineyards with like-minded growers, including L’enclos du Tertre – the home vineyard of acclaimed Swinney viticulturist Lee Haselgrove – and the organic Oranje Tractor in Albany, which focuses on regenerative agriculture.

In the winery, things are kept simple, with plenty of skin contact used on whites and most wines seeing older oak fermentation and/or maturation, with puncheons the favoured size, but O’Meara notes that it is the quality of the fruit, of the farming, that is the key to success. “Every wine that makes it into bottle is a success,” he says. “When you throw out the conventional winemaker’s toolkit of tartaric acid and various fining agents, you have to work with what you’ve got – grapes. You learn fast or you go broke.”