People: Owen Latta
Place: Victoria, Australia
Grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah
Farming: Organic, Regenerative
Production: 16.000 bottles
If there's one discovery we’d highlight in the world of wine this year, it would definitely be Owen Latta. The juice, the bottles, the labels - everything is highly captivating. The wines display phenomenal precision and attention to detail with the help of hands-off winemaking. Even though his wines are low to non-dos, they are some of the cleanest and most classic to come out of Australia. Every. Single. One of them. You can't expect less from a lad that started his career at the age of 14.
Owen covers two labels – Latta & Eastern Peake. The latter envelops a smaller range that concentrates on only three varieties – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir & Syrah.
“Eastern Peake was a small project that evolved from my parents’ very humble beginnings. Dianne Pym & Norman Latta purchased their property in the late 1970s in the tiny township of Coghills Creek, Western Victoria just 25 km northwest from the city of Ballarat. The idea was to build a mudbrick home, grow & make all of their own food, to be self-sufficient on the land & escape from Melbourne, where my dad had grown up.”
Cogshills Creek has one of the poorest soils in the area, hence it is rather easy to have greater control of the viticulture. The Lattas have always farmed organically here, without thinking about it as vignerons do today. The story of how their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir came into the spotlight is somewhat fascinating.
“In 1983, my parents planted our first Pinot Noir clones (MV6) and in 1991-1993 Chardonnay went into the ground. It was at this time the Australian wine world was changing dramatically especially for the late great Trevor Mast of Best’s (Great Western). He had purchased a vineyard with a small winery called Mount Langi Ghiran, really setting the benchmark for the industry in 1989, when Victoria was dealt with a wet cold vintage. Trevor decided to risk everything leaving his Shiraz out longer than everyone else. It paid off resulting in one of the greatest wines to emerge from Australia that season. He was described by the media as a whiz-kid or guru. We later found out at Trevor’s funeral in 2012 that one of the cellarhands in the winery had ‘accidentally’ blended the Pinot Noir from Eastern Peake with all of the Mount Langi Shiraz.”
Along the way, Owen was very attentive to his parents’ teachings. Due to an unfortunate accident his father had in the vineyard, Owen had to jump head on into the business when he was 15.
“When I made my first wine, I had to lie that I put sulphur in it because nobody would believe a kid making wine without it. It was just how things were done in Australia back then. People couldn’t believe that you could make a natural fine wine, especially at university. I enjoyed studying because of the social aspect, but I went onto my own path when I saw that some people just didn’t agree with my philosophy of making wine. Life’s too short to be stuck in the lane I think.”
What's makes Eastern Peake wines magnificent? In a sea of a thousand definitions, ours is based predominantly on the fruit - when the fruit is in focus, it’s intrinsic and not subordinate or a reflection of the winemaking. Like a concentrated sap of the plant. Essence. Deep to the core, with texture and a sense of youthful juiciness.
“With Latta, I wanted to redefine some of the wines I’ve tried when natural wine just came to Australia (such as Gravner, Bini, Jean Foillard, Overnoy, Labet, Jean-Yves Peron…). With Eastern Peake, terroir is the magical component. And of course – vintage variation. Without that there would be no excitement. We could just blast the wine with chemicals and call it a day.”
Australian wine has come a long way, but it hasn’t always been sunshine and rainbows here, especially for winemakers with a dream to make minimal intervention wine.
“Today the natural wine scene stands strong, but not separate from conventional wine. The old guard had a huge influence on us and now most of them are going into the direction of chemical-free farming and winemaking because they realized that this was the right path. When big wineries get out of the box, that drives us to endless possibilities. It also brings fellowship to the scene.”
In 2018 Owen was awarded the prestigious Gourmet Traveller Wine - Young Winemaker of the Year. This just confirmed that what he was doing was putting him on a good path.
“It’s extremely expensive to own vineyards in Victoria and even more expensive to hire seasonal workers to pick the grapes (around $30-$35/hour), but we keep pushing our agenda. We own 5ha of land and buy grapes from growers that we’ve known for over 20 years. My goal with Eastern Peake is to stick to 3 grapes and make wine that expresses Grampians terroir to the fullest.”
Making wine with organic principles by default from the 1980s brought a lot of good to the Australian wine industry. With a plan to move towards biodynamics, Owen Latta will definitely keep sailing the ship into the right direction. Healthy soils, healthy vines, straightforward winemaking. Farming for the future will be the true key to success here and we can’t wait to see what’s in store next.
[Originally published in January 2023]