⏳ Time Travelling with Owen Latta of LattaVINO

Imagine a venn diagram with three circles. One’s science. One’s big ideas. The third is great wine. Right at the centre of this overlap, that’s the intersection where you’ll find Owen Latta. This is a man who can make soil sound sexy, christ sake. Strap in for a good (long) chat with our mate Andy Ainsworth. Taken together, you’ll be ready to try all of Owen’s wines, and lucky for us, they’re brimming over with the same vim and personality as the man himself. 

When asking the big questions of “how?” and “why?” does a wine taste the way it does, wine lovers often dive straight into discussions of terroir. There’s no doubt that terroir is fundamental, though I think an equally decisive factor is the human element – the people behind the wine, the decisions they make and their stories. Ever since that first read of Kermit Lynch’s masterpiece, I’ve been captured by these kinds of stories and Owen Latta’s got no shortage of great ones to tell. 

I head out to his family’s Eastern Peake vineyard and cellar door on a gusty spring afternoon for a good chat; a bit of time travelling through the past, present and future of Latta Vino, which completed its 11th harvest in 2020. Although our chat will focus mostly on the Latta Vino wines, it would be remiss not to mention that Owen has been at the helm of Eastern Peake since the early 2000s as well, the vineyard planted by his parents in the 80s.

As we arrive, Owen and his right hand men Chris and Charlie are finishing up a day of assemblage, getting ready for bottling of the summer releases. A quick splash of the freshly assembled 2020 “Quartz” Bianco reminds me why this is consistently my favourite Sauvignon in the land. Nervy and piquant, all about the “mineral” feel, a perfect aperitif before a walk around the property. 

The tour begins with a visit to one of the big sheds, to chat about… 

Big machines, big dreams 

“In the first 10 years of Lattavino we invested a lot in the winery, the next 10 years we are investing in the vineyards we manage,” Owen tells us as we admire his shiny new tractors. Specifically, we are looking at a state of the art under-vine weeder, and a between-row seeder that will help Owen achieve his goal of minimal tillage between the vines. This is a technique that has been championed by soil health enthusiasts and regenerative farmers across viticulture, broad acre farming and small-scale market gardening alike.” 

So what’s this minimal tillage all about? And follow up q. Why’s it the future at Latta Vino and Eastern Peake? 

“We’ve been practicing organics here for a while now, I’m going deeper down the regenerative agriculture rabbit hole to take the health of our soil to the next level (I want the ground to feel like it's moving with life under your feet when you walk around the place). I’ve been playing around in the winery for the last decade pushing the limits on wines for drinking pleasure, now it’s time to put all that energy into the earth.

Under vine cultivation is how we manage weeds, adding straw mulch back over the top to protect the bare earth over summer, suppressing more weeds & increasing microbe activity.

In the mid rows we now follow the No-Till Direct Drill method. Instead of turning soil to kill off everything to then plant cover crops & then turn them back in again or mow it down. We use a drill disc seeder to plant multiple species cover crops directly in the ground, once the crop grows its rolled over to build a layer of mulch.  

No-Till farming is an important movement in soil health; it creates more productive soils and therefore more profitable crops. It helps retain organic matter, nutrients and water within the soil, with the overall result being healthier soil structure for more productive crops. 

On the flip side, tilling/cultivating soil over & over breaks down the structure, increases the risk of compaction (making it easier to dry out leading to erosion or loss of topsoil) and loss of organic matter.

I’m pumped to see the results as we implement these new practices and other new ideas that come up into our farming, stay tuned.”

Owen’s been making thrilling wines at Lattavino for more than 10 years and has been in charge of his family’s Eastern Peake for nearly 20, yet his enthusiasm for the next chapter are akin to the first spring buds we see whilst wandering through the vineyards – bursting with energy, determined and possessing conviction beyond their age. 

Returning to the present, we head into Owen’s cellar to taste some wines that are about to be bottled for his summer release. Vibrant expressions of Pinot Gris in both the direct-press and macerated persuasions, linear Viognier, deep and powerful Pinot from the super low yielding Eastern Peake vineyards, and Owen’s debut Grenache are among the impressive lineup. But it’s the Rosé of Sangiovese and Nebbiolo he calls “Tranquil” that stands out to me. It's always a favourite for me, and this year is no different. With just barely ripe red berries and citrus peel providing salivation as some early 90s inspired abstract house music rings throughout the impressive hifi system rigged up in every corner of the large winery. 

Tell us about your journey with Sangiovese? It was the very first Latta Vino release right? 

“A lifetime ago. Back in 2007 I was working at another winery nearby Eastern Peake to make ends meet, this place was just a winery with no vineyard producing wines for themselves from fruit all over as well as doing lots of contract winemaking work. I got to see a vast array of fruit from many sites in my 14 months working there. Unfortunately the winemaking was very formula based, but one parcel of fruit really resonated with me. It was Sangiovese from the Landsborough Valley, I'd never seen the variety before and it sparked something. 

Fast forward to 2010/11 and I managed to buy some for a friend who lost their crop and we made this at EP. In 2012 I thought I'd purchase a little bit for myself to play around with as I’d been producing Pinot Noir & Chardonnay for such a long time it was time to try my hand at other alternative varieties. 

The vineyard had been converted to organic & biodynamic principles, which was pretty exciting as not many people up that way were farming that way. Wine was made, vintages were building up in the cellar, I really needed the cash flow with all of this wine sitting around so I decided to launch a new label & Latta was born. Fine yet fun wines made with nothing but good grapes sourced from good growers.” 

How did the Tranquil rosé come to life?

“We have been making a Pinot Noir rosé consistently here at Eastern Peake since 1995, we’ve seen all the trends come and go over the years with rosé. It's so good to see it's finally here to stay & be consumed all year round. Whether it be a serious single vineyard rosé, a wild park wine rosé or a byproduct something, it’s amazing Australians have now got it locked in. Back in 2014 the Sangiovese seemed like it would be a great contender for producing some wild fun rosé , I decided to co ferment it with a pinch of some excess EP chardonnay, a single barrel was produced and it was bloody delicious. A total fluke, it needed a good name… Tranquil. In 2016 & 17 it was 100% Nebbiolo, now it's gone back to Nebb & Sangio. They work so well together as a rosé. The 2020 Tranquil, soon to be bottled is a wine I can’t wait to release.”

Speaking of the early days, tell us about first sending your wines to NSW, DRNKS’ very own Joel was pretty heavily involved, right?

“I absolutely love visiting Sydney and I’ve really missed being there this year! We’ve been making wine without additions for a long time here in Coghills Creek. Back in 2015, which only feels like yesterday, I sent some zero sulphur wines off to a wine journalist doing some of the most interesting creative wine writing I’d ever read in Australia. Great stories highlighting great unsung people pushing boundaries; a completely different outlook on wine to the Old Guard in power at the time. I really wanted to get this guy's opinion on my wines. His name was Mike Bennie.

Mike thought the wines I sent to him were spot on, I was really bloody stoked that someone out there with a voice understood these liquid treasures I'd been working on.

He suggested that I should definitely come to Sydney to meet his mates Ned Brooks and Joel Amos. These guys were absolute legends, we had lots in common. Ned & Joel had a wine distribution called, wait for it, ‘Brooks & Amos’. Joel had an online natural wine store called DRNKS & Ned owned part of the former Restaurant Moon Park in Redfern. I was super keen to join the family, these guys opened up so many doors for me (even car doors I’ve spewed from on really busy Sydney Streets after late evenings). Joel has done amazing things for the natural wine community in Australia, providing a platform to easily access delicious wine from great people. A few clicks & it’s at your place in a jiffy.”

A great afternoon out at Latta Vino has rolled into early evening, which means it's time for aperitivo. Owen ventures off into the cellar to grab some snapshots of Latta Vino’s short but fruitful history. The 2016 Jurrasique Blanc, left under ullage for a year is in a beautiful place, as is the endlessly complex 2014 Sauvignon Blanc Sur Lie. These wines demonstrate Owen’s winemaking intuition and idiosyncrasy. Back when these were made, Jura style ullaged chardonnay and mealy, savoury, lees soaked Sauvignon Blanc were an anomaly here in Australia. 

My overwhelming feeling driving away from Eastern Peake that afternoon was that Owen Latta is only just getting started. His youthful energy and determination to always do better come through in the wines we taste. After 20 years on the job not many people can claim to be so progressive, so free of dogma and so excited about their craft, though, luckily for us wine drinkers, Owen’s got plenty more left in his journey and I can't wait to follow it. 

Cheers for the good chat, mate.

Shop the fruits of Owen’s crazy creative brain here.