Mahmood Fazal is a Walkley award-winning investigative reporter. On the outskirts of his crime writing, Mahmood is currently compiling a book about wine. It is an extension of his Instagram page semiautomaticwine — where he experiments with journalism, automatic writing and poetry to demonstrate the meaning of his favourite wines. Uncorked is his take on a wine column; a romp through the bottles, varieties, phenomenons and personalities that colour the world of wine today.
I AM DRIVING through Victoria’s goldfields just north of Ballarat, the easygoing melody of ‘Ride My Arrow’ by Bill Callahan floating through the car stereo. I’m keeping my eyes peeled in search for the Eastern Peake vineyard–nestled on high ground near the edges of the Great Dividing Range, the winery sits on volcanic weathered basalt grey loam soils. Among wine lovers, Eastern Peake has a gilded reputation for honest wines; the minimalist architecture of the buildings there reflects the humble nature of winemaker Owen Latta. His daughters glide along the country road on their scooters as I turn into the property, and he welcomes me inside with a smile.
His parents Norman Latta and Dianne Pym join us at the table, and as we chat, the essence of Victoria’s winemaking tradition begins to make sense. This is a close-knit family affair. If winemaking is about distilling a sense of place, the story of Eastern Peake is about the duty to family and making wines that feel like home.
Over bowls of chicken soup and a plate of sausage rolls, Owen Latta uncorks a bottle of his family’s Eastern Peake Intrinsic Chardonnay. The wine leaps from the glass with sweet aromas of peach skin and crushed apples that are overcast with hints of spice and citrus. The wine cuts through the rich broth of the heartwarming soup, its crisp sea-stone minerality reverbs with a touch of puff pastry pulling together a wine of rock-n-roll tension.
For my money, the white wines from cool-climate regions across Australia–like Victoria’s goldfields–are some of the best pairings with chicken, whether it’s soup, a herby roast chicken with a generous coat of butter or a coq au vin swimming in a garlic and mushroom sauce. And the Eastern Peake chardonnay is no exception.
The mule that started it all
I ask Owen’s father Norman where the story of the vineyard began. Norman obliges, and takes us back to the very beginning. “I was born in Pascoe Vale South in 1953. [My family] ran a butcher’s shop. In 1977, together with Dianne we moved to Coghills Creek.” Dianne adds, “We just wanted to be self-sufficient; the orchards, the vegetables, the cows–and we had a couple of donkeys as well.” Owen laughs. “My parents are quite crafty… Back in the day you couldn’t get a planning permit unless you had a reason to be on the property you wanted to live. They thought: ‘we’ll have a donkey stud farm because then we can live here.”
Needless to say, the road to winemaking was a deviation from the dream of running a working donkey farm. “It began with an advert in the local newspaper,” Norman explains. The legendary winemaker Trevor Mast was “searching for the best place in Australia for sparkling wine.” Out of forty applicants, three were selected to plant for Mast, who championed the Grampians as a winemaking area.
“My parents did everything they were asked to do, asked questions and got very passionate very quickly,” adds Owen.
In 1983 Norman and Dianne planted their first block of Pinot Noir vines, and plantings continued in 1989, 1991, 1993 and 1994. “Back then the government support for winemakers was really fantastic. There was even a head viticulturist in the government, which doesn’t exist anymore,” says Norman.
“You’re in the deep end. See what works.”
Owen was fifteen when his father Norman tripped over a winery hose, which resulted in a severe concussion. It was then that Owen decided to step up and take the reins. “I knew this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” he explains. Owen went to university, worked vintage across a range of local wineries and experimented as a consultant managing vineyards. “I’ve never honed in on anyone’s craft. I always just thought, ‘you’re in the deep end. See what works’.
“I love what we already had, the old concrete fermenters and stuff. It’s crazy to think about the wines we produced with no cash flow. The vineyard was always the thing that powered through. Great sites make great wine, don’t tinker. Trevor would always say that ‘you don’t have to do too much, you’ve already got a great site so don’t stuff it up.”
While working with the diverse soils of the Coghills Creek area, playing on Norman’s open-minded approach to trying new things, Owen had a vision to make interesting yet uncompromising wines that are evocative of the landscape. But he was faced with the difficulty of small yields and challenging climates, so he made the decision to expand the Eastern Peake offering by purchasing grapes from other local vineyards to further experiment with a voice of his own: Latta Wines.
“But the only reason Latta exists is because of this vineyard. 2010 came around and I thought I’d muck around and buy some Sangiovese, and by 2013 I thought we should turn this into another label.” Years later, Owen continued expanding his label into a prolific portfolio buying fruit from the Chapoutier vineyard in the Pyrenees. “I was buying the riesling, the viognier, the grenache, everything.”
These days, Owen’s reputation as a vanguard of modern winemaking is well-established in Australia’s wine scene.
A new label for the next generation
Before I leave Eastern Peake, we open a 2022 rosé called Tranquil. It’s made entirely out of the same Sangiovese that launched the Latta label. Owen explains that the cooler summer of the 2022 vintage led to “really clear wine”. “The pigments just don’t come out. No tinkering again, we pressed the grapes whole bunch and fermented in stainless steel.”
Beside the Eastern Peake chardonnay, the rosé carries on the happy-go-lucky spirit of the winery and the family that runs it. Paired with the sausage rolls, the rosé is elegant, delicate and nostalgic. It’s a fresh and spicy wine, that calls to mind sun drenched paintings from the gold rush where hard work led to treasures of gold.
Now that there’s no gold left beneath these historic sites, we can devour the glory of everything else this soil has on offer–including these heartfelt wines.
See the first edition of Uncorked, where Mahmood reviews the peerless Giaconda chardonnay, here, and the second, where he meets Australia’s most enigmatic pinot noir, here.