To those of us of a certain age, the words ‘Mateus Rosé’ conjure up memories of our early wine-drinking years. In the 1960s and ’70s, the imported drop was seen as more sophisticated than the local bubblies like Barossa Pearl and Sparkling Rinegolde. There was a romance to it. As one of my Facebook correspondents wrote: ‘If you want to seduce, buy Mateus.’ By the 1990s, it was an embarrassment – a wine you wouldn’t want to be seen drinking. Or so I thought. Evidently, Mateus remains Australia’s biggest selling rosé. In 2020, the brand changed distributors amid a new push to engage the millennial generation.
Mateus Rosé was invented in 1942 by Fernando Van Zeller Guedes, founder of the Sogrape company in Portugal. The distinctive bottle was, they say, inspired by the flask bottles of World War I soldiers. The palace depicted on the label belonged to a nearby count, who foolishly opted for a flat payment rather than an ongoing royalty for the use of the image. Since more than a billion bottles have since been sold, in more than 125 countries, it ranks as one of the worst financial decisions ever made.
It’s not clear exactly when Mateus Rosé first reached Australian shores. The earliest reference I can find is a mention of The Age journalist Gerald Mayhead sharing a bottle with restaurateur David Triaca after a dinner at The Latin restaurant in Melbourne. That was in 1966. Mayhead wasn’t the only food writer happy to drop the Mateus name over the next couple of decades and it regularly crops up in restaurant reviews in Canberra and Sydney. In 1966 Mateus Rosé also rated a mention by The Wine Buff in the Sydney Morning Herald, where it was described (somewhat dismissively) as “delicate and clean but a trifle sweet”.
Australia has been one of the most successful export markets for the brand. In 1971 an advertising campaign began in the Australian Women’s Weekly. The wine was always intended to have appeal to women, perhaps because of its sweetness. It was going strong in the early 1980s, with reports in 1982 that sales were up 20 per cent on the previous year.
Mateus had its celebrity supporters. There’s a famous photo of Jimi Hendrix swigging it from the bottle. The writer Evelyn Waugh evidently discovered it in Portugal and drank nothing else for an entire summer, to the disgust of his son Auberon who described it as “sugary pink fizz”.
It had competitors back in the day. The other import we quaffed was Blue Nun Liebfraumilch, a sweetish German white wine. Then there was Cold Duck (a sparkling light red wine) and various local brands of Spumante (popularly dubbed Spewmante). As time went on and tastes in wine changed, these wines were regarded as rather sad, tacky reminders of our unsophisticated past, perhaps trotted out at ’70s nostalgia parties.
Was there ever such a thing as strawberry cordial? If so, that is how it smells. And yet, after a fleeting puff of fruit from its slight fizz, it has no flavour. None. Its formula was changed some years back, to appeal more to contemporary tastes, and perhaps the object was to make it as bland as possible. Perhaps if, as the Mateus marketing now imagines, you are on a yacht in the sun, you might enjoy a garish, slightly fizzy wine which tastes of nothing. But then, if you’re on a yacht, you might conceivably have more than £5 to spend on your wine.
But Mateus soldiers on. Originally imported by local wine and spirit merchants Taylor Ferguson (now Alepat Taylor), Mateus was later handled by McWilliams. In 2020 the brand changed distributor to Oatley Wines. The bottle, while still flask-shaped, has gone from green to clear. Other versions have joined the original, including Mateus Rosé Tempranillo, billed as medium sweet, just in case the original wasn’t sweet enough. There’s also a Sparkling Brut, a Demi-Sec and a Sparkling Dry White. In a strange tribute to Australia, the wine is promoted with a “Kanga Pack” – a tiny bottle clinging to the belly of a full-size one – priced, at the time of writing, as $13.99.
I guess, as long as there’s a new generation of wine drinkers looking for an affordable, non-challenging, pretty wine, Mateus Rosé has a rosy future.