Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Mateus Rosé: Once the world's biggest wine, now ripe for hip revival

The bottle is a little narrower than in the '70s
In the early 1970s, Mateus Rosé was the most popular wine in the world. The Queen of England demanded it. Jimi Hendrix was photographed drinking it out of the bottle.

Jimi Hendrix and friend
Today, younger wine drinkers haven't even heard of it. To baby boomers, Mateus reminds them of bygone pleasures that are no longer groovy. If it's mentioned at all in wine stories, it's as a cautionary tale; i.e., rosé is serious today, not like in the Mateus era.

There comes a time when you stop thinking your parents were wrong about everything. Your parents liked wine coolers, yes, but they also liked Chenin Blanc and locally made beer and Coca-Cola made with sugar, not high fructose corn syrup. You may have conceded they were onto something with Sherry. Perhaps their generation's embrace of marijuana wasn't as misguided as the 30 Year War on Drugs that followed.

Is Mateus Rosé ripe for rediscovery? I wish there were still hipsters in my neighborhood in San Francisco, because I can imagine it becoming the PBR of wine.

Because Mateus Rosé is not just cheap, ladies and gentleman. I say this knowing that the Kool Kids Wine Kritiks will never share their orange wines with me, but .... Mateus Rosé is pretty good.

Here's how I came to this revelation.



I was in Lisbon, judging a competition of Portuguese wines. It was an interesting cultural exercise. On my panel there were 5 Portuguese, a Swedish guy (Per Karlsson) and me. Per and I don't have anywhere near the same palate. We disagreed frequently and by large margins: him giving gold and me grimacing, and vice versa. But occasionally the two of us lined up against the Portuguese, particularly on the topic of what a Portuguese wine should taste like. One wine that both Per and I liked, the Portuguese hated, saying, "This could be first-growth Bordeaux." To which we said, "Yes, it's that good." Five against two: No medal.

Antonio Oliveira Bessa
Anyway, we had a flight of rosés that were dreadful, one after another. Nothing to like about them. Over-extracted, overly tannic, lacking in fruit character, oaky. Not flawed in the sense of corked or infected, but just not made for drinking pleasure. Another writer, Ryan Opaz, heard our plight and said, "Maybe you should have had Mateus Rosé in that flight." I laughed. Mateus Rosé. The very idea. Silly Ryan.

That evening, I found myself at a dinner table with Antonio Oliveira Bessa, CEO of Sogrape, the largest wine producing company in Portugal. Sogrape now owns Sandeman and Gazela and some other big brands, but the company built its fortune on Mateus Rosé.

Bessa had reserved a stylish restaurant for the evening for his guests, wine judges from other countries, and brought some of the company's nicest wines to pour. I said, thank you for the fine wine in front of me, but could I have some Mateus?

In so doing, I was getting in touch with my inner Queen. Queen Elizabeth was at a private party at the Savoy Hotel in London in the early '60s when she was dissatisfied with the wine selection and asked for some Mateus; the hotel manager had to send out for a bottle.

Fortunately, Bessa and I were in Lisbon, not London, and the restaurant had some in stock, chilled even.

I wish I had tried it blind in that group of crappy rosés for perspective. I believe Mateus would have earned a gold medal. It's a medium-light pink, very slightly fizzy, with good freshness and balance. There's a nice aroma of rosehip, and the wine is mostly dry but not bone-dry. It is more floral than fruity, with dried raspberry notes coming out more with food.

Bessa says about 10 different red grape varieties go into Mateus. Most come from the unheralded Beiras region; it is a very cheap wine (about $5 in the US). Even though Sogrape owns 1500 hectares of grapes, it buys almost all the grapes for Mateus.

"We need grapes where we can control the freshness for our red and white wines," Bessa says. "It's easier to buy grapes (for rosé.)"

This makes sense because rosé grapes are harvested earlier than red-wine grapes, so late heat spikes might take them to ripe but not overripe.

And all those grapes are specifically grown and harvested for rosé, which is a major reason why Mateus tastes better than a lot of more expensive rosés. Many wineries make rosé by bleeding off some of the juice to concentrate their reds, so their rosé is just a byproduct. In other cases, wineries take the red wine grapes that aren't up to snuff and dump them in their rosé, and it shows.

Sogrape is now making less than 2 million cases of Mateus. It's a lot, but the company can be pickier with its grapes than in the 1970s, when it was selling 4 million cases a year in the U.S. alone.

Mateus started to fall from grace for a number of reasons. Who knows why objects lose their cool? The late '70s were an era when people not only had rocks for pets, but paid money for them so they could have an official Pet Rock package for validation.

But Sogrape made a bad situation worse in 1983, when it sued its U.S. distributor, Schenley, to try to regain distribution rights, and lost. So Mateus not only wasn't selling well; a resentful distributor had total control.

Sogrape could have slowly folded. At the time, it was barely diversified. Sales were good in Iraq -- Mateus Rosé was Saddam Hussein's favorite wine -- but there are only so many dictators in the world.

So Sogrape began purchasing well-known Portuguese brands, culminating in its 2001 acquisition of Sandeman.

Most of the rest of Sogrape's portfolio is not well-known in the U.S., and distribution trouble is a reason for that, but they are very popular wines on the domestic market and the Portuguese drink a lot of wine: 42 liters per year per capita, 2nd in the world for countries over 2 million population. (Fun fact: Vatican City leads the world at 62 liters per year for its population of 836. Party on, College of Cardinals!)

Bessa says Sogrape still suffers in the U.S. because of that lawsuit 30 years ago. "We haven't been able to get a distributor who believes Mateus could come back," he says.

For the heck of it I had somebody pour me two other rosés and the Mateus into three glasses and I tried them semi-blind; I knew the Mateus was one of three, and had recently tasted it. That said, I still preferred it, for its freshness and balance and restraint. I'd like to throw it into a Kool Kids Wine Kritiks' rosé tasting, but I doubt any of them would have the courage to admit that they liked it.

Me, I'm in touch with my inner Queen, and we like what we like.

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3 comments:

FranksWine.com said...

I love it! I sold Mateus Rosé when I first started my shop - FranksWine in Wilmington Delaware - 28 years ago. We do a pretty bang-up job with mostly French pink, but I'm bringing this one back and will use your blog as a catalyst to get it going again… you cool with that, Blake?! BTW… my daughter is living out in SF now, we've gotta catch up over a glass of Stolpman Syrah the next time I'm out. CHEERS...

W. Blake Gray said...

Hey Frank, good to hear from you! Sure, you can use the post. Let me know when you're out here.

Bob Henry (Los Angeles wine industry professional) said...

Blake,

I had the pleasure of attending college with a member of the Pedroncelli family (hailing from the Russian River Valley) who resided in my dorm.

At his invitation, each year about 40 of us underage and "of age" dorm resident imbibers would make a car pool caravan pilgrimage to Healdsburg for Spring break . . either sleeping at the Pedroncelli's hillside Bohemian-style "writer's retreat" cabin, or on the banks of the river à la Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

On one excursion I lead a visit to the tasting room of Simi.

I being a Mateus rosé drinker saw they had a rosé. I asked for a sample.

The single greatest rosé I have ever tasted in my life.

The source?

Simi Cabernet Sauvignon fruit from the fabled 1974 vintage.

Purposely picked and crafted by Simi as something for the employees to quaff on a hot Summer afternoon.

It is lamentable that more wineries don't make "serious" rosé.

(At wine industry trade tastings, I look for them - without success.)

As for the Pedroncellis, they still make a Rosé of Zinfandel.

Dry in style and evocative of tart raspberries.

NOT "white Zin."

~~ Bob