“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





17 June 2012


The beach at Mataró, on the spanish Mediterranean coast ... photo Paco Riviere

Mataro Mourvèdre Monastrell Whatever, it's marching in Oz  
At least Mataro ends with an O

Mataró doesn't even make it onto the map in my battered copy of Hugh Johnson's World Atlas of Wine. The old Catalan coastal town lost all its vineyards to Phylloxera in the late 1800s; potatoes and peas replaced them.

It was very fortunate that our earliest white pioneers had bought their cuttings before the dreaded louse struck, and a miracle that the infestation wasn't brought to Australia on a grander scale.

It's quaint that in their respectful acknowledgement of the source of the vines in their use of the Mataro name, in place of the Spanish Monastrell, or the French Mourvèdre, those early Australian settlers preserved some of the history of that town, a whole world away.

Similarly, their initial use of the name Hermitage simply respected that mighty French hill where they took their cuttings of Syrah. The quaint bit here is that Australia eventually replaced both Hermitage and Syrah with Shiraz, a Persian town which grew no Shiraz that any history records. Just as Mataró has no Mataro, there's no Shiraz in Shiraz.

But Mataró certainly had Mataro: popular history has the Phoenicians introducing the grape to the north-western part of the Mediterranean coast about 500 years before Christ delivered his famous vintage at the other end of that same great sea. 

The wines from Mataró were always boisterous, sun-baked, alcoholic affairs: the sorts that a 19th century Robert Parker would adore. 

They certainly attracted the attention of the likes of Edward Peake, who was growing what he called Mataro at his Clarendon vineyard when wine scribe Ebenezer Ward (left) visited in 1861. In his Advertiser column, Ward reports Peake having a terrible battle with vine-eating grubs in that year. They seemed to prefer Shiraz and Malbec to Mataro.

"Another remarkable circumstance," Ward writes, "is that on the top of this patch 21 rows of Morastel – a variety very much resembling the Mataro – were planted simultaeneously with the Malbec, but not one of the plants has been injured by the grub."

In those days, Morastel was another name some Spanish used for Mataro. Confoundingly, it has since become more commonly used on Graciano. My bet is that Peake's Morastel was in fact Mataro: he'd bought two lots of cuttings of the same grape.

This resilience and toughness made early Australian vignerons fond of Mataro: it was disease and drought-resistant, sun-loving, and easy to grow. It could always be relied upon for gutsy red table wine; it blended beautifully with Grenache and the other north-west Mediterranean red varieties, and it contributed heartily to sweet fortified.

Those first white South Australians knew very early on that their new country enjoyed the best Mediterranean climate on Earth.

I find it fascinating that Peake had planted his Morastel/Mataro with Malbec. If Mataro has a gustatory cousin, I think that at its best, the variety shares something with Malbec. If not over-ripe, Mataro can display the same sinister gunmetal glint as Malbec, and can share its aromatic hints of juniper berry, ozone, and musk. But where Malbec then heads off into blueberry country, Mataro goes meaty, readily offering flavours of black Iberian ham and blood pudding. Cut back on the ripeness, and it's olivine, like kalamata. 

Like Wendouree.

Until very recently, most of our best Mataro has been wasted on ordinary GSM blends. This terrible acronym, first used by Rosemount in McLaren Vale, when the marketing fiends adopted a lab abbreviation, has set a mindless template that Mataro should be the minor ingredient of a convenient blend which has also for years been responsible for the waste of most of our best Grenache.

Of course these varieties lend themselves to blending, as is done all over that Mediterranean coast pillaged by the early white Aussies. The dumb thing is that a lab abbreviation of a blend that just happened to be sitting there on the bench at the time became the rote recipe for a whole flood of mediocrity across all shelves.

Leading the new pack of Mataro lovers we find formidable winesmiths like Tim Smith (right), whose wines I habitually rave about. Tellingly, his preferred blend this year is Mataro, Grenache and Shiraz, in that order. Smithy has form with Grenache, having made history at the London Wine and Spirit Competition in 2010, when his Chateau Tanunda Grenache 2008 won the big gong for Best Single Estate Wine. But he loves his Bandol – the French home of Mataro, where of course they call it Mourvèdre – and he backs up his current incredible 2011 MGS blend with a stunning straight Mataro from 2010.

Wines like these have brought on a quiet buzz of interest in Mataro, and it's good to see more makers reverting to this most Australian name: the Mourvédre/Monastrell monikers always seemed a pretentious and confusing affectation to me. Maybe Australia's current obsession with grape varieties which end in O is making the old name cool again. 

As I reported last week, the internet wine forums showed a frisson when Dean Hewitson suddenly hiked the price of his Hewitson Old Vine Mourvèdre from $70 to $120. He didn't indicate it by getting with the Mataro name, but maybe he sensed the biggest Mataro buzz of all: in May, Penfolds winemaker Peter Gago entered one of his slumbering babies in the London Wine Trade Fair.

"In the eleventh hour, pre-departure," he said, "I sent a few bottles of the 2010 Penfolds Cellar Reserve Kalimna Block 25 Mataro across. It was judged the best red wine of the London Wine Trade Fair ! Nice!"

Peter Gago at Kalimna 

This Mataro – note the name – is on the meaty end of the spectrum. From the Kalimna block planted in 1964, it spent 16 months in new and old American oak barrels. This wood has barely touched the intensity of the fruit, although its resin entwines tidily with the fruit's dusty tannins. It has some shy musk and confectionary perfume, but otherwise it's a bone dry compote of prunes, figs and pata negra Jamón ibérico – that delicious black Iberian ham.

In the truest sense, it's savoury wine: what the nerds will call a food wine: more slender and refined than any GSM I've seen. It has no gloop. In its shape of fruit vs. tannin, it's a little like Nebbiolo. But where the Nebbiolo tannins float above its fruit like a cloud, the tannins in this Mataro settle on its fruit like the dust settles on a bullring.

Due for release closer to Christmas, this moody beauty has yet to be graced with a price. Given its huge bling, I'd be surprised if the marketing division would be happy to leave it at like, the price of the Cellar Reserve Tempranillo, which I see selling at $50 on the net. Just between you and me, I reckon they'd be more likely to follow the Hewitson pattern.

I'd love to discover whether the judges knew this wine was labeled Mataro, as opposed to Monastrell or Mourvèdre, when they wondered whether or not it was indeed the best red in the show. They'd have had a good idea that it was Australian if that was the case.

If they didn't, it's a great boon for the variety: the vinocracy will take close notice. But if they did, it would indicate one thing: a keen Old World interest in a New World take on a virtually forgotten grape named after the place where it no longer grows.

Not to mention a pre-phylloxera clone on its own roots.


Dick Friend said...

The French also name Mataro as "Estrangle-chien" (= "dog-strangler") for its wild & earthy nature. Exploring the fascinating varietals is made easy with GRAPES 101 - an App detailing the 171 varieties planted in Australia, with tasting notes, alternative names, pronunciations, region & country of origin, wine styles produced from the variety and more. A ready-reference carried with you in your Android or iPhone!

Matt Mitchell said...

Some California winemakers (most notably Ridge) also call the varietal Mataro.

Sanjay said...

Well it (fortunately) did end up at $50. Complex, intriguing, balanced & certainly a savoury wine ... European style and I definitely never would have guessed Barossa. Adds to the diversity of Penfolds + SA/Aus wine. Hope there is a 2012 version.