A bunch of Mataro grapes

Mataro

A dark horse with exceptional pedigree.
A bunch of Mataro grapes

Mataro (also called Mourvédre in Australian wine circles) is thought to have originated in Spain. Indeed, two of its most commonly used names are derived from Spanish towns – Mataro, near Barcelona, and Murviedro, near Valencia. Interestingly, the Spanish commonly refer to it as Monastrell.

Mataro: Ancient Australian roots

Mataro was brought to Australia by James Busby in 1832 from Perpignan in the Roussillon in southern France. It was planted in the Camden and Minchinbury vineyards in New South Wales (N.S.W.) where it was known by various names including Balzac and Lambruscat, and then made its way to several areas around Australia, including the Great Western district of Victoria (known as Esparte), and Western Australia’s Swan Valley at Houghton’s.

In South Australia it found a home in the Clare Valley, McLaren Vale and, of course, the Barossa Valley. The Barossa still has some of the original plantings, including the oldest Mourvèdre vineyard in the world, planted in 1853 by Johan Friedrich Koch. Eight rows of this original, pre-phylloxera planting still exist on the Old Garden Vineyard at Rowland Flat, and they are still tended by the seventh generation Koch family. The fruit goes into Dean Hewitson’s famous, rare (and expensive) Old Garden Mourvèdre.

While Mataro has long been called a workhorse variety - alongside many other interesting and unusual names - this fine red variety has exceptional pedigree and the wines it creates show that Mataro is a thoroughbred through-and-through.

The Mataro Question

Mataro was a popular grape for growers in the mid to late 1800s. It was even shown at the Bordeaux Exhibition of 1882. High-yielding and easy to grow, it loved the heat and provided great structure and (when ripe) excellent flavour. When picked too early, however, it created a light and flavourless wine. In February 1896, government viticulturist Arthur Perkins published an article entitled, ‘The Mataro Question’ in the Adelaide Observer. The light, early-picked wines that Mataro was being made into were no longer popular in London and Perkins was addressing the concerns of growers who did not want to accept advice to graft their Mataro vines over to Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. He argued that the unless Australians could be convinced to drink more wine, then this advice was valid.

Fortified with Mataro – The golden age for the variety in Australia

Wholesome light wines did not become the national beverage, but fortified wines did. From the 1890s to the mid 1950s, Australians’ preferred tipple, along with beer and spirits (and tea!) were sweet, rich, fortified wines. And Mataro offered advantages to vine growers and winemakers alike because it made an excellent fortified wine that was popular both at home and on the export market. Indeed, Mataro has been a key component in some of South Australia’s most famous fortifieds, including those from Seppeltsfield and Penfolds, whose legendary Seppeltsfied 100 Year Old Para Tawny and Penfolds’ Great Grandfather fortifieds command extraordinary acclaim (and prices) today.

In the 1950s, when demand for fortifieds began to wane and winemakers began experimenting with table wines, Mataro was still a popular grape for growers and winemakers, and it transitioned to table wines well. It was so well-utilised that it gained a reputation as a ‘workhorse’ variety and in South Australia particularly was a regular feature in many early table wines, especially those trialled by Penfolds. Single variety wines were produced, but more often than not Mataro was used to provide flavour and structure in Shiraz-Mataro and Cabernet Sauvignon-Mataro blends. However, when the magic (almost uniquely Australian) combination of Cabernet Sauvignon-Shiraz became popular, the faithful Mataro workhorse was pretty much put out to pasture.

Old vine Mataro – Rescued from the Vine Pull Scheme

It didn’t disappear altogether... several premium producers still used Mataro, and its old vines and distinctive character were still prized by many. However, it nearly didn’t survive South Australia’s 1987 Vine Pull Scheme – many Grenache and Mataro vines were destroyed. Fortunately, wine industry icons like Peter Lehmann, Robert O’Callaghan, Bob McLean and Charlie Melton stepped in, convincing many growers to keep their old vines and buying the fruit that couldn’t be sold. The fruit from these old-vine vineyards has been used to create some of the Barossa’s most famous wines, including Charlie Melton’s cult-like Nine Popes, inspired by the famous old vine Grenache-Shiraz-Mourvédres he had enjoyed in France (Nine Popes being a mistranslation of the mighty Chateauneuf-du-Pape). Chris Ringland and Rolf Binder also created wonderfully rich, characterful wines using Mataro as a single variety.

A vine of great character...

Mataro is indeed a ‘characterful’ wine. Winemaker Tim Smith from Tim Smith Wines finds, among other things, earthy, gamey, feral, gingerbread, Chinese five-spice, and savoury characters. Blood and bone, flesh and musk are feature descriptions too. Fruits of all flavours – blackberry, blueberry, raspberry, bilberry, cherries and plums – can also be found. Flowers – violets and lavender in particular – are also prevalent. Liquorice and chocolate appear too. As Mataro ages, terms like barnyard, farmyard, leather, truffles and earth emerge.

Despite this wealth of character and depth, Mataro still suffered from its workhorse stigma. In the early, hand-crafted days of making wine, vine growers and winemakers had the time and the temperament to give it the special attention it required. Once winemaking became more corporate, it is not surprising that this characterful grape was ousted in place of the easier and more bankable Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon.

...and ‘intellectual curiosity’ ...

Mataro though still holds a special interest for vine growers, winemakers and wine drinkers. Mostly it can be found in blends - unsurprisingly given it as it is such a wonderfully complementary grape - particularly with Shiraz and Grenache. Penfolds, Hewitson, Charles Melton, Rockford, Tim Smith Wines, Henschke, John Duval, Spinifex, Chapel Hill, d’Arenberg, and Wendouree are all fine producers of the style. 100% Mataros are not so easy to come by, but complex, concentrated examples from producers like Torbreck, Teusner and Caillard show this ‘characterful’ variety’s immense flair.  As Tim Smith says, Mataro is for those with ‘intellectual curiosity’.

The Mataro ‘whisperers’

Mataro also appeals to a new breed of young winemakers, the ‘wine whisperers’ who have the time, temperament and inclination to take it on – like Abel Gibson of the Barossa’s wild and natural Ruggabellus winery. Abe has trained at some of the finest Barossa wineries including Penfolds, Chris Ringland, Charles Melton and Spinifex. 'Mataro in particular I love,’ says Abel. ‘It's quite earthy, it's a little untamed and a little wild. It works incredibly well with food. It's got these herby elements, it's got these meaty elements. It's more bass line than the immediate seductiveness of Shiraz. The tannins kick in late which cleans up the palate...'

Mike Bennie is impressed by Abel’s Mataro-rich reds, writing of his ‘Fluus’ with 58% Mataro as having ‘Earth, smoke-lifted spice of cumin and cinnamon ... forged into shaped with savoury complexity’ and ‘Efferus’ with 85% Mataro as having ‘Smoke and animal with clod earth and garam masala. A wine that shrieks feral but within the presence of a compote of dark, unctuous fruit ...’

Another ‘Mataro whisperer’ is Taras Ochota from cult winery Ochota Barrels. Only 25 cases of his ‘Go with the Flow’ Barossa Valley Mataro were made, using biodynamically farmed fruit. As Tara says, it has ‘exotic black cherry, Moroccan wisp and deep earthy undergrowth ... a voluptuous dark aura that seduces one into a haze’.

Mataro: An Unsung Australian Wine Thoroughbred

Mataro is definitely a thoroughbred – a stayer with character and style. It just needs careful handling to show its best. It’s not for the faint-hearted – be they a vine grower, a winemaker or a wine lover. But for those willing to take the gamble, Mataro offers many, many rewards. And with a new breed of winemakers taking the bit between their teeth, there’s definitely a place (and a win) for Mataro in the future of Australian fine wine.

Disclaimer

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