Thursday 18 January 2018

The Wines That Made Us (1): Mateus Rosé

A special SEDIMENT series in which we look back at the wines which made us a nation of wine-drinkers – and revisit those wines today. 

You couldn’t go wrong. No worries about
vintages, or chateaux, or whether it would be dry or sharp. Ask for a bottle of white wine, and you had no idea what kind of polysyllabic German cheek-clencher you might be sold. No, for fledgling wine drinkers like us in the 1970s, it was twenty Rothmans and a bottle of Mateus, thank you very much.

Mateus Rosé had so much going for it. Unlike red or white wine, which were posh and old-fashioned, Mateus was, as you might gather, rosé – or, as its ads made clear for those who didn’t even know what rosé was, pink. 

It was very slightly fizzy. As wine novices, we were of course unaware of the correct term, petillante, but it seemed to be covered by the incorrect term, “very slightly fizzy”. And most of all, it was rather sweet. This in an era when the popular pub tipples of the recently-permitted were Southern Comfort for the fellas, and for girls, a teeth-coating combination of vodka and lime cordial. Which all meant that Mateus was a wine we could drink without fear – and without food.

None of us looked too deeply into the nature of the wine itself. The curlicued, parchment-coloured label simply suggested an established, traditional wine which was centuries old. It seemed authentic. It depicted the Palace of Mateus in Vila Real; “And,” said one ad, “no wine ever had a lovelier birthplace…”

Which obscured two awkward truths. First, the wine had actually been created only thirty years before, exploiting the collapse of the Port market across Europe during World War II. A group of friends in neutral Portugal seized the opportunity to exploit the glut of Portuguese grapes, by making cheap table wines which could be shipped straight across to the lucrative Brazilian market. Only when that market itself declined after the War was Mateus Rosé offered to emerging British wine drinkers.

And the Palace of Mateus was just a stately home near to the commercial winery, whose name and image were purchased for use on the label. The owners were offered the choice of a one-off payment, or a royalty per bottle. In a commercial decision akin to that of the record company exec  who turned down The Beatles, they took the one-off payment.

Then, of course, there was that bottle. “Beware of curously shaped or oddly-got-up bottles,” wrote Kingsley Amis in his 1972 book On Drink. “I would not want to decry Mateus Rosé, a pleasant enough drink which has been many a youngster’s introduction to wine, but its allure, and its price, owe a lot to the work of the glassmaker.”

Its frosted dark green glass hinted at protection of precious contents, while its shape was based on the water flask of a WWI Portuguese soldier. What a great story. Was it a military coincidence that this squat, flat bottle would also conveniently fit into the capacious pocket of a (fashionable at the time) calf-length ex-army greatcoat?

And the bottle led to the lamps. Unlike regular wine bottles, the shorter Mateus bottles were just the right height for bedside lamps:

These would presumably imbue one’s home with all of the sophistication and worldliness that was beginning to accrue to wine-drinking. They did, however, require the drilling of a hole in the glass bottle for the cable which, in the days before instructive YouTube videos, often required a trip to a local hardware shop for advice and equipment, followed equally often by a trip to a local A&E.

Hard as it may be now to believe, Mateus Rosé was drunk by fashionable people. 

It was not to be sneered at. It appeared in the background of a Graham Nash album cover, and in the lyrics of an Elton John song, things now equally hard to believe were not to be sneered at.

But as we learnt more about wine, we all thought less of Mateus Rosé. Its sugary flavour seemed unsophisticated, its colour trivial, and its bottle unsuited to modern tables, whether dining or bedside.
In 2002, they revamped it and dropped the word “rosé” from the bottle, on the grounds that “people know it’s a rosé”, Then a little over a decade later, they turned the bottle from green to clear, on the grounds that “people don’t know it’s a rosé”.

I can no longer find a Peter Dominic, where, in 1973, I would have bought it for 87p a bottle. But I did find it on the next-to-bottom shelf in the supermarket, for £5. Like me, it has changed a bit over the years.

Of course there’s no longer a cork, but even the screwcap is rose-gold, while the similarly coloured neck foil bears a signature which reads worryingly like weapons inspector Hans Blick.

The wine itself is a bold, lurid pink. It shines through the clear glass as if this were one of those jars which used to stand in chemists’ windows.

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.

So they’ve really taken everything away: the cork, the bottle, the label and the taste – and nostalgia along with them all. I can’t imagine someone turning up now at a girlfriend’s flat, wielding a bottle of Mateus Rosé like an overnight bag. But nor can I imagine someone staying up until 2am, explaining why Tony McPhee has a better guitar technique than Rory Gallagher. Neither the wine nor the conversation seemed very successful then; neither seem particularly appealing today.



  1. Even though it was 45 years ago I can still recall the utter disgust of my late father when we would regularly have near neighbours round to dinner and they would arrive bearing a bottle of Mateus Rosé. 'It's like drinking bloody Tizer' he would exclaim after they had left and, indeed, my mother stopped inviting them because she knew what a scene my father would make later. He rejoiced when they emigrated to Australia, but most certainly not with Mateus Rosé.

    1. Think yourself lucky he restrained his comments until after they had left...

    2. True, but his face when he poured the stuff out, spoke volumes.

  2. Loved this piece. Mateus was also my introduction to wine. Dad discovered red wine during the War, in Italy, but didn't drink after that until I turned 16, when we both experimented together. He thought Mateus was a safe bet, having seen the ads. The sweetness is interesting, it must have been a prerequisite for mass marketing to a nation that was wine-ignorant. Sweetening wine is an old tradition. The Romans were at it and lead acetate was the usual agent. It's been blamed for Handel and Beethoven's infirmities - they both drank loads of wine. Let's hope Mateus stuck to sugar.

  3. Still see plenty of Brits drinking this on holiday in the Algarve, despite the fact that it's more expensive than the far better local stuff

  4. Apparently the aesthete Sacheverell Sitwell used to claim that (a) the stuff was perfectly drinkable, and (b) it was he who introduced it to Britain. He reckoned the company owed him a royalty.

    1. It was also said to be the favourite drink of Saddam Hussein…

  5. I have a bottle that we found in my father-in-laws basement. It is labeled Mateus White but it is now
    A dark color. What should I do with it? Is it drinkable?

    1. "Is it drinkable?" is a question which might well be applied to any iteration of Mateus, but in this case the answer is almost certainly "no". See if the current owners of Mateus are interested for their archive. Contact a doctor if swallowed.


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