What do Saddam Hussein, Queen Elizabeth II, and Jimi Hendrix have in common? They all had a thing for Mateus Rosé. Yes, that wine in the funny shaped bottle.
Once considered passé, Mateus has a history to rival some of the great wines of the world, and it’s storming back just in time for its 80th anniversary.
Icon of Rebellion
The story of Mateus begins with one man, Fernando Van Zeller Guedes. “He was a visionary,” says João Gomes da Silva, chief sales and marketing officer of Sogrape, the now-global wine company Guedes founded in 1942. “It was incredible that while the world was at war, he was thinking of conquering the world with wine.” The first target market was Brazil, a country that, like Portugal, had stayed out of the Second World War.
Mateus was quite unlike anything else available at the time. It was pink when most wine was either red or white. It was also fruity, sweet, and gently sparkling. And importantly, at a time when table wines could be hit-or-miss, it had a taste as consistent as a bottle of Johnnie Walker.
The packaging was unusual too: squat and wide, based on a Portuguese soldier’s water bottle. The distinctive label featured a picture of the Mateus Palace, which belonged to the Count of Mangualde who, in possibly one of the worst financial decisions in history, accepted a lump sum for image royalties instead of a percentage from each bottle sold.
Brazil fell into an economic slump after the war, but the brand prospered globally. Mateus had a tireless salesman in Guedes. On his travels, he would give two bottles to each Portuguese ambassador: one to drink and one to give to anyone who might help distribute the wine.
Coming to America
Mateus was unleashed on the United States in 1953, which at the time was not a wine-drinking country. “American wine culture was in its infancy,” says Da Silva. “Prohibition was not so long ago.”
But Mateus soon captivated American palates, likely, says Da Silva, because it caught the spirit of the 1960s. “Mateus was rebellious because it’s rosé and in a different bottle,” he says.
Soon, sex, drugs and Mateus Rosé were in bed together. Jimi Hendrix was photographed with it, a bottle appears on a Graham Nash album cover, and Elton John sang, “I get juiced on Mateus and just hang loose.”
The bottle became an icon, used as a candle holder in college dormitories everywhere. In their book “Is This Bottle Corked? The Secret Life of Wine,” authors Michael Bywater and Kathleen Burk write, “Mateus Rosé achieved an almost unheard-of brand recognition.” At the peak in 1974, America imported over 20 million bottles.
But it wasn’t just hip young Americans who were getting into Mateus. Auberon Waugh recounts how his father, the novelist Evelyn Waugh, developed a real passion for the stuff. “He came back from Rhodesia one day announcing a new discovery from Portugal called Mateus Rosé, and drank it through one whole summer,” he wrote. The British royal family also were fans, as was the dictator of Iraq, Saddam Hussein.
According to Jancis Robinson’s “The Oxford Companion to Wine,” by 1978, Mateus accounted for 40% of Portugal’s total wine exports, and its global sales hit 3.5 million cases, or 42 million bottles.
Down and up again
By the ’80s, America was becoming a wine-drinking country, but tastes had shifted, and big, oaky, dry wines such as Californian Chardonnay and Cabernet were all the rage. Then problems with Sogrape’s distributor in the early ‘80s meant that Mateus almost disappeared from the U.S. market. By the time it returned, Mateus was what your parents drank. It was no longer cool.
Yet Mateus is still massive. Its global sales are now 1.7 million cases a year. That may be half of its former glory, but volumes are trending upward. Da Silva says that Australia and Switzerland in particular enjoyed double digit growth in 2020.
It’s also recently been reformulated for the US market to make it drier. It was relaunched last year and Da Silva says, “I’ve never seen distributors react with such excitement.”
Rosé is the drink du jour, so it’s fitting the original is back. This summer, forget Provence — and drink like a ‘70s rock star with a bottle of Mateus.