Gather round Mataro

It started as an idea for Travis Earth winery, to be able to compare our four different Mataro wines (very unique for a Barossa winery) with a range across the country. Ultimately it became a gathering of the minds and a unique and insightful tasting.

Thirty-one 100 percent Australian Mataro wines, plus a pair from France and a pair from where this grape first started – Spain – as the varietal Monastrell.

Given that the history of this grape in Australia goes deep in the Barossa Valley, it was no real surprise that most of the wines gathered were from various parts of the Barossa (a few from McLaren Vale, Victoria and Western Australia). Most importantly, this also means that, quite possibly, two of the wines come from the oldest Mataro in the world – more than 100 years old.

For those familiar with the age of Shiraz vines being dropped into conversation regularly as over 100 years old, this may not seem anything special. However, as the original purpose of Mataro was to be a part of the blend in fortified wines, the fact that more than 40 years after that trend popped its last cork, that they still exist at all, is super rare.

During the 1980s South Australian Government vine pull scheme, many Mataro vines were grubbed for cash. Meanwhile, the few Mataro plantings left have been living in the shadows as the often-puzzling ‘M’ in our Aussie GSM wines. Many customers I have come across over the years were completely ignorant to what this grape was, filling in the puzzle wrongly with Merlot or Malbec as the most likely ‘M’ grape.

The process of gathering the 100 percent Mataro wines for this tasting was like a treasure hunt. Some were in plain sight – John Duval’s, Dean Hewitson’s and Travis’s neighbours – Izway, Tscharke and Hayes, for instance, have been shining lights on the Mataro hill for a while. Others required research and conversations across the wine industry. Many wineries make the now iconic Australian version of the Rhone blend – GSM – however, only recently have the numbers making straight Mataro gained some more followers. Why is that? That was one of the questions I wanted answered in our post tasting conversation.

You get used to vertical tastings in the wine industry, they provide a great comparison of styles. This was a very exciting and unique version, though, as no one could ever recall such a vertical of 100 percent Mataro. My sommelier hat was firmly back on, as educating the wine public in easy and fun terms is one of our primary roles. I was excited to try and find some clearly-defined groups of styles of this grape. Indeed, the 31 Australian wines showed four distinct Mataro styles.

Mataro style 1

Earth, funk, perfume and tar. Mataro has a natural tendency to lean into the earthy/dirty spectrum of red grapes. Sometimes and in some vintages, this is the dominant theme – on the day wines such as 2021 Tim Smith Barossa and Syrahmi from Heathcote best showed this. There was a discussion about when this style can mistakenly be accused of being ‘bretty’. Many winemakers in the room said they check for it in the lab and it’s not present – just part of the spectrum of earthy funk.

Mataro style 2

Spice, perfume aromatics, orange peel and rose petals. Mataro often wanders through a Middle Eastern spice market and can show an amazing array of these characters. What’s most interesting is that they can be seen clearly and linger long, because of its more medium-bodied style. Wines on the day – 2017 Travis Earth 808, 2022 Hayes Family Stonewell Block 3, 2018 Hewitson Old Garden, 2022 Bruno & George, 2019 Torbreck The Pict, 2022 Red by Caroline Dunn, 2021 Alkina and 2021 Cirillo – all from Barossa.

Mataro style 3

Dark fruits – black cherry or plum. This can often be about the vintage or the soil the vines are grown on. In the Barossa the red dirt seems to show these darker, brooding fruit characters. Wines on the day – 2009 Torbreck The Pict, 2021 and 2016 John Duval Annexus from Barossa and 2021 Samuels Gorge from McLaren Vale.

Mataro style 4

Chocolate and licorice. This tends to be a mouthfeel/texture style. These wines can generally express like this due to using old oak or long aging where the natural texture of the grape is allowed to shine. Wines on the day – 2022 Willows G7 and 2021 Barossa Boy Young Wisdom from Barossa, and 2021 Coriole and 2022 Bondar from McLaren Vale.

As the tasting came to an end and the discussions began, three words kept coming up again and again that really do define this grape when you see it alone – structure, savouriness and texture. This was shown across the range of wines tasted. Mataro has a natural, well-defined structure to it. It’s a svelte rugby player – moving slow, low and hard to push over. That said, its texture is supported by what I call ‘cappuccino tannins’, a fine dusting of dark chocolate that coats the mouth and lingers, carrying all the aromatics, perfume and spices with it. This and its savouriness combine to make it a great wine with food, opening it up to all manner of combinations. On the day we were treated with a classically made cassoulet and they danced and weaved and sang heartily together.

The discussion was led by the room full of the previous generation of great winemakers – Peter Scholz (Willows), Robert O’Callaghan (Rockford) and Stuart Blackwell (St Hallett) all sharing their insight and experience with the generation who are now blazing their wine trails. Many in the room were sons of these and other great winemakers. Adrian Hoffmann of famous grapegrowing family of the Barossa the Hoffmans, was also very generous with his knowledge about the cycles and challenges of growing Mataro.

The day had a wonderful vibe to it of oldfashioned community spirit and this continued over lunch. With the next generation of wine drinkers regularly asking for reds of a less heavy nature, this grape revealed no monsters and a great array of styles from light, elegant to medium bodied. There was indeed history in the air – a grape that began in Spain and lived in Australia amongst the shadows, is finally stepping into the light.

Oh, and in case you were wondering about Mataro living on in your cellar, the 2009 Torbreck The Pict and the 2017 Travis Earth 808 just kept opening up and blossoming, looking at their best much later in the evening. Due to the enthusiastic discussion and response, this will now be an annual event held at Travis Earth winery.

Peter Healy is the national salesperson for Travis Earth wines in the Barossa, one of the wines shown on the day and mentioned in this article. He is also a longstanding Australian sommelier with a consultancy business called ‘Wine Mind For Business’.