Reason to Blush

Reason to Blush

Malwina Gudowska revives pink wines with a look at the reinvention of Sogrape’s Mateus Rosé. This article originally appeared in the Summer 2006 issue of Wine Access.

Posted May 12th, 2008

by Malwina Gudowska


Show up at a dinner party nowadays toting a bottle of blush and your hosts will likely look at you with curiosity and confusion. And although they won’t come out and say it, thoughts may linger on whether you brought the rosé to get liquored in a hurry – if only because it goes down so easy. Undoubtedly, you’ll have to defend choosing rosé, boldly stating that it’s the perfect summer drink and really does go well with anything.

But in the 1970s, before terroir was part of the common man’s vocabulary and everyone thought they were a wine connoisseur, the unmistakable green bottle of Mateus rosé would be welcomed warmly at parties – even expected. Mateus was the ’70s super brand, an icon of Portuguese wine and a dining room staple. Everyone was drinking it.

“My first time drinking wine in a theatre, at an unmentionable age, it was the mid-’70s, and at the time our beverage of choice was Mateus – it was a delicious rosé,” says Peggy Perry, vice-president of purchasing and marketing for Calgary’s Willow Park Wine & Spirits. Back then, it was the wine kids drank in their cars and the wine families served to their guests – the perfect complement to a warm summer evening.

Slightly sparkling, Mateus rosé is made from a blend of Portuguese red grape varieties, namely baga, rufete, tinta barroca and touriga franca. Vinification follows white wine methods; the juice is allowed to ferment slowly with no skins in stainless steel vats at 16°C, creating the pink colour.

The famous pink stuff has a rich history, dating back to 1942 when Sogrape Vinhos founder Fernando Van Zeller Guedes wanted to create a wine with a unique flavour and strong personality. To match the distinct taste, original packaging was needed. The bottle’s short, round shape was inspired by the flask bottles carried by soldiers in World War I and intended to ensure that Mateus would stand out from the taller and slimmer bottles already on the shelves.

The light-bodied, fruity rosé was named for the Palacio de Mateus (a.k.a. Palace of Mateus) depicted on the wine’s label. Located outside Vila Real in Portugal’s northeast, the baroque palace is the work of Italian architect Nicolau Nasoni, and dates back to the early 18th century. Negotiations began in 1943 between Sogrape Vinhos (the producers of Mateus) and the Count of Mangualde, the owner of the manor house. They reached an agreement the following year, allowing Sogrape to use the likeness on its labels and to name the rosé after the palace.

Although legend says that Mangualde chose a one-time payment over a percentage of each sale for reproduction rights, it was Sogrape that had to purchase the yearly production of the Alvarelhão grapes grown on the vineyards belonging to the Count, his mother and his aunt. The deal was that Sogrape had to pay 40 per cent above the highest price to farms in the Douro region in exchange for the Mateus name.

After first producing in the Vila Real Cooperative winery and the rented Monchique warehouses, in 1960 Sogrape purchased Quinta de Cavernelho in the parish of Mateus and proceeded to build a winemaking centre. Because of the growth of the brand, production was moved again to facilities in the Bairrada region in the 1970s, where most of Mateus is still produced today. Mateus now sells approximately 20 million bottles a year and is listed in over 120 countries.

Initially, Mateus was exported to Brazil, but quickly made its journey to the United Kingdom and the United States. When it first launched, Fernando Van Zeller Guedes sent a bottle to every Portuguese ambassador around the world, asking that they try it and pass it on to local friends. It began to make its name abroad, but soon became a leading brand in its native Portugal. After achieving international recognition in the 1970s, “the little bottle that could” was seen on the lips of everyone including Portuguese songstress Amalia Rodrigues, Jimi Hendrix, Queen Elizabeth II – even Pope Paul VI sipped it.

And then came the ’80s. Slowly, with each passing year, Mateus’s stature as the wine of choice diminished. It didn’t disappear completely, as loyal fans continued consuming it, but because of the bottle’s unique shape and colour, its more common use became that of a candleholder in teenagers’ bedrooms. Those coming of age were no longer bringing Mateus to parties; it was considered their parents’ wine, and it soon became as unfashionable as bellbottoms.

“The ’80s meant a tough period for the brand because it got quite away from new consumers,” says Joana Pais, public relations manager for Sogrape. “During two decades we faced the problem of the market enlargement and the investments were not enough to support the strong competition from the New World.”

During that period, Mateus was always present in the rosé market, but no longer in the forefront of Portuguese wine. The brand continued to live in the cellars of faithful consumers from the ’60s and ’70s, eager to relive those enchanting summer evenings. “These are wines that people associate very strong memories with, and they go back to them,” says Perry.

But baby boomers can only drink so many bottles. Although sales remained stagnant, the company was not expanding and eventually even the older generation would grow tired of the pink stuff. In 2000, Sogrape finally acknowledged that Mateus had to be reinvented, and a whole new strategy was developed to attract new, young consumers. The brand’s 60th anniversary was approaching, and Sogrape saw it as the perfect opportunity to re-launch and reposition Mateus.

In hopes of appealing to the younger crowd by disassociating the wine from its past popularity, the famous Mateus bottle received a facelift. The neck was made longer and the label smaller, with the image of the palace applied straight into the glass to make it more visible. A new advertising campaign was also launched: “Drink Pink!” it urged, while two young, attractive women sat on a yacht, sipping the pink stuff while their feet dangled over the boat – the perfect image of summer bliss. The yearning of many landlocked souls for a Mediterranean lifestyle created an impact, and rosé sales have grown in Canada from 848,220 (nine-litre cases) to 1,013,940 since 2001, an increase of 20 per cent.

“Rosé is not a premium wine, but it’s a fun wine, and because it’s so affordable, it’s more approachable. People don’t need to choose between the white or red, here they have the best of both worlds,” says Carolyn Belafi, Mateus’s national brand manager for Charton Hobbs. “It’s for easy-sipping, completely different in terms of rosé wine…Mateus is drier; it’s the perfect alternative.”

Not willing to rest on their laurels again, Sogrape also decided to expand – something that many wine critics saw as a long overdue step for a brand that had earned outstanding name recognition with only one variety of wine. In May 2005, Mateus Tempranillo was born. Made from the Spanish grape variety tempranillo, the wine comes in the same, newly designed signature bottle, except clear instead of green and confidently offering “A Taste of Spain.”

“Since the beginning of 21st century, we’re trying our best to meet the new consumers’ needs and requests,” says Pais. “We concluded that the new generations look for rosé wines with alternative profiles… a rosé wine whose image suits theirs – young and modern, and clearly with a good taste.” In turn, the new wine has been trumpeted by commercials that feature a pink polar bear strutting around, sniffing bottles of both Mateus brands to the slogan “Taste Matters!”

Sogrape remains confident that Mateus will once again resurface as the drink of choice for the younger generation. “The key success factors have always been the same: innovation, differentiation, distribution, communication and adjustment to the consumers’ needs and desires,” says Pais. “People in general realized that there are different moments for different wines. And certainly rosé has got its moment.”

Perry says that her Calgary store moves Mateus rosé at a favourable pace, even if it’s not a huge seller. And though it might not yet be on the lips of celebrities as it was in its heyday, the steady increase in sales means that people are drinking it. If blush wine could just shake the image of being the unsophisticated cousin of the whites and reds, we could proudly bring Mateus to a dinner party again. And if marketers could get Justin Timberlake to take a swig while someone snapped a photo, well, that wouldn’t hurt either.

87 Points
Mateus N/V Rosé
Douro – Bairrada, Portugal
Attractive light raspberry red colour. Mineral, earthy, cherry, slightly floral nose. Fairly dry but fresh and elegant with some spritz. Light cherry, citrus, earthy, mineral apple flavours and a slightly sweet finish. Very sound, affordable summer rosé. (AG)

Malwina Gudowska © 2011