A newcomer looking at the Mateus Rosé advertising campaigns of today, with their bright-pink penguins and "chilled attitude," might never guess that the brand is 70 years old. More than a billion bottles of the medium-sweet sparkling wine have been sold worldwide since its launch in 1942, according to the brand owner, Sogrape. At the peak of its popularity, in 1978, worldwide sales exceeded 3.5 million cases a year and the wine accounted for more than 40 percent of Portugal's table-wine exports.
So entrenched did Mateus Rosé become in popular culture that it featured in the lyrics of Elton John’s 1973 song "Social Disease" (“I get juiced on Mateus and just hang loose”). In addition, Jimi Hendrix was snapped louchely swigging from the trademark flagon-shaped bottle, which surely did the brand no harm.
Less welcome was the news from Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein that Mateus Rosé had been the dictator's favorite wine; it was stockpiled in his palaces, along with high-end Champagne and Johnnie Walker Black Label whisky.
Mateus Rosé's distinctive “cantil” packaging – modeled on the Portuguese Army’s World War I water flasks – and its frizzante rosé style were part and parcel of a bold plan dreamed up by its creator, Fernando van Zeller Guedes.
Designed to attract novice wine drinkers, the wine held little appeal for the Portuguese themselves, whose tastes were then oriented towards rustic reds. Instead, it gave the company an opportunity to break into new territory at a time when the domestic market was in the doldrums.
From the get-go, then, Guedes aimed Mateus Rosé squarely at the export market – specifically the tropical climes of Brazil, where it was successful until the market collapsed in 1946.
In the 1960's, the brand took off in Britain (something of a leap, given that the climate there is much cooler than Brazil's), followed by the United States, where the baby-boomer generation embraced its sweet and easy style. A TV ad from 1971, featuring a schmaltzy couple, urged viewers to "Run away from home tonight with Mateus, the rosé wine that's like a trip to Portugal." Ten years later, the couple had morphed into a group of twenty-somethings doing a conga on the beach.
The snowball effect of doing well in the United States – which became the brand’s biggest market – spurred the wine's ability to break into Italy and Spain. And as sales soared, so did the fortunes of the wine's parent group, Sogrape. By the late 1980's, its name had become synonymous with Mateus Rosé (which represented 90 percent of its sales), and it was easily the biggest player in the Portuguese wine industry.
With annual worldwide sales of Mateus now down to a steady 20 million bottles, Sogrape has long since diversified into new products, market sectors, regions, and even countries. Even so, the famous wine still accounts for around 13 percent of Portugal’s bottled-wine exports (excluding port and Madeira).
According to Fernando’s grandson, Salvador Guedes (now Sogrape’s chief executive), the brand retains a loyal following – Britain's Peter Pan of rock included. Cliff Richard says that he still has a soft spot for Mateus Rosé, which provided his first introduction to wine back in the 1960's.
So how has this robust – you might say Peter Pan-like – brand managed to retain its sparkle 70 years on? Guedes admits that it’s not all been plain sailing. "You have to keep the brand present and relevant, with new ideas and approaches, and not all of them have worked.” For example, a Mateus red wine released in the United States flopped (although a Mateus White was successful).
A bigger issue was that during the brand's phase of rapid growth, its positioning was devolved to local distributors and became heavily influenced by supermarket trends, resulting in the lack of a coherent image. In the mid-1980's, as sales declined, Sogrape took greater control.
After relaunching Mateus Rosé in the 1990's, the company poured big money into global marketing, starting with a “Light Moments” campaign featuring a bottle floating like a balloon on the end of a piece of string to emphasize the brand’s key strength – its lightness. As for substance, Mateus Rosé’s residual sugar was reduced from 20 grams a liter to 15, in line with prevailing taste trends.
The next significant makeover came during the rosé boom of the new millennium. Sogrape was swift to take advantage of what Guedes calls “the bandwagon effect," which provided an opportunity to reposition the brand via a “Drink Pink” global campaign, as well as to extend the range.
Catering for different consumer preferences – notably a new generation brought up on single-varietal wines – Sogrape launched Mateus Rosé Shiraz (from France) and Mateus Rosé Tempranillo (sourced from Spain as well as Portugal, where it is sold as Aragonês).
With a loyal fan base in Britain and the United States making those countries the biggest markets for “The Original” Mateus Rosé (as it’s now called), the company retained its tried and tested blend of Portuguese grapes for the wine: baga, rufete, tinta barroca and touriga franca.
All three wines are packaged in the distinctive flask-shaped Mateus bottles, whose iconic design helped make the brand famous. Guedes calls it “a simple differentiating concept” which “always put Mateus in front.”
He reports that the only changes to the bottle have been to “push it up slightly, so it’s more elegant,” and to make the label cleaner, giving the Mateus name greater prominence. On the "Original" label, the image of Palácio de Mateus in Vila Real (located close to the original winery) remains intact, although designer Mary Lewis has given it a more contemporary look. In her view, the "most radical move" was changing the colors of the different wines "to hint at the contents." Mateus Original is light salmon, the Tempranillo is lollipop-hued, and the shiraz is a bright berry color.
For its most recent, more upmarket offerings, bigger changes have been made. A Champagne-style bottle has been introduced to handle the pressure of two sparkling wines: Mateus Rosé Brut and Demi-Sec. In addition, two all-new, Bordeaux-bottled table wines, Mateus Rosé Delightfully Dry Baga/Shiraz and the sweeter Fabulously Fruity Aragonês, will have their own designs.
With millions spent on product innovation, global marketing campaigns and, most recently, a Mateus Rosé website and e-magazine, Guedes remains sanguine about the cost of looking after a classic brand in an increasingly competitive environment. As he puts it, the mark of a real brand is its durability in the face of changing fashions.
And the latest advertising campaign? It features what the company calls "youthful (not necessarily young), relaxed, 'cool' people" relaxing by the pool, with the slogan "Serve Chilled." For a 70-year-old, it's not bad.