Matthew Atallah Wines

Matthew Atallah Wines

In an industry dominated by the corporates, there are hundreds, if not thousands of small winemakers across Australia seeking to establish their brands and carve out a living. Most are dreaming of hitting the oenological paydirt that will establish them both reputationally and financially for life. But as in elite sports, it’s often the “one-percenters” (or a bit of luck) that set the good apart from the great – or the insightfulness and energy to exploit a newfound opportunity. There’s always an unbridled passion that drives these primary producers and winemakers to do what they do, but only a relatively small number will defy the odds and achieve their professional and business aspirations.

According to Wine Australia, there are about 2500 wineries across 65 wine regions in Australia where David is fighting Goliath in a crowded market. When you consider that the supermarket behemoths control over 75% of the retail market, the challenges faced by the small players, are real. But despite the statistical improbability of defying the odds, plenty of vignerons and vintners follow in the footsteps of the Kevin Costner character who built a baseball field in his corn paddock and decreed “build it and they will come”. And I recently had the privilege of spending time with one such romantic idealist who has launched his own wine brand in the cool climate Orange region with a vision to make the wines that he likes to drink.

The eponymous Matthew Atallah, of Matthew Atallah Wines, was in his mid-forties and barely employed as a chocolate and cheesemaker when he told his scientist wife, Hazel, that he wanted to start a wine business. And to his surprise, she agreed! It was late November 2015, and the seven and a half years that followed have been as demanding as they have been rewarding.

The Matt Atallah story started when he spent his school holidays working in his father’s Hunter Valley vineyards for a bit of fun and to earn pocket money. It must have done something to ignite a spark, as on leaving school, he started studying winemaking at Charles Sturt University – though his preference to fraternise over looking at books, saw him leave university to work for some Hunter Valley wineries before spending two years working vintages in China in 1994 and 1995. Matt’s return to his country of birth saw him land in the McLaren Vale in South Australia but still travelling to Europe to work vintages in the Northern Rhone and Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

By 2003, Matt was back in the McLaren Vale working full-time at Wirra Wirra. He was convinced to return to his tertiary studies at Charles Sturt where he eventually graduated from winemaking and viticulture degrees in 2010. From there, he spent three years at Hardy’s Tintara before taking a role at Project Wine at Langhorne Creek. Come 2012, he was offered a winemaking role at Cumulous Wines in the Orange region but in 2015 disaster struck and after a change in ownership, he, and many other staff, were made redundant. With two kids to support and roots deeply embedded in the township, Matt licked his wounds and took casual work outside the industry before that fateful dinner-table discussion in late 2015.

Without any substantial capital behind him, Matt’s entrepreneurial skills came to the fore as he convinced a local winery to allow him to swap his own labour for some space in their shed and use of winemaking equipment. And the Matthew Atallah label was born.

These days, Matt buys his fruit from three Orange region growers and only uses grapes that meet his exacting standards.

Having worked through the range – including back vintages of his Chardonnay – it’s clear that the strategy of only using high-quality fruit from premier vineyards, is paying dividends in shovels. The a2 Vineyard Chardonnay is the standout of the side. Made from grapes produced in the famed Balmoral Vineyard (originally planted by Rosemount in the 1980’s to make their premium range), the Reserve level chardonnay emphasises structure and depth. Using 25 – 28% new French oak, Matt insists on only medium toasting of the barrels as he pontificates that “oak must only be the platform for the fruit to sit on”. After all, Matt says, “The vineyard should speak. You should be able to taste the vineyard”.

The a2 is a stunning expression of cool climate chardonnay – granitic cashew and spicy cantaloupe characters emerge with the first sniff and develop into stone fruit and hazelnut cream through the middle. There’s a lovely palate weight and a pristine finish highlighted by gentle acids and a lingering flintiness. One can’t help but love the yeasty lees and aged cheddar characters that peek their noses out on the conclusion. Sure to be a crowd pleaser.

While the a2 Chardonnay is exceptional, Matthew Atallah Wines also craft other small batch wines of character and substance. There’s a delightful 2022 Rose made from Cabernet Franc ($28) and a Block 7 Syrah ($55) which is a spicy cool climate style that delivers presence over power. Plenty of plush red fruits, mulberries, and a stalky savouriness for balance.

But if Matt has a passion project, I suspect it’s his Block 1 Cabernet Franc (current release is 2021 – $60). A self-proclaimed lover of Loire Valley reds, Matt has nursed the fruit through its vinification journey into a vibrant wine with a floral nose of violets and spice, a palate laced with ripe redcurrants, cassis and raspberries and a herbaceous finish of oak, tobacco and soft tannins. What’s not to love about a straight cab franc crafted with this kind of mastery! The fruit does the talking because as Matt says, “I’m just the caretaker of the fruit as it’s made into wine”! One thing is for sure; the longer the cab franc bottle is open, the better it gets.

The passage from wine worker to wine label hasn’t been an untroubled path for Matthew Atallah. But judging from the quality of his wines, his vision, passion and artisan offerings, I can’t help but become a believer. Maybe, just maybe, he’ll be the next Phillip Shaw of New South Wales’ leading cool-climate region?

As published in the Courier Mail .


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