"There was no business plan, that's for sure... Matassa happened. It was just a moment, a person, a place, a lot of things colliding..."
As the June sun in Tom’s garden beats down onto the crackling braai he’s preparing, it feels almost exactly like we’re sitting in the Swartland—but we’re not, we’re in the Roussillon, in deep southern France. The conversation turns to South Africa, Tom’s home country. He reminisces on his early days making wine, chuckling as he says,
“I was able to get my first two vintages past the tasting regulation panels, so they could get sold. I guess nobody really took notice, they just thought it was some weird bulls*&t that would go away.”
Those couple of barrels of weird bulls*&t would actually end up kickstarting an entire movement—not just in South Africa, but across Europe—from Beziers to Vienna. Tom would find himself sitting on a panels discussing natural wine at wine festivals.
So, it wasn’t some weird bulls*&t, and it didn't go away. Rather it’s about a simple concept: organic farming, and fermented grape juice—without the bulls*&t.
Tom grew up between South Africa and New Zealand, and it was while living in Auckland that he got into wine, working in a wine shop. When apartheid came to an end, he decided to move back to SA, and began scouting around for local wines.
“A lot of the wines I was drinking were very heavy on additions… sulphured up—what was considered low SO2 was probably the maximum legal limit in Europe. They were filtered and fined, and they had these green tannins that came from weed-killed, irrigated vineyards. I remember drinking some 14.5% wine, watered down from 15.5%, and thinking… my God this is horrible.”
It’s a somewhat bleak outlook on the state of wine in 90s South Africa. In the heydey of Robert Parker (the renowned wine critic of the time with a palate for ripe wine) nobody seemed to be attempting to make lighter styles of wine. Instead, the norm had become high alcohol, jammy flavours, oak-to-the-max and even some residual sugar. He says,
“I thought—if other people can f&^k up wine this much, then I can give it a go, too. That’s when I decided I wanted to be a winemaker. I had no training, but I could help out with stuff. I didn’t know what that stuff would be yet, but I knew I could do it.”
While tasting through a sea of nondescript wine, there was one that stood out to him: a wine by Welgemeend, made by a winemaker named Louise Hofmeyer. It surprised Tom. It was inexpensive and modest, but it had expression and a sense of place. He discovered that it was made with natural yeasts from the vineyard and cellar, instead of lab-cultured yeast. This unleashed something in his mind, and he rang up Louise to ask if he could come and work for her. She said yes, and before he knew it, Tom was also making a couple of barrels of his own wine.
“Both of my first wines were fermented naturally, and I bottled them by hand without sulphur. I remember when people tasted them. They were like, Tom, what the f&^k is this? Other people were checking their daily additions lists, adding and dissolving powder. But to me, it seemed very simple and logical, why not just make wine from grapes? It must be possible. It wasn’t enough for me to add all this s&%t to wine and to say I was doing a good job. It also wouldn’t be something I’d want to drink.”
He was optimistic and ignored the haters. He knew he’d set foot on the right path, but also came to realise there was much more to the picture than simply making wine without additions. The rest of the picture was in the vineyard, and he wanted to learn more about organic farming. It was Louise who suggested to him that he should go to the Roussillon in France, to Domaine Gauby. So, he packed his bags in 1999. Eventually, he’d be unpacking them for good on the other side.
“When I had my first Sunday off, I went on a walk. I saw this valley and it just struck me with its beauty. Those rustic slopes… it’s a landscape that has a very definite effect on people. At that particular moment, it seemed like one of those chunks of fantasies. I didn’t realise at the time that this would be a big chunk of the rest of my life.”
… Boy meets girl in vineyard. Boy falls in love with girl as they catch one another’s gaze across the fermenting barrels. Sounds like a romance novel, right? Right. In reality, it wasn’t quite like that. Rather, the girl in question (Natalie, the sister of Gérard Gauby) impressed Tom by eating an eyeball right out of a sheep’s head (a South African tradition). Tom was smitten; it was the beginning of a beautiful Roussillon romance. Twenty years later, they have two children, a farm and a business together.
It was a romance that would lead them to lay down roots in France, and eventually Tom would leave South Africa for good, handing over his vineyards to Craig Hawkins of Testalonga. His old cellar would later fall into the hands of Jurgen Gouws of Intellego. These are two of the brightest sparks of Next Generation South Africa, and both cite Tom as being a crucial puzzle piece in their own winemaking journeys.
Initially, together with a partner winemaker Sam Harrop (who later left the project), they came across a vineyard of very old vines, named Matassa. It was high up in the hills, surrounded by forest, and planted to 100+-year-old Carignan. It would give the project its name.
“The logo is composed of three trees, meaning forest in Japanese. It’s in a square box, which represents a cultivated field. A forest in a cultivated field gives this idea of the juxtaposition of nature and culture. It’s a notion that exists in very old poetic Japanese, and apparently also in Chinese. For me, that’s what wine growing really is; always looking for that balance between a cultural gesture and a respect for nature. We all must think about this more and more, as things get hotter and hotter, and drier and drier. We’re not here just to make desert. We’re here for the future generation, and to pay respect to the past.”
It would become the first of several very old vineyards that they would nurture back to health. Unfortunately, the original Matassa vineyard was too old to be able to return to full health. However, more Carignan would join the Matassa stable, and it would be joined by parcels of other traditional Catalan varieties found in old bush vine vineyards, such as Grenache, Lledoner Pelut (an ancient variant of Grenache with hairy leaves and a slightly more rustic charm, which is found in the Romanissa vineyard—named after the rosemary that grows there), Grenache Gris, Macabeu, Muscat d’Alexandrie and Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains.
It was while travelling in South Africa's vineyards in the mid-90s that Tom realised organics was the way forward; but cutting the chemicals and replacing them with sulphur and copper wasn't the sole solution. Rather, he had to figure out a system in which the soil health was restored, which in turn would bring back the wildlife. He explains,
"I noticed the absence of flowers, grasses and clovers. The soils were bare, baked hard, dry and cracked. Very quickly, I made the association between dry cracked earth and high alcohol, green tannin wines—wines with a lack of fruit purity. Then, I saw a photo of South Africa in the 50s; a guy ploughing a vineyard with a horse, and you could see the old bush vines in between grasses and flowers as high as the guy's knees. My feeling from drinking old wines from that era was that the flavour, the sweetness from fruit (not sugar) and that gentleness, that length of palate; that comes from those grasses, those flowers and that person. That is terroir: it's nature and people working to make a product. You take the flowers, the grasses and the people out of that equation, and you end up with s&^t wine."
So, Tom was on a mission to farm as closely as possible as that photograph. Hence, he has always worked organically, and the focus is on improving the organic matter of the soil—a task he says he'll continue to tackle until he's too old to farm. It might sound romantic, and the photograph from the 50s might look beautiful, but it's a colossal amount of work.
"We're not talking about one or two tons of compost. We're talking about fifty, or even one hundred, to get a vineyard to really perform. The logistics of that are phenomenal. I started with a lot of enthusiasm for biodynamic preparations, and I still have fondness for them, but we have to prioritise this very simple, non-mystical, mechanical operation. It just comes down to organisation, people and machines. We might be raising the earthworm population from 200kg per hectare (from a low organic matter situation where the vineyard was being farmed chemically), to 2000kg per hectare over a three-four year period, and beyond. That's equivalent to a few cows' worth (in weight) of earthworms working for you under the soil."
The wood from pruning is chopped up and used as mulch, and a cover crop is sown in winter, all to increase organic matter. It’s a constant tandem bike ride between leaving the vineyards undisturbed, while also ploughing gently right next to the vine to encourage some aeration (while leaving the rest of the soil in the middle of the rows untouched). Working in this manner also encourages biodiversity, which in southern France means an abundance of aromatic wild herbs and flowers. This is known as garrigue, and each plant contributes its own volatile oils. Some of these oils are picked up by the wind, landing on the grapes, and giving character to the wines.
“There’s something I find interesting in older wines, maybe because the sulphur has died away or because they used less back then. There was something backward looking in what I wanted to do: capturing the aspect of older wines that I found softer, more satisfying and more pleasurable. I wanted that in a young wine. It seemed logical to me that cutting out the additives such as sulphur (and all the others) made perfect sense. And that’s when I fell into the rabbit hole of farming, as I realised I could only do that if I grew really good grapes.”
Over the years, Tom has experimented with many methods to bring him to where he is today: very gentle whole bunch maceration, for both whites and reds, with almost no extraction. In 2008, with an experiment for cuvée Alexandria, he decided to make all of his white wines with skin contact. Thus, each wine is actually treated quite similarly. He muses,
“We experience a lot of pressure growing up. We envision a life that will be incredibly complex, but the more I saw, the more I realised I didn’t want that kind of complexity. I needed to be in control of a certain rhythm, and you need help setting that rhythm. The world is moving at such a pace. Having a farm or some form of agriculture forces you into a relatively simple mould where the seasons dictate your life.”
This realisation was also one that translated to his winemaking: this was about simplicity. Tom doesn’t believe in the concept of fancy wine. He believes in honest wine that is fresh, easy-to-drink and remains as true to its ingredients (grapes) as possible. Furthermore, he believes that every wine he produces should be given the same love and attention. At the beginning of his winemaking career in the Swartland, when working with the énfant terrible himself, Eben Sadie, this is something the two discussed often. He remembers,
“Eben Sadie always used to say, you’re only as good as your little wine—meaning your entry level wine. You’re still producing it, putting it out into the world, and representing it. Just because it’s cheaper, or because there’s more of it, doesn’t mean it’s somehow “less.” That’s the kind of wine appreciation I don’t like. Rather, it’s something accessible.”
He goes on to explain that his cuvée 'Coume de l'Olla' could be seen as his ‘little wine.’
“We ferment the Coume de l'Olla in large concrete tanks; we don’t want wood giving it a thicker structure or amplitude. I want to keep it as light and as fluid as possible; for that refreshment factor. That, for me, is a fundamental part of wine. I don't make wine to impress people. Rather, I think of it as a part of your nutrition. I’m not going to claim amazing medicinal qualities for my wine—or any wine for that matter—but a few glasses of wine with a meal is a prescription for a good life.”
So, instead of seeing a wine as an 'entry-level' wine, it should be seen as an 'everyday' wine:
“I want something subtle, lighter, fluid and easy to drink. For a long time, that was a kind of denigration for a wine; if it was easy, it was worth little. But this is actually what wine is; it’s something you drink if not daily (in my case), then regularly. As a winemaker and as a wine drinker, I don't want something heavy, thick, difficult, oaky or complicated.”
The same goes for his other cuvées; whether they are aged in concrete, fibreglass, foudre or amphorae. He chooses the vessel that he believes will best suit the wine, with the end goal of making the wine as expressive and as drinkable as possible.
It might all sound idyllic—and the Matassa cuvées encompass Tom’s vision to a tee—, but it wasn’t always an easy ride—far from it. Tom recalls,
“When I first tried to taste my Roussillon wines with my English importer at the time, they were like “we don’t work with Provence.” I explained that it wasn’t Provence, it was further south, but they didn’t care. South Africa had a lot of good vibes in the English market back then; it was easy to sell a strange Swartland wine. But selling a Roussillon wine was like selling something brewed in underpants. Dry wine from this area was like a no-go zone.”
Regardless, they powered on through, and thankfully, sales soon picked up. This is due to a very loyal and personal customer base; everybody that sells Tom’s wines has a connection to him in some way, and it’s this aspect of the natural wine world that is so crucial. He explains,
“Smaller distribution with smaller production is simpler now than it was 20 years ago. Back then, the hold that English supermarkets had on South Africa, for example, was incredible. There was a pressure to make conformist wines that could be packaged and sold in a supermarket environment. If someone told me they were selling my wine in a supermarket today I’d be upset, because I’d rather people sell it, and those people have some connection to me, and to what we do.”
He was one of only a handful of growers in southern France working in a natural way in the early 2000s. He reminisces on driving two hours’ south to Barcelona in 2006 to do some tastings together with now-iconic natural Catalan winemakers, Joan Ramon Escoda and Laureano Serres.
“People were freaking out, like WTF is this wine!? Those were the days when people in Spain still liked 200% new oak and 15% alcohol… our wines were considered challenging. Then Bar Brutal opened up, and within two years it had completely changed the market. This wasn’t just the drinking market, but the making market. From two domaines, there were suddenly fifty in Catalonia. Now it’s much more; it’s been a strong movement.”
Natural wine had made a real splash. But the tough times weren’t yet behind them. Towards the end of the 2000s, the world would suffer an economic crash, and it was felt at Matassa, too.
“It was an incredibly tough time. We were an inch from going bankrupt. The whole world had gone through an economic crisis and our sales just dried up. I remember thinking, how the f&^k am I going to keep this afloat?!”
But he did keep afloat, and these days the wines are more highly sought-after than ever; pre-allocated to dozens of countries around the world. Now, a big part of what Matassa stands for is the education and support of younger winemakers. Each year, a few people come to intern with him, most of which go on to make their own wines, such as Steffi of the Rennersistas. Tom says,
“It’s not just the exchange you have when you’re actually working, but when people bring enthusiasm, passion and interest on their own part, it’s not just about being a mentor, it’s about being friends.”
As for what’s next? Tom finally has a new winery, which he is above and beyond excited about. While laying the foundations of what has become the press room, they dug up an ancient base of an old Roman press, carved out of a solid block of marble. Each piece weighs around two tons. Tom smiles, saying,
“It’s an incredible thing, and to find it here exactly where we want to put our press—to think they were pressing wine and olives in this exact spot hundreds of years ago—well... you can’t help but be moved by something like that.”
We can’t help but feel it’s the perfect atavistic feature and discovery for an atavistic winemaker; one that bodes well for another chapter of Matassa wines.