From the tasting team

Campbell Mattinson: Lambs to the screwcap

By Campbell Mattinson

9 Mar, 2023

Campbell Mattinson revisits an old favourite.

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Old habits die hard. There was a time in the 1980s and into the 1990s when pretty much any of my late nights out would end with a souvlaki from the Lambs restaurant on Lygon Street in Carlton, Melbourne.

I moved away, times changed and in any case my waistline demanded that late-night eating be re-thought, but I was in the Carlton area over the recent holiday period and damn it, I said to myself, my main go-to restaurants are closed anyway, live a little.

And so, it came to be that the charred, juicy, rotating meat, so beloved from my early adulthood, suddenly had my name on it. I wasn’t even sure if Lambs still existed but then there it was, still there, on the corner, its yellow-coloured name displayed in all capital letters, and in a cursive font, and in italic, as if deliberately designed to ward off graphic designers.

I wondered, because a part of me still lives in the 1980s, whether I’d get a table, even though it was still bright and sunny and early. The place is divided roughly in two: a hard-tiled takeaway area, and a sit-down area. As soon as I entered though I noticed that the sit-down area was dark and deserted, and that there was no one at the takeaway counter. It was just me, and the owner.

Can I eat in? I asked.

Takeaway only, he replied.

Lambs' roséLambs Yarra Valley Rosé.

I put in my order for my 1980s-usual, simple lamb souvlaki, and as it was being prepared, I asked, again, whether I could sit down to eat, “even if just at the bench along the window. I’ll be quick.” My only other real option was to eat in my car, which I didn’t fancy. 

I can’t recall his exact reply, but the gist was that this night was a major night in the life of his daughter, a wedding or a 21st birthday or something of that momentous order, and that if he didn’t get home in time his daughter might just put him on the spit and turn him into souvlaki.

In that case, I said, you don’t have time to be talking to me.

I turned away then, as he sliced the meat from the rotisserie, and looked about the restaurant. It occurred to me that his daughter may now well be the same or similar age that I was when I used to stop there on all those late nights, and that these little parcels of meat and lettuce and tomato had raised her, in their own way.

I also thought, on this quiet summer’s night, that the man behind the counter still felt the need to open up shop, and to serve a single person here and a single person there, on his daughter’s 21st birthday, even though he’d have to shut early, when most of his clientele would arrive late.

As I thought these things, I looked up at the display shelves to the side of the preparation area. There were various items there but most prominently was a row of wine bottles, all of them the same. I didn’t count them but maybe there were 20 or 21 bottles lined up.

Campbell MattinsonCampbell Mattinson.

They were Lambs home-brand rosé, 2001. When I say that they were all the same, it took me a few seconds to realise this; at first, I thought they were some sort of vertical, because the colour of the wine inside each bottle was different in each case.

These bottles had clearly been there for all the years between. They had stood sentinel, as the meat spun around, as I grew old, and as his family grew up. They had been stored terribly, in bright light, in the heat/warmth of their elevated position, in a cooking environment.

Their different colour had little to do with these conditions though and was mostly to do with the fact that they were sealed under a cork. Colour-wise, some of these bottles still looked in great condition. These were the ones where the cork, whatever kind it was, had performed terrifically. The dark brown ones; not so much.

The wines in this souvlaki shop are the best example of the effect the closure has on a wine that I have seen on public display.

I paid for my souvlaki, thanked him, and turned away. As I did, the man behind the counter hurried to clean up. I was the last customer of the day. The late sun burned straight through the open front door. I felt as though I needed to say something extra then. If I was a wine, I’d be over-oaked.

I turned and pointed at the bottles, which were now 21 years old. I felt hopeful of a sudden, and I did because of that bottle third from the left, which had a colour half-decent, even if it was a touch brown. It might be good. “Grab that one and open it tonight, it’s been waiting there for her whole life,” I wanted to say. But he’d turned away already, and was making to go home.

This article appears in issue #69 of Halliday magazineBecome a member to receive the print publication as well as digital access.

Top image credit: Wine Australia.