From the tasting team

Campbell Mattinson: Australians are flavour hounds

By Campbell Mattinson

4 Jan, 2023

Campbell Mattinson on strong coffee, red wine, and why flavour is the most important thing.

If ever there was a time for me to blow my stack, this was it. I’d arrived at the airport at 7.30am for an 8.40 flight only to be told, due to the flight being ‘overbooked’, that instead I would be flying at 8pm that night, over 12 hours later.

I was told this while standing at the ticket counter, along with a bunch of folks who’d just been given the same news, and let’s just say that arms were waving, phone screens were being pointed at, and a lot of people were refusing to take slow for an answer. Except me.

For some reason, in this strange moment, I went all Zen, and took the news on the chin. I calmly picked up my bag, texted who needed to be texted, and turned for the sanctuary of the nearest coffee counter. I mean, Stay Calm and Drink Coffee.

The trouble was: it was there, as I tried to order coffee, that my patience was really tested. And as they say down at the back clinic, it’s always the referred pain that gets you. 

Every day, to put what follows in context, for the past 25-odd years, I’ve either made or ordered a strong coffee. If it’s not strong, in my book, it’s not worth ordering, or drinking. This may or may not include milk – depending on the mood, the perceived competency of the coffee maker, or the time of day. If I’ve stopped on the highway and a McCafe is all there is to choose from, for instance, I’ll just order a piccolo, on the basis that it’s hard to make a weak piccolo.

Size might not be everything but flavour sure is. 

Campbell Mattinson selecting wines in James Halliday's cellar, James is in the backgroundCampbell Mattinson.

So there at the airport I ordered my usual strong flat white, and when asked I specified a small cup. It is, unless you’re really determined, impossible to make a large-sized coffee taste strong. As I waited for it to be made, it occurred to me, as it often has, that my wine tastes have changed quite dramatically over the past 25 years, but my coffee tastes haven’t. Or rather, they’ve drifted in opposite directions.

Back then, no wine was too big, or too rich. My favourite phrase was “low yield”. I loved concentrated wines, thick and dense. Over the years I’ve gradually placed greater value on delicacy and, more to the point, freshness, often at the expense of out-and-out depth. Back then, I drank shiraz and cabernet almost exclusively. Now I’m a sucker for nebbiolo, sangiovese, grenache and pinot noir. I had a passionate discussion with someone recently about the joy of rosé.

I may or may not be a renaissance man but in wine taste terms I’m heartily reconstructed.

And then my name was called out, and my coffee was handed over, and despite the fact that I’d asked for a small, my coffee had been made in size large.

Mr Delicacy, Mr Reconstructed, Mr La Di Da had been served a weak coffee, the very same morning that he was asked to wait 12 hours at the airport for his flight. At that moment I decided to self-appoint myself as the President of First World Problems Incorporated. I said, with my teeth quite literally gritted: Why did you make a large coffee when I specifically asked for a small? We ran out of small cups, came the reply.

Do you have piccolo or espresso cups? I asked.

Yes, they replied.

Glass of red wine being pouredAustralians are partial to strong coffee and rich red wines.

And so, this is what I said: I asked for a strong coffee, in a small cup, and when you ran out of cups you just decided to make a larger slash weaker coffee instead of a smaller slash better one.

I’m not proud of this moment, in general, and I’m especially not proud of my tone of voice, or open use of the word slash.

The bloke behind the counter had no doubt seen and heard it all, but for a split second he seemed concerned at what I might do next, me standing there waving a large boiling hot coffee around and all.

But I am kind of proud of my use of the word better. Indeed, it’s enough, back now in the calm light of day, to make my old rich-red-wine loving self proud. I’ve long said, whenever I’m asked what the Next Big Thing in wine will be, that whatever it is, it will involve flavour and lots of it.

Australians are flavour hounds. We talk light and drink strong. You could solve crimes in this country by simply following the flavour all the way to barbecue grill.

When chardonnay first stormed Australia in the ’80s and ’90s, for instance, it was made in the richest style possible. When Kiwi sauvignon blanc became the lunch staple, it was in a style that was as intense as it was pungent. Australians loved rich fortified wines in the past and love rich red wines now. Both pet-nat and prosecco, two sparkling wine styles on the up and up right now, take non-descript sparkling wine and add character, flamboyance and, you guessed it, overt flavour.

And look: in my own drinking habits I might have swapped McLaren Vale shiraz for McLaren Vale grenache, and there may well currently be a pinot noir shortage, such is the demand for it. But I doubt that I’ll ever swap my strong flattie for a filter coffee, such is my own more-is-better addiction to flavour, when it suits me.

So perhaps this is it: what Australians really love is a bit of drama in their glass. A bit of action. I’m glad then, for all of us, that I took that large fully laden cup of coffee and, knowing that I was being watched, slammed it straight into the nearest bin. And got a refund on the flight.

This article appears in issue #67 of Halliday magazineBecome a member to receive the print publication as well as digital access.

Top image credit: Wine Australia.