Information, Opinion

In Praise of Co-operatives – Part 1 – Setting the Scene

The greatest wines on earth aren’t made by co-operatives. Whether your preference is for Claret, Barolo, Burgundy or Champagne, co-operatives aren’t ranked in the upper echelons of each region’s producers.

Way down the quality scale, a lot of ordinary wine is made by co-operatives – owned by a multitude of producers who can’t afford their own vinification and maturation space and equipment – who make wine to suit growers’ yields and production decisions rather than quality.

Cave de Turckheim
Cave de Turckheim

It’s often the lower common denominator type of wine – it follows the DO / DOC / AOC regulations and is somewhat faithful to variety and terroir, but it’s just a bit ordinary. Dilute, but rarely bad. Humdrum. Boring! (There, I said it!)

Acknowledging all of the above, this series aims to highlight the better co-operatives…those which, if they don’t hit the heights, certainly make wines in the top quartile of quality, that are both interesting and value for money.  The better co-operatives are becoming increasingly skilled not just at wine-making but also at marketing specific bottlings designed to look and taste every bit as distinctive as the individually produced competition.

La Chablisienne
La Chablisienne

The worst co-operatives play almost exclusively with subsidies and politics. Co-operatives are at their strongest in areas where wine’s selling price is relatively low and where the average size of individual holdings is small, although co-operatives are also quite significant in Champagne and there are several in the Médoc, for example. The majority of wine co-operatives were formed in the early 1930s in the immediate aftermath of the Depression.

As you will see, most of the co-operatives covered in this series are in Europe, specifically France.

The former is down to ownership patterns, particularly those jurisdictions that have Napoleonic inheritance laws (splitting properties equally between children of each generation). With a growing population this can result in vignerons (and other farmers of course) owning smaller and smaller land holdings to the point where, unless the land is in one of the very best appellations, there isn’t sufficient economic scale to justify making, bottling and maturing wine on the property.

Le Mesnil sur Oger, Champagne
Le Mesnil sur Oger, Champagne

This leaves a “grape farmer” with restricted choices – sell his or her grapes to a négociant or join a co-operative. The first usually carries lower risk, though certainly lower income. The second has the potential for a little more control and a share in the surplus.

And why will this series focus on France? The simple reason is that I am far more familiar with French wine than that of any other European country!

Some of the forthcoming articles in the series:

9 thoughts on “In Praise of Co-operatives – Part 1 – Setting the Scene”

  1. Yes there are good and bad and plenty of average co-ops. You name some of the best. The approach of Esteyzargues in the Gard is also worth a mention, as they vinify each grower’s wine for them and sell it as the domaine. This includes natural wine for example and I think it is all organic. I called in March and they were virtually sold out!

  2. Most of the wines I have blogged about are European wines and the US conglomerates. The European wines mostly are regulated by the provincial governments, South American wines much the same. I must say that are well controlled and very fine wines. So I am not sure how many are Co-Operative based vineyards or wineries.

  3. I would say that Italy has wonderful co-ops. Perhaps the biggest concentration quality-wise is In the Northeast, but many (like me) would argue that the Produttori of Barbaresco is the best. One of the best in Europe, I would say, largely for their single vineyard wines, but they are great at all levels.

    1. When I initially started this series Produttori were recommended to me by several people.

      I’m not that familiar with NE Italian co-ops…are there any you could recommend I look into?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *