Co-operation may be fashionable in political circles at the moment, but in the wine business it’s increasingly regarded as the equivalent of a tweed skirt: frumpy, moth-eaten and distinctly old-fashioned. Now more than ever individualism reigns.
And yet co-operatives still dominate the world of wine. Or rather the world of European wine. You can find examples of growers pooling their resources in Australia, New Zealand and even the United States, not to mention Chile, Argentina and especially South Africa, where they play an important part in the Fairtrade movement. But co-operatives are essentially a European phenomenon.
Reliable figures are hard to nail down, but I reckon than more than half the wine made in France, Italy and Spain comes from a cave coopérative, cantina sociale or cooperativa vinícola. Given that these are the three biggest wine-producing countries — and that Portugal and Germany have an abundance of co-operatives too — we could be talking one in every three bottles worldwide.
If co-operatives were to disappear tomorrow — and there are plenty of people who wish they would — so would Europe’s wine surplus. The worst co-ops in places like Sicily, La Mancha and the Languedoc have never made palatable wine. The liquid they churn out in such vast volumes is barely fit for distillation, but as long as the subsidies roll in, they couldn’t care less.
Depressingly, bad co-operatives are still in the majority, but as a species they are as endangered as the Afghan tortoise or the dark-tailed tree rat. Over the next decade, Brussels wants to drain Europe’s wine lake, which means that co-operatives will have to shape up. Put bluntly, the ones who make undrinkable wine will go under.
The days when members could turn up at a co-operative’s door with rotten grapes or fill the bottom of their bins with rocks so that they were (superficially) more valuable to a business which paid them according to weight rather than quality are all but over. For Europe’s co-operatives, it’s do or die time.
The heartening news for them is that it’s surprisingly easy to turn an under-performing co-operative around. Part of the reason Australian “flying winemakers” had such a huge impact in the 1990s was that they didn’t have to do a great deal. These consultants would shout at a few locals in pigeon English, clean the tanks with caustic soda and water, replace cracked hoses, control fermentation temperatures and introduce the right strain of yeast and the transformation was almost immediate.
They weren’t always appreciated, mind you. One flying winemaker had to leave a small Spanish village in a hurry after writing off two of the co-operative’s cars and impregnating the daughter of the local mayor. Not the best way to get your winemaking message across.
The Aussies were often described as alchemists, but they were nothing of the sort. Even today, hundreds (and possibly thousands) of co-operatives are sitting on the vinous equivalent of pure gold, if only they knew how to extract it. Old, low-yielding vineyards of decent grapes are all you need, provided they’re in the right place. And in Europe, there are still plenty of those around.
So why don’t more co-operatives succeed? The answer is a combination of ignorance, laziness and (sometimes) lack of funds. As the subsidies dry up, the situation will become even more acute, accompanied by demonstrations and attacks on anyone who imports “foreign” wine.
Is there an alternative? You bet there is: to make good vino. In fact, there are already a number of places that do just that. My favourites include Buxy, Plaimont, Union Champagne, Roquebrun, Tain l’Hermitage and Turckheim in France, the Cantina di Soave, Araldica, Settesoli, La Guardiense and Produttori di Barbaresco in Italy, Martin Codax, San Gregorio and Capçanes in Spain, Moncão and Pegões in Portugal, Swartland in South Africa and La Riojana in Argentina.
Such co-operatives may be the rule-proving exceptions, but they show what can be achieved with talent, hard work and a common goal. As David Cameron and Nick Clegg have demonstrated, co-operation is back in vogue.
2008 Tesco Finest White Burgundy, Cave des Vignerons de Buxy (£6.98, 12.5%)
Made at the most modern co-op in Burgundy, this appealingly oaked white Burgundy from the Côte Chalonnaise region is fresh and lightly toasty with a little bit of buttery fatness, tangy acidity and lovely length.
2008 Viña Fuerte Old Vine Garnacha Calatayud, San Gregorio Co-op (£6.99, 14%, Waitrose)
Old bush vines in the northern Spanish region of Calatayud have yielded an unoaked garnacha with impressive depth of flavour: peppery, spicy and firm with raspberry fruit, food-friendly tannins and not a barrel stave in sight.
2008 Saint Mont, Producteurs Plaimont (£6.99, 12.5%, Marks & Spencer)
The Plaimont co-operative in Gascony has used three local white grapes (arrufiac, petit courbu and gros manseng) to make one of my favourite high street whites, with notes of grapefruit and melon and arresting acidity.
2009 Taste the Difference Gavi, Araldica Vini Piemontesi (£7.49, 12.5%, Sainsbury’s)
The cortese grape is becoming increasingly fashionable, thanks to the popularity of Gavi. And quite right too. This is spicy, fresh and lightly-oaked with pear and lemon fruit and minerally, old vine concentration.
2009 Fiano Fremendo, Sannio, La Guardiense (£8.74, or two £6.99, 13.5%, Majestic)
Alongside falanghina, fiano is southern Italy’s best white grape, albeit in very different styles. This is elegant for a fiano, which can be a little oily at times, with notes of ginger and angelica spice and bright acidity.
2006 St Chinian Roches Noires Macération, Cave de Roquebrun (£11,99, down to £8.99 until June 2nd, 13%, Spar)
Even if you don’t normally shop at Spar, it’s worth making a special journey to secure a few bottles of this delicious southern French red. A blend of syrah, grenache and mourvèdre, it’s gloriously aromatic, with sweet bramble and blackberry fruit, plush tannins and beautifully-judged oak. It should age well, too.
Originally published in The Times