There’s strength in numbers, the old saying goes. These wise words are the motto by which cooperatives have come to produce one in every four bottles of European wine. That staggering production power makes co-ops a contending Old World force in an ever-changing New World marketplace.
Thanks to their sheer size, co-ops help to strengthen sales, improve quality, invest in innovation and research, spearhead new packaging concepts, shape government wine policy, set grape prices and stabilize the world’s biggest wine economies through lean years and glut years alike. When all is said and done, the benefits that groups such as Italy’s cantine sociali, France’s caves coopératives and Germany’s winzergenossenschaft, among others, provide to value-oriented consumers are simply impossible to beat.
“Cooperation is a philosophy of life,” says Adriano Orsi of Fedagri-Confcooperative, Italy’s national co-op federation. The federation, which represents 30% of the country’s wine production, has 425 wineries and 141,000 members. “Unity creates special synergies that span the entire business model, from the person who picks the grapes to the person who buys the bottle,” says Orsi.
European co-ops were born in the mid-to late-1800s, thanks to prevailing political ideologies and sociological influences such as the Catholic Church. The formula is well adapted to areas with high labor costs and fragmented farming parcels. To this day, they remain a driving economic resource in the areas they represent.
For example, in Trentino, northern Italy, where 80% of the region’s wine is made by coops, the average family-owned vineyard plot is less than a single hectare. Such small family operations have virtually no chance of making an impact on their own. But, if they join forces with a few thousand of their closest neighbors under a single brand, it suddenly offers the volume to compete with historic market movers such as California’s Charles Shaw or Australia’s Yellow Tail.
Cavit, the market-moving Italian co-op with 4,500 growers and the biggest wine group in Trentino, has virtually invented the concept of vino italiano in the U.S. thanks to its popular Pinot Grigio brands, and now Prosecco.
However, in today’s menacing “too-big-to-fail” market realities, co-ops, many of which receive some degree of public financing, are changing gears in order to stay competitive. The sector is seeing four major trends.
Consolidation is creating an elite group of super co-ops that enjoy near-monopolies in certain areas. Cantina di Soave, for example, recently merged with numerous nearby co-ops and is a major powerhouse today in Soave and Valpolicella.
Co-ops are increasingly focused on growth through export. In fact, the most successful companies tend to be those with the highest percentage of product shipped abroad.
A new generation of co-ops is focused on regional identity and indigenous grapes. Because they represent large groups of farmers, co-ops can also be an important producer of sustainable energy through green initiatives.
Modern co-ops are undoing the image problems and communications blunders of the past to enhance their image through new brands. “The co-op model could become interesting in those regions of the New World where a similar extremely competitive market situation is making it difficult for some medium-scale producers to survive individually,” says Cantina di Soave Director General Bruno Trentini.
The following are profiles of important co-ops to watch in Italy, Spain, France and Austria. For a New-World spin on an Old-World model, we’ve included a note on consortiums in South Africa and Australia, whose wines are available in the U.S. They were chosen not by size or volume, but by the overall quality of the bottlings.
Freie Weingärtner Wachau
Under the brand name Domäne Wachau, the cooperative represents some of the best values from this famed region, as well as producing wines from the top vineyards.
88 Domäne Wachau 2010 Terrassen Riesling Federspiel (Wachau). Vin Divino.
abv: 12% Price: $20
Cave de Tain
In a modern winery brilliantly situated at the foot of the famed hill of Hermitage, grapes from Cave de Tain’s 330 growers are turned into some of the Northern Rhône’s finest values. Syrah is the star, from simple vin de pays to a luxury-level Hermitage named after the cooperative’s founder, and everything in between.
90 Cave de Tain 2009 Esprit de Granit (Saint-Joseph). Cognac One, LLC.
abv: 13.5% Price: $30
Centre Vinicole de la Champagne
Though the name seems bland (translated to “Wine Center of Champagne”), it’s the producer of Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne, among the five top-selling Champagne brands. Eighty individual cooperatives and 5,000 growers throughout Champagne are united in this massive operation.
85 Nicolas Feuillatte NV Blue Label Brut (Champagne). Ste Michelle Wine Estates.
abv: 12% Price: $36
This cooperative dominates its region, with 25% of Chablis production. Wines range from the big-production Chablis La Sereine to the flagship Château Grenouilles Grand Cru, made from a parcel within the Grenouilles Grand Cru.
88 La Chablisienne 2008 La Sereine (Chablis). Multiple U.S. Importers.
abv: 12.5% Price: $25
Les Vignerons d’Estézargues
With only 10 members, this small cave cooperative is such a throwback that it has become trendy, producing natural wines in concrete vats with no added yeasts, acids or enzymes. There’s no fining or filtration, and the only sulfur addition is a light one at bottling. Denis Deschamps makes wines brought in by such discerning boutique importers as Jenny and François Selections, Dan Kravitz (Hand Picked Selections) and Eric Solomon (European Cellars).
88 Les Vignerons d’Estézargues 2009 Les Grandes Vignes (Côtes du Rhône). Jenny and François Selections.
abv: 14% Price: $14
Created in 1913 and representing 250 local growers, Mont Tauch focuses on producing wines from AOP Fitou and Corbières as well as some vins de pays and Vin Doux Naturel. Their vignerons employ eco-friendly techniques and seek to practice agriculture raisonnée and sustainable development, and the wines are made using traditional methods coupled with the latest winemaking technology.
87 Mont Tauch 2007 Domaine St Roch (Fitou). Frank-Lin International.
abv: 13.5% Price: $17
The cooperative that rescued the Saint-Mont wine region from oblivion, Plaimont is by far the largest producer in the Gers region of France. Wines range from Côtes de Gascogne to Madiran.
86 Producteurs Plaimont 2010 Colombelle Blanc (Côtes de Gascogne). Winesellers Ltd. Best Buy.
abv: 11.5% Price: $9
Val d’Orbieu was created over 40 years ago by a handful of Languedoc winemakers. Based in Narbonne, it’s the largest still wine consortium in France, with more than 1,500 members divided among 11 wine cooperatives and 55 domaines and chateaus.Their wines hail from multiple AOPs including Corbières, Minervois, Saint Chinian and Faugères, with their Mythique line offering remarkable quality and unique identity.
86 Les Deux Rives 2010 Rosé (Corbières). Pasternak Wine Imports. Best Buy.
abv: 12.5% Price: $11
Vignerons Laudun Chusclan
Formerly two separate co-ops established in the neighboring villages of Laudun (1925) and Chusclan (1939), the two merged in 2008 with a total of 200 growers working 2,300 hectares (approximately 5,750 acres). Located on the less-traveled right bank of the Rhône in the Gard region, the focus is on the traditional Southern Rhône varieties of Grenache and Syrah, with smaller amounts of Mourvèdre, Carignan and Cinsault. In addition to wines under its own label, the co-op is an important supplier of wine to various négociants and importers for their private labels.
89 Laudun Chusclan 2007 Les Genets Chusclan (Côtes du Rhône Villages). Terra Firma USA, Inc.
abv: 14.5% Price: $17
Cantina di Santadi
Celebrating its 50th anniversary, Cantina di Santadi produces Sardinia’s iconic wine, Terre Brune Carignano del Sulcis. Thanks to its critical acclaim under the leadership of Giacomo Tachis, this 200-member co-op proves the winemaking potential of this often-unexplored Mediterranean island.
92 Agricola Punica 2007 Barrua Carignano (Isola dei Nuraghi).
abv: 14.5% Price: $60
Cantina di Soave
Founded in 1898, Cantina di Soave boasts 2,200 growers and 15,000 acres of vine spread across the regions of Soave and Valpolicella, closely identified with Amarone and ripasso wines. It controls 45% of all DOC Soave and 50% of DOC Valpolicella. The group has aggressively purchased all of the smaller co-ops in its vicinity and is gearing up for a major product launch in the U.S., thanks to a ramped-up distribution network.
90 Cantina di Soave 2006 Rocca Sveva (Amarone della Valpolicella). MW Imports.
abv: 14.5% Price: $60
Cantina La Vis
Based in Trento, Cantina La Vis is the model for many co-ops today. Founded in 1858, it became a co-op in 1948, then took a leadership role in the mid-1980s, increasing production quality while studying the terroir of each viticultural area. Today, it counts 1,500 members and 3,600 acres in Trentino and Alto Adige. Its primary grapes are Müller-Thurgau and Chardonnay. The group also runs two wineries in Tuscany: Villa Cafaggio and Poggio Morino.
91 La Vis 2007 Ritratti Merlot (Trentino). Ethica Wines. Editors’ Choice.
abv: 13% Price: $17
Cantina Produttori San Michele Appiano (St. Michael-Eppan)
One of a celebrated group of excellent coops from the far north of Italy (along with Cantina Terlano, Cantina Girlan and Colterenzio), this artisanal winery is representative of the quality and attention to detail characteristic of bilingual (German and Italian) Alto Adige. This co-op was founded in 1907 and has 350 members. It exports wines to more than 30 countries.
91 Cantina Produttori San Michele Appiano 2010 St. Valentin Sauvignon (Alto Adige). Martin Scott Wines.
abv: 14% Price: $38
Located in central Italy’s Abruzzo region, Cantina Tollo is a first-level co-op, where the farmers are also the owners of the company. It was founded in 1960 and has 980 members who farm more than 8,600 acres of vines. Its mission is to provide high-quality, traditional wines from Abruzzo, such as Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Trebbiano d’Abruzzo and Sangiovese Terre di Chieti at every price point.
88 Cantina Tollo 2010 Pecorino (Terre di Chieti). Zig Zagando.
abv: 13.5% Price: $19
Founded in 1904, Mezzacorona has 1,500 members that control 9,000 acres between Trentino, Alto Adige and Sicily. Its product is entirely estate produced and the co-op sees itself as a “private company made up of independent farmers.” Some 80% of the company’s 45 million bottles are exported annually. Mezzacorona is one of Italy’s fastest-growing wine companies.
92 Mezzacorona 2005 Nos Riserva (Teroldego Rotaliano). Prestige Wine Imports Corp.
abv: 13.5% Price: $35
Bodegas San Alejandro
In the province of Aragón, the leading red grape is Garnacha. The Bodegas San Alejandro co-op, located in the D.O. Calatayud and founded in 1962, is comprised of more than 350 farmers overseeing more than 1,000 hectares of vineyards. Headed by Yolanda Diaz, Bodegas San Alejandro produces two value-oriented brands that fans of robust red wines should consider: Las Rocas de San Alejandro and Evodia—the latter a specialty bottling made exclusively for the importer Eric Solomon of European Cellars.
88 Evodia 2010 Old Vines Garnacha (Calatayud). European Cellars. Best Buy.
abv: 15% Price: $9
The top wines of the 10-year-old D.O. Montsant in Catalonia hail from the Capçanes co-op, which was founded by five families in 1933 but now boasts 80 members farming some 250 hectares of Garnacha and other grapes, including Syrah. Capçanes’ importer Eric Solomon notes that there is more old vines Garnacha in the 400-person village of Capçanes than in all of neighboring Priorat. Overall, Capçanes’ wines are full in style, but balanced.
90 Capçanes 2007 Costers del Gravet (Montsant). European Cellars.
abv: 14% Price: $20
In Rías Baixas, home to the Albariño grape, the Martín Códax group was founded in 1986 by 50 families as a growers’ co-op and produces two excellent varietal Albariños: Martín Códax and Burgáns—the latter a specialty bottling made exclusively for the importer Eric Solomon of European Cellars. In total, Martín Códax is made up of 286 owners/growers in the Salnes region and takes grapes from an additional 280 growers under long-term contracts.
90 Martín Códax 2010 Albariño (Rías Baixas). Martín Códax USA. Best Buy.
abv: 13% Price: $15
Two from the New World
Though the co-op model was born in Europe, the winemaking model makes sense wherever there are many small parcels of vineyard land and no single producer can make a go of it alone. Here are two countries with commendable efforts.
Barossa Valley Estate
This group of 80 growers formed their cooperative in 1984, when times were tough in the Australian wine industry and the government was paying farmers to pull out their grapevines. The flagship bottling, the E&E Black Pepper Shiraz, ranks consistently among the best Barossa has to offer, while the entry-level wines provide solid value. After years of having Constellation Brands as a part-owner, the company is now wholly owned by the growers again. But that has also meant recent vintages have only been sporadically available in the U.S. Astute buyers will pick up well-stored back vintages of the E&E or Ebenezer Shirazes while waiting for the pipeline to fill again.
Established in 1918 andheadquartered in Paarl (the Western Cape region of South Africa), KWV sources wines and grapes from the country’s top wineproducing regions. The co-op is known internationally for quality value brands such as KWV Wines, Roodeberg, Laborie, Golden Kaan, Cathedral Cellar, Café Culture and the KWV line of brandies.
86 KWV 2010 Sauvignon Blanc (Western Cape). Opici Wines. Best Buy.
abv: 12.5% Price: $11