Great value wines – the Co-ops

Cave de Tain winemaker Olivier Ciosi
Cave de Tain winemaker Olivier Ciosi

For someone who grew up in California and spent a certain amount of time in Berkeley, the word “co-op” always had that granola cache for me – one shopped at a cooperative to serve the higher purpose of helping the members, not necessarily for finding quality.  In Europe, where the majority of vines are tended by small growers, cooperatives are an economic necessity and an important part of the industry business structure.   In France and Italy, coops represent more than 50% of production, in Germany about 1/3 and in Spain over 2/3 rd’s (although for the latter you would rarely see much of it bottled).  Coops produce mainly inexpensive fresh, fruity everyday wines, but their quality can range from generic to “grand cru” depending on the wine region and member vineyard holdings.   The best coops are modern, commercial operations with very talented winemakers.  You are probably enjoying these great value coop wines right now but don’t realize it. 

One of the best sources of cooperative wines come from France.  When I first tasted La Chablisienne Chablis years ago, I did not recognize it as a coop producer because of the high quality and selection of Premier and Grands Cru wines.  But it represents fully a quarter of Chablis vineyard area as well as production.  In nearby Champagne, about 40% of the grapes pressed are from coop members, but half the juice finds it way to one of the big Champagne Houses rather than being made as a coop label.  In Burgundy, coops play a big role in the southern Maconnais and Cote Chalonnaise regions, where they produce basic white and red Burgundy and white Macon, Macon-Villages and Montagny, to name a few classic labels you will find at retail.  These are great everyday values of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines.  My favorite coop from Burgundy is Cave de Buxy in the Cote Chalonnaise.  In the Rhone Valley, coops represent 2/3 rd’s of basic Cotes du Rhone production.  Cave de Tain in the northern Rhone produces mainly CdR wines (70%), but makes “cru” wines of notable value  from Hermitage, Cornas, Crozes-Hermitage and St. Joseph.  Cave de Tain is in fact the largest producer of northern Rhone crus representing 55% of total production and is also the largest producer of syrah appellation wines.  Vignerons de Caractere in the southern cru of Vacqueyras makes CdR and Vacqueyras appellation wines based on grenache and syrah.  Wine Spectator included three of Vignerons de Caractere’s wines in “10 Excellent Values under $20” in April.  In France, cooperatives are called caves cooperatives, but you won’t find it prominantly on the front label.  The words “cave” or “vignerons” (i.e. winemakers – in the plural) can be clues that the producer is a coop.

In Italy, you will find coops from the northeastern Friuli-Veneto-Alto Adige region – producing a lot of the pinot grigio wines we consume here –  to southern Sicily, where they make up about 75% of production.  Cavit, which makes one of the most popular pinot grigio sold in the US, is a cooperative.  In Italy, coops are called “cantina sociali”, such as in Cantina Valle Isarco of Alto Adige.

In Germany, coops represent 1/3 of production with over 75% coming from the largest regions of Baden and Wurttemberg in the south.  In Germany, coops are called “winzerverein” as in Winzerverein Deidesheim in the Rheingau.

As I have tasted more of these wines and visited these coops, I  have come to appreciate the skill necessary to make a consistently good wine from a wide diversity of growers and “climats”, and to do it cost-effectively.   In good economic times or not, these great value wines will always have a place at the table.