Co-operatives prove that small can be beautiful
Growing grapes for wine is much like any other branch of fruit farming. You choose your vines from the spectrum of varieties known as vitis vinifera, and plant them in the same way an orchardman plants trees, neatly in rows. You wait a few years for them to become productive, prune and train them as necessary along the way, and keep the land free of weeds and pests.
But while the harvests of orchards can simply be collected and marketed, the small-scale wine-grape grower is faced with a critical choice. Do you sell your crop to a wine producer, or make the wine yourself?
The value of grapes, sadly, represents only a modest fraction of the price of a bottle of wine. European growers can be lucky to get as much as one euro for the kilo of fruit it takes to make a bottle. Only in regions where supply is limited and the wine attracts a price premium, such as in Bordeaux and Champagne in France, can a grower expect to sell grapes at a realistic margin. In humbler locations, added value is vital.
Making wine is expensive. The cost of establishing a vineyard in a recognised winemaking region is scary enough. Building, equipping and operating a winery is an enormous commitment. The old joke holds true: How do you make a small fortune out of making wine? Answer: Start with a large fortune.
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For small-scale grape farmers there is, happily, a compromise. You join a co-operative. It's an association of growers who pool their harvests and share the cost of making and marketing their wine. Co-operatives of this kind account for as many as a thousand wine enterprises in France, and in Italy, and hundreds in Germany, Spain and Portugal.
"Wine growers with small plots lack the resources to build wineries and invest in technology and marketing," says Master of Wine Sebastian Payne. "But put enough small growers together and they can. In certain regions the blending of wines from different areas can result in a wine that is greater than the sum of its parts."
Sebastian is a wine buyer for the Wine Society, itself a co-operative venture founded in London in 1874 and owned by more than 100,000 enthusiastic members today. Naturally enough, he is a keen supporter of enterprises that share the society's mutual aims, and he has lately offered members a specially selected range of wines from no fewer than 17 co-operatives across the world.
"Of course, we chose the wines because they are very good and are fairly priced," he says, and not merely because they were co-op-produced. But the point is made that co-operatives can be the source of some very good wines indeed.
Members of the Wine Society should know that the present offer, which includes four mixed cases of the wines at extra discount, ends today. Look online for details. I have tried a couple of the wines and can certainly commend them.
Poggio del Sasso Sangiovese di Toscana 2011 at £6.95 is from the Cantina di Montalcino, the one co-operative of the fabled hill-town of Montalcino in Italy's Tuscany region. It's a fresh, elegantly weighted red wine in the Chianti style (the Sangiovese is the Chianti grape), with cherry perfume, blackberry bounce and a luxurious hint of creaminess.
The Cantina (as co-ops are known in Italy) has 100 members, between them cultivating about 400 acres of vineyards. Their main business is making Brunello di Montalcino, a sort of super-Chianti, and one of Italy's most prestigious (and expensive) red wines. This "everyday" wine, at a quarter of the price of Brunello, is a signpost to just how good this co-op is.
Also in the Wine Society's range (and special offer) is Adega de Moncão Vinho Verde 2011 at £5.95. Made by the co-op (adega cooperativa in Portuguese) at the rural town of Moncão on the banks of the Minho river near Portugal's northern frontier with Spain, this is a delightfully fresh example of the region's celebrated "green wine" (vinho verde). There is a pleasing effervescent prickle in this lemony refresher, with a well-judged trace of sweetness to soften the greenness of the acidity.
The Adega de Moncão is one of Portugal's best-rated co-ops, with about 1,600 members cultivating a bit under 2,500 acres. The average member's vineyard is therefore only about an acre and a half. I think the homeliness of this state of affairs actually adds to the appeal of this charming, well-made and very keenly priced wine.
Joining the Wine Society is straightforward. You buy a share at £40 and become a member for life. Look online for details of a current offer of £10 off new members' first purchase.