They say that there is strength in numbers, which may explain why wine cooperatives tend to emerge during periods of crisis, when individual winegrowers are practically powerless to defend themselves and only collective action holds hope.
The cooperative in Caramany, the Vignerons de Caramany, was founded in 1924 in response to the Phylloxera crisis. It experienced ups and downs in the century that followed and seems to be thriving today — a good sign for Caramany and for French cooperatives generally.
Strength in Numbers
Caramany is a village of 150 inhabitants in the Pyrénées-Orientales scenic L’Agly valley in Roussillon. It has its own appellation: Côtes du Roussillon Village Caramany. The cooperative has 50 members, some of them quite small holders, growing mainly Carignan, Grenache and Syrah.
We were in Caramany to learn about its cooperative and its wines during our recent press tour to Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Loire Valley. Cooperatives were on our radar because they are very important in all these regions as they are in Europe generally. Cooperatives produce about 70% of all wine in Languedoc, for example, making their success critically important to the wine industry.
You sometimes have to look closely at a wine label to know that a cooperative has made the wine — seeing Caves Coopérative for a French wine or Cantina Sociale Cooperativa for an Italian one is a sure indicator, but sometimes the link isn’t clear, especially if the wine is sold through a negociant or, as is increasingly the case, made for a private label customer such as a supermarket.
Invisible but Important
According to the latest edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine, cooperatives probably account for more than half of all the wine produced in the big three Old World wine countries: France, Italy, and Spain. These “invisible wineries,” as I have called them, are one of the most under-appreciated elements of the global wine market despite the commercial success of some of the wines. One of the top-selling Prosecco wines on today’s market — La Marca — is produced by a second-level cooperative — a cooperative of cooperatives.
Some Italian cooperatives — I am thinking Alto Adige and Piemonte in particular — are know for their high quality. But cooperatives in the south of France have the opposite reputation, which they continue to battle to change. It is easier to produce new, better wines that a new reputation.
The Vignerons of Caramany impressed us with their commitment to making delicious, market-friendly wines, which we sampled while eating a Catalan barbeque lunch that included snails grilled over live coals, grilled meats (including delicious blood sausage), and a variety of salads. One wine (see top photo) was a tribute to the past, but others looked to the future.
The Reserve Rouge Carmin, for example, is a blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Carignan (the Carignan was vinified with carbonic maceration while the Grenache and Syrah use conventional methods) that was one of my favorites. Delicious with the food we were served and impressive generally. Its packaging is modern and appealing and it sells for a premium price — about 8 to 10 euro, as I recall, which is impressive for a wine from this region.
There were wines from other cooperatives at the lunch and they were also noteworthy. The Rivesaltes Ambré from the Vignerons de Trémoine is a terrific sweet wine that I could sip all day.
Sleep No More
So what has changed to make these cooperatives (and many others that we learned about) so different from the stereotype of sleepy, inefficient (and sometimes not very clean) cooperative cellars? Well, it isn’t that the cooperatives have simply become stronger — more strength through more numbers — because that’s not the recent trend. Cooperatives seem to be under attack to a certain extent, with the next generation of winegrowers looking beyond old practices to new market opportunities. An association of independent producers has been formed in Languedoc, providing a different sort of strength in numbers through collective marketing not production investment.
Some of the new independent projects are inspired, I was told, by Department 66, a wine project initiated by Dave Phinney and located in the Maury appellation of Roussillon. Its Grenache, Syrah, Carignan blend D66 wine sells for $38, which is a super-premium price for this region. A special old vines Grenache-Syrah blend received a 95-point score from Robert Parker and retails for $175. That would sure get my attention.
More than anything I think it has been competition that has stirred French cooperatives to raise their game — competition in the retail market and also competition between and among the cooperatives for the declining group of potential grower-members. Competition is disruptive but has obviously been a good thing and the results are clear when you consider the achievements of a relatively small cooperative in a tiny appellation such as the Vignerons de Caramany.
If other cooperatives are moving in the same direction as the ones we learned about on this trip. then the future of the “invisible wineries” is bright.
Thanks to everyone we met on our trip to France and to the wine regions of Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Loire for hosting us.