With a renewed emphasis on quality not quantity, Italy's cooperatives have been forced to review their output. NICOLAS BELFRAGE picks the winners

With a renewed emphasis on quality not quantity, Italy’s cooperatives have been forced to review their output. NICOLAS BELFRAGE picks the winners

IN the beginning the wine-growers’ cooperative seemed like an excellent idea. It offered farmers large or small, specialised or diversified, full- or part-time, the chance to concentrate on viticulture, while providing the equipment and organisation to vinify and commercialise the product, and guaranteeing them a decent return on their grapes.

In the 1950s, 1960s and into the 1970s, on the whole it worked well, especially when you added up all the handouts and tax advantages successive governments were only too happy to throw the coops’ way in exchange for votes. Indeed, many coops were politically affiliated to a specific party – communist, socialist or, less often, Christian democrat.

A shaky start

These were the days of quantity before quality, when Italians managed to imbibe 130 litres of wine per capita per annum – approximately double the present amount; when practically any old plonk, provided, one hoped, it wasn’t downright faulty, could find a market. And if you could squeeze 200 quintals (1 quintal = 100 kilos) out of a hectare you were doing four times as well as if you could manage only 50, give or take a lira or two for sugar content.

But then the market began to change. Consumers began drinking less but better wine and private producers, noting the trend, began pushing up quality. As a result, despite low prices, industrial plonk went into what was to prove a quasi-terminal slump. The choice for the coop was threefold: go out of business; tread water for as long as possible; or recognise the exigencies of the market as it was, not as it had been.

Certain cooperatives succeeded in this better than others and interestingly, though ultimately not surprisingly, certain regions proved much more dynamic and efficient than others.

The best tended to be in the north of Italy, and the worst, predictably, in the south, although even here there were – and still are – some shining exceptions.

Generally, what the enlightened coops were able to grasp that the others were not was the fact that the cantina sociale (Italian for coop) is in a unique position to compartmentalise production. Where there are, say, 500ha (hectares) of vineyard to choose from, it makes sense to select only the best sites, best exposures, best grapes, best cuvées and best equipment to make the best wines, while the second selection, and perhaps the third, should be able to compete easily in the value-for-money stakes in their respective price brackets.

North & central

It is Alto Adige in the teutonic north that has produced the most impressive number of outstanding coops. St Michael at Appiano, with its director/winemaker Hans Terzer, is becoming famous not only in Italy but around the world for the high quality of its white crus under the St Valentin or Schulthauser labels.

Equally famous in the red department, though also having some excellent whites, is Colterenzio at Cornaiano, under the Cornelius or Cornell labels. Other Tyrolean coops successfully operating a tiered quality system are those at Andriano, Gries, Bolzano (Santa Maddalena), Caldaro (both Cantina Viticoltori di Caldaro and CS Prima & Nuova), Terlano and Termeno.

The cooperative scene in Trentino is dominated by the giant Cavit, fine in the middle range but not strong at the top end. Other good ones in this region often overshadowed by its Germanic neighbour to the north are Lavis, with its Ritratti range, and Mezza Corona. An emerging star is the cooperative at Avio.

Over in Piedmont there are several good-to-excellent coops, none more so, nor more illustrious in the world of wine, than Produttori del Barbaresco, under the aegis of Aldo Vacca. Produttori’s soci have vineyards in some of Barbaresco’s finest crus and have consistently been in the forefront of quality production in this tiny DOCG zone. Perhaps Piedmont’s most go-ahead coop is Araldica Vini Piemontesi, under Claudio Manera. Its Poderi Alasia range, including the outstanding Barbera Rive, illustrates precisely what can be done with canny site selection and grape handling. The coops at Nizza Monferrato and Vinchio e Vaglio Serra also make very good Barberas from old vineyards, though perhaps they could still do better with the wonderful fruit at their disposal.

The coop scene in Veneto is dominated by the enormous CS Soave which, under director Franco Roncador, has striven to improve quality but has never quite been able to keep up with such excellent growers as Pieropan at the top end. A similar statement could be made about the CS Valpolicella at Negrar, though its Domini Veneti range can be admirable.

Central Italy has fewer top-quality cooperatives than the north. In Tuscany, where coops are not strong, one of the best is Cantina Leonardo at Vinci, under the oenological care of Alberto Antonini. In Chianti Classico both Chianti Geografico and Grevepesa do a good – but rarely inspiring – job. In Umbria and Latium, emerging coops tend to be under the tutelage of star oenologist Riccardo Cotarella. These include Colli Amerini and Cardeto in Umbria, and Cerveteri in Latium.

East & south

The east coast, the Marches, and especially Abruzzo, are fairly heavily populated with coops, Cupramontana and Moncaro being among the best from the Marches, while in Abruzzo the massive Tollo and smaller Roxan are unusually good at the higher end.

It might be thought that the coops’ ability to milk money from various governments would suit the Mezzogiorno admirably, and indeed there is a great number of them, mostly of the almost out-of-business or treading-water type.

Exceptions exist, however. Cantina del Taburno in Campania, with Professor Luigi Moio as consultant oenologist, is a leading light, while Santadi in Sardinia is one of the two or three best producers on the island. In Sicily the most successful in upgrading itself has been Settesoli, under the leadership of Diego Planeta and the consultancy of Carlo Corino.

For those Italian cooperatives that have understood the challenge of the 21st century, the future seems assured. For the rest, the way things are going, sooner or later it’s going to be curtains.

Written by Nicolas Belfrage