Good old cooperatives – the source of most value wine made in Europe. Ask any supermarket buyer: the shelves would look ragged without them. What a shame they can’t do fine wine too.
Or can they? La Chablisienne in Chablis and Cave de Tain in the northern Rhône compete squarely with individual growers; Plaimont has fine-wine offerings from the southwest; and who wouldn’t enjoy a glass of blanc de blancs grand cru Champagne from Le Mesnil?
Alto Adige’s Cantina Terlano and Valle Isarco provide some of Italy’s finest whites, while Barbaresco’s Produttori and the Wachau’s Domäne Wachau both furnish a suite of regional benchmarks. I’ve been amazed, recently, by the elegantly bottled, acacia barrel-aged Acaciae Picpoul de Pinet from Cave de l’Ormarine: creating a fine-wine category where none of us previously dreamed one might exist.
It’s in northwest Italy though, in Barolo, that the deepest shifts might be underway. Terre del Barolo is a 63-year-old cooperative with 300 members and about 580ha of vineyards. ‘When the winery was born,’ its creative strategist Gabriele Oderda told me recently, ‘the concept of “cru” didn’t even exist in Barolo.’ Now it’s everything. The meticulous work of cartographer Alessandro Masnaghetti, combined with an explosion of interest from producers and consumers alike, has turned a high-quality but seemingly homogenous DOCG into a tendril- clustered labyrinth of soil, slope and site differences. This has had two particular consequences: Terre del Barolo members clamoured to be able to explore and express their own sublime nooks and crannies; and those running the cooperative realised they owned a jewel box full of glittering vineyard treasures.
A new venture for Terre del Barolo
It needed a new approach, a single-vineyard venture named after the cooperative’s founder Arnaldo Rivera, a former mayor of Castiglione Falletto. There had to be a new cellar, new equipment, new storage vessels, a new quality charter for those involved, and a challenging plethora of separate ferments (65 and counting).
It’s taken time (the idea came about in 2008, but the full range of wines continues to form and evolve). I tasted the initial 2013 releases, and have recently tasted the bottlings from both 2016 and 2017. These include great wines that I would love to own and cellar, including the fleshy, alluring Bussia 2016 and 2017 from Monforte, the refined and gracious Monvigliero 2017 from Verduno, and the arresting intensity and energy of the Vignaronda 2016 (one of only 10 holdings of this venerated vineyard) in Serralunga.
It includes rarities, too, such as Castello in Grinzane Cavour (pictured above), and wines made from the rare Pelaverga variety (planted only in Verduno) and the white Nascetta. In the future there will be a Cannubi planted with 73-year-old vines, and a wine from Bricco Pernice in the Novello portion of the Ravera cru.
I questioned ArnaldoRivera director Stefano Pesci. Why, first, do growers stick with the cooperative when they could make more money by selling wine from their top sites in other ways?
‘For some people, money isn’t all that matters,’ he says. ‘The Cannubi, for example, is owned by a family that used to help run the cellar. When they discovered the ArnaldoRivera programme, they wanted to come back. As for other growers… our Vignaronda grower has less prestigious vineyards, too. They see the bigger picture.’
Might ArnaldoRivera wines eventually compete with the region’s very greatest bottlings? ‘Actually, we are not trying to make the “best wine” – we just want the expression of this cru in this vintage,’ Pesci says. ‘That’s why we try to make everything in the same way, and as naturally as possible, without any additions. If it’s the best, then okay! But the most important thing is the true expression.’
ArnaldoRivera is a new start for the wine world: fine wine from the bottom up, and not (as so often) from the top down. The range is very good now. It could be great by 2030. No one else in Barolo has a treasure box quite like this.