I HAVE a rack at home of odd bottles that I have been given, and, recently, on a hot summer evening, I plucked out a bottle of Blason de Bourgogne Macon Villages. Its crisp freshness and vibrant fruit were just what I was looking for. This wine had been bottled at the Co-operative cellar in Prissé.
Not too long ago, wines produced by co-operative cellars were considered to be the lowest of the low; they were the source of the ubiquitous six étoiles litre bottles of vin ordinaire that provided house wine for most restaurants. Fortunately, matters have improved considerably, and there is no stigma to a wine produced by a co-op.
It is difficult to imagine how significant is the importance of the part played by these cellars in the current wine world. For example, more than 60 per cent of all Champagne sold has passed, at some stage, through a co-operative cellar, whether as juice, wine, unlabelled bottles, or under a co-op-owned brand.
Many of the greatest wines from the Midi, often fashioned by flying winemakers from down under, come from the cellars that used to sell their wines just by their alcoholic degree. Even the patrician wine region of Bordeaux has its co-ops.
In some regions, these cellars play a leading part. Alsace is a good example. I have a bottle of Sainsbury’s Gewürztraminer 2017 from the cellar at Turckheim (£8), waiting to be partnered with an Ogen melon. I can also recommend the dry Riesling Kleinfels 2016 from the Beblenheim co-op (Waitrose, £10.99) to go with your poached salmon. From further south, I can suggest Coteaux Varois 2018 from Le Cellier de St Louis (Morrison’s, £8).
While it is the French co-operative cellars that might have the longest history, it is interesting to see that elsewhere their importance varies considerably. In Spain and Germany, they have a significant part to play; I will always remember standing watching the bottling line at Breisach in Baden, which is one of the fastest in the world. (It should be said that I have seen plenty of bottling lines over the years. My best moment was when a group of us visited the Gallo production plant at Modesto, in California, where they say that their line is the world’s number one. It probably is, but when it jams, as it did on this occasion, there is an almighty mess of wine and broken glass.)
In the new-world wine world, co-operative cellars do not generally play an important part. The two main exceptions are South Africa and Brazil. From the former, many of the Fairtrade wines that we see on our shelves are produced in co-operative cellars. In the latter, by far the largest wine producer is the Co-operativa Vinícola Aurora, which groups together 1300 growers, and whose cellars receive 120,000 visitors each year.
Although I went into exile more than 50 years ago, I am still proud of my Lancastrian roots and the fact that the co-operative movement started in the Toad Lane Store, Rochdale, in 1844. From there, it has spread far and wide, and filled many enjoyable wine glasses.