Cooperative wineries in Italy and France have typically received a bad rap. They have been blamed for wine lakes in many regions, but that in itself is more of a chicken and egg argument. Regardless, if the cooperatives were simply a reaction to the realities of the industry or actually did in fact set negative trends in motion, is besides the point. The truth is that there are positive and negative examples of them, just as there are for small independent wineries. For the purposes of this article we will look at the socioeconomic and political climates that triggered the need for cooperatives as well as the past and current outcomes of these efforts.
The first argument against cooperatives is that they do not encourage quality. The story goes that the vineyard owners would get paid by either weight or maybe sugar content. Thus, the incentive was never about complexity, flavor profile or even health of the vines. In the battle between quality vs. quantity, one side clearly rose above. This was particularly true since the farmer didn’t often deal with the wine past the dropping of the grapes; no different than growing corn or apples.
This was encouraged from both the extreme right and left wing political takeovers that controlled Europe through the last century. Fascism in Italy and Spain encouraged this. It showed industrial progress. This was mathematically efficient and streamlined. Meanwhile, in the Communist East, there soon came to be one single government operated cooperative, designed to fill the thirsts of the masses and bound by Moscow quotas.
Even in cooperatives that have been outside of these political initiatives, forces did not encourage excellence in the organoleptic arena. Another style of cooperative was a central location for producing the wine. The farmer would deliver the grapes and get the same amount of finished wine back. However, rather than the modern and trendy custom-crush facilities currently in California, these would often just make a huge batch of wine and the wine returned was someone else’s in origin or most likely a mix of everyone grapes. This is a phenomenon in both better known appellations, such Rhone and Valpolicella and also areas still known for bulk production.
However, there are many exceptions to this. Produttori Del Barbaresco is the most obvious example. They are loved by everyone. Both the bald steakhouse sommeliers love it and the natural bistro crowd calls it a classic. They can be seen as a value of the month or on a fancy wine list. Trentino Alto Adige has some fantastic cooperatives that host a diverse array of both international brands and top-tier ageable wines. Alsace is filled with cooperatives making ranges of wines. In Champagne, Nicolas Feuillatte is a well known producer that is actually a large cooperative. In cheese production from Parmigiano-Reggiano to Vermont Cheddar there are examples of excellence coming from cooperatives. This is of particular interest since in the wine world we tend to rate, and teach about regions based on the best examples. If this was not the case Bordeaux and Rhone would not be taught as fine wine regions; Bordeaux being basically a secret bulk-wine producer.
Lambrusco has had a tumultuous commercial past. The revivalists that are often natural, small and bordering on anarchistic in image, often have few positive things to say about the cooperatives. To them the cooperatives symbolize the Amabile, the sweet simple Lambrusco sold throughout the world.
It symbolizes the bargain bin priced Lambrusco, pulling down not just the image, but capping the price-ceiling on the entire region. Regardless of quality, this image has prevented Lambrusco producers from being in the same pricepoint as a Loire Valley sparkling red wine in NYC. These guys have been the biggest advocates for returning Lambrusco to fine wine shops, and they will directly blame Reunite for destroying their image.
Many of these notions are categorically true in many aspects. Some parts are just a by product of the geographic possibilities of Emilia. Modena and Emilia-Romagna in general are split between the Apennine mountain range (textbook fine wine terroir) and some of the flattest land in Italy. This flatland makes Emilia the breadbasket of mainland Italy, but when vines land on this bountiful fertility, it produces quantity at the expense of complexity. Combined with a bit of countryside mentality of farmers who still grow the vines as just another crop alongside cherries and grains, quantity is king.
This duality is the classic problem that the inhabitants of Piesport in Germany will grumble on about. They will remind you that the Piesporter Goldtröpfchen is a super steep vineyard site with little resemblance to the flat lands across the river using the Piesporter Michelsberg name. These two geographically close wine areas are undoubtedly on diverse ends of the quality spectrum, resulting in justified confusion on the consumer side and obvious market effects.
With that said, the takeaway from all this should not be that the Lambrusco coming from flat areas is bad either. Far from it! There are countless stories of Lambrusco growing families that would sell the crop to the cooperative, except for a small amount, made at home for personal production in the quality driven natural style. Fondo Bozzole is a perfect example of this, until they turned around and started keeping the entire production.
Many Italians have called this phenomenon a national marketing failure of sorts. A trend where they maintained a strict code of quality and tradition in the home, but the production destined for international shores has almost nothing in common.
How did I get here?
When I got to Bologna, I started tasting a mind bogglingly, vast array of Lambrusco. The range is seemingly endless; encompassing huge conglomerates of cooperatives to tiny, barely commercial productions. The methods of secondary fermentation touch seemingly every option: Charmat, Champenoise, and Ancestral, both Petillant-natural style or through added must. These can result in clean spumante, or gritty slightly fizzy wines. It is also hard to learn about Lambrusco since the extraction times of each producer can be different, but also the clones of Lambrusco have a very different pigmentation.
I ended up getting this wine called “Omaggio a Gino Friedmann”. It had an old classic looking label and some bottlings were cage corked and others were string tied. I ended up giving the wine away as a gift since the presentation was so on point.
This cuvee was originally made for their 90th anniversary in 2013. They have since continued making it. Reading the website information, it revealed that this was a wine started for an anniversary of the cantina, made in a historical example, dry and lightly frizzante. The label was also from their archives. It is named after Gino Friedmann, a driving force of what would become the current cantina. With experience in the cooperative model in the dairy industry among other sectors, Gino saw a cooperative as a way of helping others and ensuring quality for the share croppers that make up the region. This led him to working within the farming assemblies and even becoming Mayor of Nonantola, near Modena. However, later into the fascist period with the introduction of the racial laws in Italy, he was forced to step down. A disgusting event for anyone, let alone Friedmann whose family had been in the Modena region since the 18th century and had devoted his life to the area. He persevered, even taking in Jewish youth refugees fleeing from the Nazi expanse. The Nazis ultimate occupation of Italy forced him to flee from Italy. He was lucky enough to have the aide of two Catholic priests that helped make this possible. After the war and carnage taken upon the land and its inhabitants, Friedmann came back to Modena, ultimately resuming his role with the cantina.
Upon discovering the style of the wine and its inspiration, I had to seek it out again. Recently, at Enologica, a fantastic event of the wines of Emilia Romagna, in the historic Palazzo Re Enzo smack dab in Piazza Maggiore in Bologna, I was able to retaste the homage. It has a light rose color typical of the Sorbara grape. Soft and clean, but complex carried by a dry texture. It is really a fantastic example of Lambrusco. They had a few different labels that I regret not taking more notes on. These are really worth seeking out. They represent a future of Lambrusco that makes sense for the majority of the grape growers of Modena and also for the modern wine consumer.
In my Instagram post back when I went to Enologica, I said it could become the “Produttori Del Barbaresco” of Modena. I hope it does.
Cantina di Carpi e Sorbara. Lambrusco di Sorbara “Omaggio a Gino Friedmann” The story of a wine. 2016. Print. This book was gifted to me at Enologica, November 2016.