By the glass

Growing success for the cooperatives

Pooling resources yields quality wine

(Stephen Meuse for The Boston Globe)
By Stephen Meuse
Globe Correspondent / February 23, 2011

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On those occasions when casual wine drinkers give a thought to the source of what’s in their glass, they’re likely to conjure up visions of a picturesque chateau, where multiple generations of a family tend vines, press the vintage, and bottle wine.

Some is made this way, of course, but historically even a brilliantly sited vineyard often represented no more than a portion of a rural family’s income. And it was too little to justify the investment required to equip a crush facility and store inventory. Small holders often received little for their perishable crop and never saw a share of the markups enjoyed by brokers and exporters.

When a series of economic crises in late 19th- and early 20th-century Europe threatened to wipe out small growers, an alternative approach emerged in the form of the growers’ cooperative. In this system, small holders take production and marketing into their own hands: pooling resources, sharing infrastructure, making, maturing, bottling, and distributing under a single label (or labels), and reinvesting a portion of the profit. The movement has commutarian overtones that reach far back into European history (one reason, perhaps, why they’ve never been important in the United States). Today, more than half of all French and 60 percent of Italian wines have their source in a cooperative. Spain boasts more than 1,000 of these regional organizations and Portugal around 300. A co-op may have hundreds of members or just a few families.

At Ideal Wine and Spirits, a Medford-based importer and distributor, the percentage of inventory devoted to cooperative wine is larger than average. Martin Connealy says his company realized years ago that co-ops in the top appellations often have the best vineyard sites and are motivated to retain those quality-oriented growers who would be perfectly capable of thriving on their own. “Co-op quality is up over the past 20 years,’’ he says, “with poor performers having either folded or merged with more successful organizations.’’

In a recent newsletter, Kerri Platt, owner of the North End’s cozy Wine Bottega, wrote that some of today’s most compelling wines are cooperative. “The wines we enjoy most have a story to tell,’’ she says. “It’s a way to experience a place, a people, and a history.’’

By itself, cooperative production doesn’t guarantee better wine. Nonetheless, cooperatives that combine well-situated vineyards with limited yields and conscientious field management produce the kind of consistently drinkable bottles that reward the discerning consumer.

Cave de Saumur “Les Pouches’’ Saumur Blanc 2009 Fresh, if neutral, aromas; softish apple-pear flavor profile. Some modest minerality adds interest. Simple, refreshing, versatile little wine. Around $12. At The Wine Bottega, North End, 617-227-6607; Joppa Fine Foods, Newburyport, 978-462-4662; Cambridge Wine & Spirits, 617-864-7171.

Colterenzio Alto Adige “Altkirch’’ Chardonnay 2009 Lemony, somewhat candied aromas. Fruit veers toward the tropical; cushy feel, but brisk, trim, and appetizing nonetheless. Trace of fizz quickly dissipates. Around $14. At Vintages, Belmont, 617-484-4560; Last National Wine Co., Acton, 978-897-5511; Amherst Wines & Spirits, 413-549-0900.

La Chablisienne Petit Chablis 2009 Pleasing stony aromas; fine fresh acidity and some authentically alluring, if modest, Burgundian character. The Chablis version of a gateway drug. Around $17. At Busa Wine & Spirits, Lexington, 781-862-1400; Blanchards Wines & Spirits, Jamaica Plain, 617-522-9300; Nine East Wine Emporium, Natick, 508-653-6221.

Copertino Riserva 2003 Curiously appealing little red from the heel of Italy’s boot. Five years in barrel mean 2003 is the current release. You wouldn’t guess a wine from a hot region made in a cruelly hot vintage could fly. True, the rich black fruit does have a roasted quality and those tarry notes may be an acquired taste, but over the years this has become more than a sentimental favorite with us. Around $16. At South End Formaggio, 617-350-6996; Whole Foods, River St., Cambridge, 617-876-6990; The Wine Bottega.

Celler de Capcanes “Mas Donis’’ Monsant 2007 Appealingly juicy mouthful of ripe, red fruits. Blend of fleshy grenache (85 percent) and sturdy syrah (15 percent) comes together seamlessly. Some sporty acidity and chewy tannins make this an obvious choice for pizza, burger, or burrito night. Sipped it alongside long-braised pork to very happy effect. Around $13. At Vintages, West Concord, 978-369-2545; Solera, Roslindale, 617-469-4005; Esprit du Vin, Milton, 617-296-9463.

Produttori del Barbaresco Langhe Nebbiolo 2009 Wholly charming melange of sweet black cherry fruit, clean loamy earth, and something faintly reminiscent of soy sauce. The texture is silky, the acidity brisk, and the overall impression borders on the elegant. Quest in vain for more at the price. Around $20. At Crossroads Wine & Spirits, Burlington, 781-273-3400; Marty’s Fine Wine, Newton, 617-332-1230; Vintages, Belmont.

Stephen Meuse can be reached at