Group-growing grows up

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Indy Lifestyle Online

If you see "mise en bouteille à la propriété" on a label marked Château Superbe or Domaine Splendide, your wine is likely to have come from a wine co-operative.

If you see "mise en bouteille à la propriété" on a label marked Château Superbe or Domaine Splendide, your wine is likely to have come from a wine co-operative. This is just one of the anomalies that don't do co-ops any favours. In the time-honoured system, they pay members by the weight of their grapes, feeding a collective gluttony for fast, big bucks. So it's not entirely surprising that their members are deserting these anachronistic bodies in droves to set up on their own.

The co-operative movement stems from an era when growers were forced to band together to flex their collective muscle in the face of big merchant companies. Co-ops dominate production in regions where grape prices are low, hence their importance in southern European wine regions like the Languedoc-Roussillon, Sicily and La Mancha. The 1,000-odd co-operatives in both France and Spain, for instance, still account for the lion's share of each country's production of plonk.

Now co-operatives are finally facing up to the fact that they must adapt to the modern competitive market if they're to keep their best growers. The dinosaur is getting a makeover. Almost every European wine region now has examples of modernising co-ops that involve members in a variety of incentive-linked schemes aimed at quality wine. Some have not only cleaned up their winemaking act, but made genuine efforts to train growers in vineyard management and winemaking and, equally important these days, in marketing.

In central Europe, the input of the ponytail-wearing, Aussie, flying winemaker laid the groundwork for Hungary's Hilltop to develop its popular, affordable Riverview brand. Italy's La Vis co-op in Trentino offers 800 members incentives for quality. Take the handful of growers whose grapes go into superb wines like the 2002 Bianco del Sorni, £10.49, Eurowines, 020-8747 2100. They get paid by the hectare, not the weight. And Austria's Freie Weingärtner Wachau has introduced the country's underrated grape variety, grüner veltliner, into the UK with wines such as the peppery, juicy 2002 Domäne Wachau Grüner Veltliner, Smaragd Achleiten Weissenkirchen, £9.99, Safeway (selected stores).

Among a host of improving co-operatives in France, the Cave de Turckheim makes Alsace wines to an impressive standard, among them the gloriously rich and honeyed Tokay Pinot Gris Grand Cru Brand, £12.99, Thresher, Wine Rack. From the boar-rich hills of the Languedoc, Mont Tauch's range of Fitou wines is exemplary - it makes a point of rewarding its 350 members for quality, and investing not just in winery hardware, but classifying the best soils. Mont Tauch's top-of-the-range Fitou L'Exception, Majestic, Tesco, £9.99, is an aptly named, satisfying, spice-laden red with peppery undertones of the Mediterranean garrigue.

As for Spain, I haven't come across a bad wine from the Cellar de Capçanes from Montsant in the Tarragona region. This 80-strong Catalonian co-op used to sell in bulk to Torres, but all that changed after it started bottling kosher wines to order in the mid-1990s. Success enabled it to build a new winery and develop a range of quality reds. At the affordable end, the 2001 Mas Collet Capçanes, Montsant, £6.49, Majestic, Waitrose, Booths, is supple and juicy with seductive berry fruit flavours, while the superbly scented, rich, dark cherried fruit and spice of the Costers del Gravet, £10.99, Waitrose (Kingston and Canary Wharf) Oddbins Fine Wine, shows the true meaning of co-operation.