Understanding Champagne co-operatives
Author: Hannah Crosbie
The wine co-operative is often seen as an old-fashioned or low-quality way of making wine. But, in regions such as Champagne, co-ops are an essential way of life, discovers Hannah Crosbie.
When you think of Champagne, the first thing that springs to mind is the luxurious Grandes Marques. The likes of Krug, Pol Roger, Dom Pérignon, Veuve Clicquot and Ruinart – brands whose sumptuous wines need little introduction. Then, beyond these big names, curious Champagne consumers will no doubt have encountered Growers’ wines: those cuvées made on an artisanal scale by vignerons.
But the role of the wine co-operative (co-op) in the Champagne region is perhaps less understood – and it’s well worth a closer look.
It’s fair to say that, in the UK, co-op-made wines have a reputation of being lower-quality products. In reality, this just isn’t so. Co-op winemaking in Champagne is complex, covering everything from the Coopérative-Manipulant, where the co-op oversees all aspects of production, and then sells the wine under its own brand, to the individual growers who work together with co-ops in order to share equipment. The truth is that, amongst co-ops, the quality spectrum is broad and the marketing is complex. But often these wines represent both value and quality. For proof, look no further than the demand for co-op-made wine in France, where it accounts for 45% of the market.
But, aside from the question of quality, co-op-made wine represents something more: an older way of doing things, rooted in community. In the post-war struggle, co-ops offered a framework which helped small, agricultural villages to survive. Many co-ops have gone on and become successful international enterprises.
It may be that the winemaking co-op is the answer to one of the wine industry’s most pressing ethical questions of the last few years: social sustainability.
In winemaking, social sustainability looks beyond the treatment of the vines, soil and terroir. On top of this, the workers, families and communities that depend on the winery become the focus. This can certainly be said of winemaking co-operatives today, but it wasn’t always the case. Davy Żyw, Champagne Buyer at Berry Bros. & Rudd, explains how – and why – the first winemaking co-ops came to be.
“Because of the Napoleonic laws of inheritance in France, everything is shared through the generations,” he explains. “Inheritance is split equally between the descendants – which means after every generation each bit of land gets smaller and smaller. This has had a huge impact on the wine industry in France: there are many very small vineyard holdings owned by people who don’t even live in the region.”
On top of this, the investment needed to create wine fit for sale is huge. Even those fortunate enough to have a plot of vines here can struggle. Few wines are as labour-, cash- and time-intensive to produce as Champagne. That’s where co-ops come in.
PUTTING PEOPLE FIRST
The co-op model helps the owners of these small plots of land in two ways. They can either buy the grapes from them to make their own wine with, or they can farm the land on behalf of the owners – taking care of the whole vinification process. Costing up to €7.20 per kilo, grapes grown in Champagne fetch some of the highest prices in the world – it’s quite the lucrative operation for even the smaller co-ops.
But Champagne Mailly – the co-op which makes our Own Selection Champagne – takes a different approach, one that prioritises its workers above all else.
“Community is the essence of Mailly,” says Xavier Millard, the co-op’s director. “Yes, we are named after our Grand Cru village of Mailly, but it’s also a way of recognising the 25 families that either live or grow vines in our village.”
Davy agrees: “What makes Mailly different is that they don’t buy grapes to fulfil commercial demands or growth targets,” he tells me. “For all intents are purposes, the town and the co-op are one and the same. “All their shareholders are the historic families of the town, meaning each family member who owns land has got a stake in the operation. There’s very much a shared mentality there: they want to produce the best grapes possible so that the best Champagne can be made. That way, the whole community benefits.”
This sense of community is the very foundation on which Champagne Mailly was born. The co-op first came into existence over 90 years ago in the Montagne de Reims. The families who started the co-op have been supported for decades; you only need to descend the winery stairs to feel this connection between the generations. There, you’ll find yourself in the cellars which were hand-built by the grandfathers of the people who are picking the grapes today.
“It’s an incredible full-circle story of how important family is there,” Davy acknowledges. “Grandes Marques buy in grapes and often don’t own their own vineyards. They operate like co-ops to a certain extent. But Mailly’s different: they have an investment in the quality of the Champagne, as well as a deep understanding of their families. There’s this really great focus on social sustainability.”
SOCIAL VERSUS ECOLOGICAL
Social sustainability is a relatively unexplored issue in the wine industry. Ecological sustainability is – quite rightly – the focus of the moment, but Xavier insists that they are one and the same:
“Social sustainability and ecological sustainability go together,” says Xavier. “Both are linked to the wellbeing of our people, so it’s important to have strong commitments as a winemaking co-op.
“By definition, co-ops have always placed people at the heart of their economic development.”
And it’s not just the right thing to do. Consumer demand for socially conscious wine has never been higher, says Davy.
“People are engaging in social awareness like never before: they care about sustainability and going organic, but also about fair treatment, transparency within the production line and the wider agricultural community.”
There’s a slow but steady trend towards favouring producers which prioritise social sustainability, Davy believes. This poses a challenge to larger brands to demonstrate their commitment to community. “I think a lot of people are looking away from the larger, faceless brands. They’re looking for something with a little bit more meaning behind it, where they can be sure of the provenance and transparency in the supply chain.”
A MODEL FOR SUCCESS
There’s a tendency for winemaking co-ops to be viewed as something rather antiquated. But this is a way of life that should be celebrated, Davy says, not least due to the transformative effect co-ops have had on the region. Champagne Mailly was founded in 1929, the very same year the world was shaken by the Great Depression. Co-ops like this provided a much-needed lifeline for the families that depended on growing grapes.
“The main co-ops first came to be when the financial and economic situation in the region was dire,” Davy explains. “Many people forget that, historically, Champagne was one of the poorest places in France – it had two World Wars fought in its vineyards.
“Without the work of co-ops, a lot of people wouldn’t have been able to put food on the table. They made sure vignerons could grow their grapes, sell them at a good price and make sure they had cash coming in.”
Co-ops have played an invaluable role in the success that Champagne now enjoys internationally. But because they’re often viewed as a way to make wine in a mass-produced way, they rarely receive the credit they deserve.
“In actuality, co-ops have the same sensitivities to their workers and the environment as many of the smaller growers,” Davy tells me. “They can make wine which is of equal quality to the Grower Champagne producers. When people think of co-ops, they think of old-fashioned, mass-produced winemaking. But this idea of shared work, a shared vision, a shared life – there’s something very romantic about that.”
Browse our complete range of Champagne Mailly here.