When winegrowers form co-operatives, the result can be magical wines that make great-value drinking

There's nothing like a crisis to bring people together. It was the Depression of the 1930s that made growers in Europe join forces and form the co-operative wineries that still make a significant proportion of the continent's wines today.

Here in New Zealand, tough times have also made some in the wine industry reassess their approach, resulting in the rise of co-ops here for the first time in modern winemaking history.

If you've drunk much European wine, you've likely downed a glass or two from one of the region's many co-operatives. These are ventures owned jointly by a number of growers who pool costs and resources in winemaking and marketing to harness advantages of scale that small growers in particular could never hope achieve alone.

There may be a romantic vision of a winegrower guiding their wine from vineyard to bottle, but in nations such as France, the reality is almost half the wines are made by co-operatives, many on an industrial scale. Co-operatives are also responsible for around 70 per cent of all the wine made in Spain, more than 40 per cent of Italian wine and 30 per cent of Germany's output.


Co-ops once had a bad name, due to the plonk produced by some European establishments, which were supported by EU subsidies offering little incentive for improvement, but recent years have seen much modernisation and a greater focus on quality.

In Champagne - where more than half its growers are co-operative members - you'll find the impressive Nicolas Feuillatte co-op label; in Italy the likes of Produttori del Barbaresco and in Spain, great-value wines emanating from co-ops like Borsao.

However, here in New Zealand, the co-operative approach has not taken off yet.

"One of the main reasons that this model has not been more widely embraced here is that winegrowers have until recently had a certain amount of security in semi-long term contracts with wineries," notes Anita Ewart-Croy, winemaker for our first major modern co-op, GroCo.

GroCo was formed in Gisborne in 2009 after the country's largest wine company, Pernod-Ricard, dealt with its oversupply there by terminating many grape contracts. With many of Gisborne's growers left with no one to buy their grapes, a group that's grown to 32 members formed a co-operative. Ewart-Croy now makes their wines at the region's contract winemaking facility, GisVin, selling to local labels or exporting to countries such as China.

"Ultimately selling finished wine rather than fruit offers a better return to winegrowers than selling fruit," says Ewart-Croy. "Traditionally, Gisborne winegrowers received some of the lowest prices for grapes in New Zealand and the structure of the co-operative gives the winegrowers another way of achieving sustainable income."

In Marlborough, the sauvignon boom meant its growers once received top dollar for their grapes. However, the surplus following the record-breaking 2008 vintage saw prices plummet and contracts cancelled. Now Marlborough has spawned a co-op, the 50-member strong Marlborough Grape Producers Group Limited (MGPG), which makes its first vintage this year.

"The people that have come on board share a common view of looking for stability and a higher level of control over their own destinies," explains acting chairman of MGPG, Kevin Kilpatrick.

However, unlike GroCo, MGPG had an existing agreement to supply a major US wine company, whose growing demand was the reason for creating it.

For now, the only local "co-operative" releasing wines under its own labels is the group behind the Farmer's Market and Grower's Mark labels. This venture was formed when some of winemaker Kim Crawford's old growers from around the country had nowhere to sell their fruit. He now makes their wines in a branded range owned by the distributor, Hancocks.

New Zealand's wine fraternity was already a collaborative bunch, while the country boasts a strong co-operative movement in other industries. The undersupply that's just emerging reduces the attraction of co-operative activity, but it will be interesting to see if this movement gathers momentum.

Da Vinci Chianti 2010 - $20.99

A smart, great-value chianti with plush and juicy black cherry fruit and notes of roasted spice, from Tuscany's largest growers' co-operative, Cantine Leonardo da Vinci. (From Fine Wine Delivery Company, Nosh, Farro's, Village Winery, selected fine wine stores.)

Farmers Market Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2012 - $19.99

Made by winemaker Kim Crawford, this collaborative sauvignon boasts notes of succulent passionfruit, vibrant oregano, basil and zesty lime. (From West Liquor, King Dicks, Local Liquor & Glengarry.)

Grower's Mark "Donna Anderson" Marlborough Bone Dry Riesling 2009 - $19.99

Many co-operative growers' grapes end up in larger blends, but this attractive, taut and gently toasty riesling, with its notes of lemon, lime and flint, is made from the grapes of one grower, Donna Anderson. (From Glengarry.)