Cave Cooperative or Independent?
There is a minor revolution taking place in Champvent, situated in a valley where the vines tumble down the hillsides. Champvent is a small hamlet of Chardonnay in Southern Burgundy, the ‘birth place’ of the world’s best known grape variety. Traditionally, village families have produced grape harvests that are delivered to the nearby Cave de Lugny, one of the biggest AOC cooperatives in France and certainly the biggest in Burgundy in terms of volume of wine produced. But the situation is changing. Three of the four village growers have become independent, which, in a small village of around 80 inhabitants, is significant.
The three producers are very different in size of operation and the marketing and selling their products.
Patrick Laugère and his son, Nicolas, tend around 29 hectares (ha) of vines. They own 10 ha and lease the rest and much of the produce from the leased vines goes to the co-operative. The Laugeres sell to Sainsburys supermarket in the UK, local restaurants, at wine fairs and from their Cave – ‘Les Cadoles de Chardonnay’ in Champvent. They won a Silver Medal at the Vignerons Independants Concours 2017 for their 2015 Mont Reyet, produced from 50 year old Pinot Noir vines.
Hervé Philippe operates with 12 ha of vines, the harvest of 8.5 ha of which is sent to the Cooperative, because of its shared, inherited, ownership with other members of the family. Hervé produces a small number of bottles to sell to passing trade, most of his production is sold to a negociant and an agent. His wine has won a bronze Medal at the Macon 2015 wine fair for his ‘Les Chezaux’.
Stefan Galland, has only recently been able to invest in his own production process. He owns 0.44 ha, whilst a further 0.75 ha is leased and its harvest delivered to the Cooperative. In his first year he produced 400 bottles and achieved success with a 3rd prize for his Macon Villages at the local St Vincent cantonelle competition in nearby Lugny.
Why go independent?
The over-riding reason is personal satisfaction – the desire to see the whole process through from ‘Terre à Verre’ (earth to glass). They can make their own decisions, change their methods to suit their clients, and even enjoy their own products! They know that the wine they produce really is their own creation. It is not a melange of grapes from numerous vines in the area. An added incentive is that they will normally see a financial return that is greater and quicker than that received from the Cooperative.
However, there are real disadvantages. The bureaucracy and the administration – reams of paperwork – are daunting and sometimes there are language problems when selling direct.
I wanted to discover the Cooperative’s side of the story and spoke to Isabelle Meunier, an elected member of the executive committee of the Cave Cooperative. The Cooperative, founded in 1926 is big and produces over 35 million bottles a year. Isabelle, herself a viticulturist, argues that the Cooperative offers expertise, stability and support, sometimes financial, to the winegrower. It also boasts a high level of expertise in the vinification process and in the support services, including marketing and selling, including exporting, and handles all the necessary paperwork, thus cutting out the bureaucracy for the independent grower.
There are also, she acknowledges, some disadvantages of affiliation with the Cooperative. The grower does not make his/her own wines and there is little interaction with the customers. On the other hand, the Cooperative provides a very valuable service for the grower without the necessary expertise or inclination to handle the whole process from ‘terre to verre’. And what might happen to the independents if they suffer a bad year?
So which route is best? Perhaps there is no clear cut answer. I believe that both the Cooperative and the Independent have much to offer, both for the customer and for the grower. The pride and personal satisfaction gained by the three independents from Champvent in setting up their own business, creating their own wines and seeing them enjoyed by their customers, cannot be overstated. Meeting and talking with them all draws out their passion, their commitment and their satisfaction with a job well done. None admits to sleepless nights – yet! And, surprisingly perhaps, all appear to be happier and less stressed than when they were solely working to send their grapes to the Cooperative.
by Howard Darbon