Andover Wine Friends’ tasting of wines from cooperatives in Puglia, and mostly from the Brindisi cooperative Risveglio Agricolo, was a rare and welcome chance to do something to redress some common imbalances in the world of wine.
1. Most attention in wine writing is paid to a handful of top wines and regions. We have our own ‘celebrities’ who get inordinate attention – though some of them are outstanding. There is relatively little discussion of wines at medium price points.
2. As in other parts of the economy, the private company, the entrepreneur, the wealthy are able to promote their products in ways that are just not possible for smaller producers and especially the cooperatives which are such a feature of many Italian and French regions. With a few exceptions, cooperatives do a great job serving local markets but find it difficult to promote their wines beyond their own region.
The history of cooperatives is in danger of getting completely lost in an age of rampant global capitalism. The cooperative movement started in Rochdale, Lancashire in 1844 among textile workers. As such it was a response precisely to the power of capitalism, a defence by the common worker against the overwhelming power of the mill owner. He had control of the means of production, was in a position to hire and fire at will and thereby determine the labourer’s livelihood and even life. The cooperative movement spread quickly across much of nascent industrialised Europe and came to have a special place in the wine industry
In the developing commercialisation of the wine, the cooperative movement was a response by producers, grape farmers if you will, to the need to get a reasonable price for their work and to find a route to market. Riots in Champagne were not a matter of unfair allocation of the latest release of Bollinger but about a return on grape growing which would prevent starvation in the face of the big houses controlling the market. Equally, if you are a farmer today in Puglia who grows grain, artichokes and other vegetables, olives and grapes, you won’t necessarily have the capital, the expertise or the volume of fruit to justify the expense of modern wine-making equipment. And without the expertise and the equipment you are very unlikely to make wine that can compete in an overcrowded market. And so from both economic and social perspectives, cooperatives make good sense. And there is something inspiring about otherwise separated and sometimes isolated workers making common cause and belonging to something greater than themselves.
With around 50 active producers working 150 hectares of vineyards, Cantina Risveglio is quite a small affair, 1/20th of the size of the huge Due Palme. But it is big enough to be able to process grapes with all the standard technology of modern wine making – large-scale temperature-controlled fermentation vessels and pneumatic presses which extract juice and colour without being over harsh. On a minor note, it bottles its wine in, to my mind, overly heavy glass bottles which are out of keeping with the nature of the whole operation. A heavy bottle does not necessarily mean a great glass of wine, is unnecessarily expensive and wasteful of materials.
The winery is doing its best to be a real part of the community it serves. It is welcomes children for school trips and even has a ‘harvest day’ for them. It is open for visits to the public on Sundays and in the afternoons. The big traditional fermentation/maturing concrete tanks double as a platform which is used as a social space. The kitchen serves local food specialities to visitors. Further afield, the cooperative makes a charitable contribution to programmes which combat world hunger. Something of this aspiration is even captured in the name: Risveglio – ‘awakening’, ‘revival’.
Our tasting was based around six wines from Risveglio with a couple of other Puglian wines thrown in. The latter two are commercially available in the UK and so provide something of a benchmark.
Simposio, Salento Chardonnay IGT, Risveglio, 2011, 13% – ‘Simposio’ is the clever trade mark for Risveglio’s wines, neatly picking up on Puglia’s connections with its ancient Greco-Roman heritage. The wine showed modest aromas on the nose but then pleasant, quite pronounced exotic fruits on the palate. While this is not particularly Puglian, the local white varieties are not that interesting and so why not go with a sure-fire international variety? Highly drinkable, well made wine.
By contrast, we tried the imported Bianco, Gravina DOP, Botromagno, 2011, 12.5% with fine, linear fruit on the nose, high acidity and not very much on the palate. A Greco (60%) – Malvasia (40%) blend this was competent but did not really shine. This is from another cooperative, Botromagno, much further inland with vineyards at some altitude.
Simposio, Brindisi Rosato DOC, 2011, 13% – a classic Puglian Negroamaro – Malvasia blend to produce a substantial, food friendly rosé, made by 12 hour maceration on the skins. Nice lifted perfume when first opened but then faded somewhat on the nose, but pleasant, rounded fruit. Fair.
Salento Primitivo IGT 2010 14% – the Primitivo variety is not the first choice on this side of the Salento peninsula, but this wine manages pleasant red and black fruit on the palate if with something of a short finish. Simple and fruity.
The main business here is Negroamaro, the slightly unusual variety with deep colour, aromas of the farmyard, and sweet tasting plummy fruit. Despite its name, ‘black-bitter’, with modern wine making it is rarely bitter. At Risveglio it comes in three bottlings:
Simposio, Brindisi Rosso DOC, 2010, 13.5% – Negroamaro and Malvasia Nera, aged in stainless steel, ie unoaked, according to the wine maker Vincenzo Pugliese, in line with the normal practice for the basic rosso. Moderate nose but then substantial blackberry and baked plum fruit on the palate, rich and porty for a simple red, with good acidity. We wondered what you would drink this with and hit on something which would go well with the ripe fruit, for example, pork.
72100 Negroamaro, Salento IGT, 2011, 13.5% – 100% Negroamaro named with the postal code, 72100, a flag bearer for the home territory. From two very old vineyards, Giancola and Cillarese. Smoke, liquorice and pleasant red fruit on the nose, elegant fruit sweetness on the dense, fruity palate if with a rather short finish. Definitely a step up from the basic rosso.
Simposio, Brindisi Rosso DOC Riserva, 2007, 14% – back to the standard Negroamaro (here 80%) and Malvasia Nera blend, this time matured in large, 100hl, barrels. This gives the wine with some oxidative ageing from its time in wood but no overt wood aromas. Greater concentration on the nose, the rich fruit rounded out nicely by its stay in Slavonian oak. Again the leading feature is the ripe, almost sweet tasting, black fruit. This then becomes a style thing – if you like medium priced Californian Zinfandel you would like this wine – as our tasting group did. The fruit is still remarkably fresh for a five-year old.
Other bottles: to finish we tasted a bottle of a wine I have in my cellar after its spectacular success in Decanter’s World Wine Challenge of 2010. It has to be the first wine from a Puglian cooperative to win an overall category prize in the World Wine Challenge, best Italian red under £10 (now around £11.50). The 2006 now also has the benefit of bottle age: Vigna delle Monache, Salice Salentino DOC, Cantina Sampietrana 2006, 13.5%. Garnet now showing on the rim; subtle oak on the nose with some tertiary features; elegant palate and good old Negroamaro fruit-sweetness on the palate, medium plus in length. Now subtle and rounded; probably at its peak, but will hold for a few years. As a bonus bottle we also drank a supermarket-level bottle of Nero di Troia from Torrevento. A 2007, those grippy tannins are now fully resolved and this inexpensive bottle was a textural treat.
Puglian cooperatives continue to provide great value for money and the occasional outstanding wine. The difficulty in the UK market is that the transport cost, logistics and high level of UK tax on wine mean that wines that are modestly priced in Italy are going to end up at higher price points here (£12). In turn this means massive competition. But that does not mean that we can’t occasionally enjoy these wines and honour the work of ordinary growers and skilled winemakers.
Acknowledgement: I am very grateful to Vicenzo Pugliese and Risveglio Agricola for providing its wines, currently not imported into the UK, as samples. We wish you well as you seek to promote your wines.