Foncalieu, The Mother of All Wine Co-operatives

Foncalieu, The Mother of All Wine Co-operatives

Foncalieu, a trail blazing union of several co-operatives, traces its origins back to 1901 when 128 winegrowers from the Languedoc founded France’s first ever cooperative winery, in Maraussan. Their motto“ All for one, one for all” can still be seen on the Foncalieu winery façade. 

 To-day it has over 1,200 winegrowers and has been trading under the Vignobles Foncalieu name since 1967.

 Below John Mason highlights the importance of this wine making phenomenon to small producers accross the South of France. (first published in Camden Review on Line)

 Spearheading a Co-opertive approach to the Challlenges of a Laissez Faire Global Wine Market.

Co-operation in France’s vineyards has a double-edged reputation.  For some, co-ops support small producers disadvantaged in global markets.  At the other extreme, they are depicted as vested interests producing poor wines, whose likely destination is distillation into industrial alcohol. 

Foncalieu Winery historicThis, however, is not the whole story and it explains why Foncalieu is a name we need to watch, both as an experiment in its own right and for choices it opens up to wine makers in France’s Mediterranean coastal regions. The company serves the needs of 32 co-operatives with 1,200 vineyards as members and a total of 5,000 hectares under cultivation, who own its shares and form its managing board.  Described as a ‘Union des Cooperatives’ and owned by co- operatives, it is not one itself.  Membership, though concentrated in Corbières, extends over an amazing 600 kilometres throughout Languedoc and the neighbouring areas of Gascony, Provence and the Rhône. 

Co-ops produce more than half France’s wine, with just under half of appellation contrôllée certified wine but three quarters of the lesser vins de pays.  In this context, ‘lesser’ is unfair.  VDP is better described as ‘local’ – offering independence both to those who don’t try all that hard and others who value the freedom of a less prestigious status to produce wines that can equal the finest AOC. Foncalieu’s key role is technical support.  Its head wine maker, Delphine Glangetas, and agronomist Gabriel Ruetsch survey the resources and current state of each vineyard, producing a development plan.

 Michel Bataille, winemaker turned Foncalieu  president, then discusses details, including payments. Members sign up to a set of conditions designed to improve methods of cultivation specifying, for example, volume and variety of grapes and even harvesting dates.   Three tariffs, €30 a hectolitre for basic, €85 for medium and €100 for superior quality give a clue to differing levels of experience, skills and expectations.  Conditions are strictly enforced, softened by the interaction and day-to-day liaison between co-ops, vignerons and Foncalieu’s oenologists necessary for improvements in quality and cultivation.  Members are free to join another local co-op, where conditions are more relaxed. Whilst Foncalieu’s payments won’t exceed those of the co-ops that own it, the gap between the basic €30 and €85/100 for better quality indicates both the poor quality of much of the wine produced and the financial incentive for improvement.

 Members most value access to sales abroad as an alternative to restricted and poorly developed local markets, giving them marketing  tools they don’t have themselves with the added bonus of Michel Bataillesaving agents’ fees.  Foncalieu sells to North America, Russia, Japan, and France’s remaining former dependent territories.   Britain, however, with 40% of overseas sales is currently its largest customer.  This reflects the success of its Versant brand priced mostly between £8-10 and includes a surprise pinot noir from the lower reaches of the Cevennes mountain range, which few would expect to see in Mediterranean climates. 

The promise of this remarkable experiment lies in the triangular relationship of technicians/advisers, constituent co-ops and individual members.  An individual vigneron is free to sell Foncalieu his grapes to use in its own wines, to make wine and bottle it under his own label, or to supply wine for blending or to be produced as an individual chateau under Foncalieu’s label.  The same applies to co-ops, though the quantities of wine or grapes traded between them are unknown.  The range of options this flexibility confers on individuals, co-ops and Foncalieu offering the opportunity for experiment within the framework of local tradition, is potentially staggering.  A largely static relationship is transformed and incorporated within a dynamic structure, which respects the voice of individual co-op members.  

 Success means that what started as technical support now extends into an ambitious exercise in international marketing.  Here Foncalieu’s assessment of foreign markets becomes crucial.  Two risks arise, firstly of getting the assessment wrong and secondly, of altering (and perhaps upsetting) the balance between individual, co-op and Foncalieu.  This balance of power and its maintenance areFoncalieu’s greatest achievement.

 Foncalieu’s wines are available from Albion Wine Shippers, 56  Lambs Conduit Street, WC1N 3LW T : 020 7242 0873 and City Beverage Co., 303 Old Street, EC1V 9IA. T:020 7729 2111  

 Click here for more info on Foncalieu wines on wine-pages

Click for more on cooperatives Wine Economist