by Fred Minnick
Despite being the world’s largest wine-producing region, D.O. La Mancha is frequently misunderstood. The Spanish wine region’s cooperative system can be especially confusing.
Like the U.S. farm cooperatives trying to procure more money for their farmers, the D.O. La Mancha cooperatives spread in the 1940s and ’50s because private wineries were not paying market value for grapes.
Still suffering from the financial consequences of its Civil War, which ended in 1939, the Spanish government could not provide financial assistance to grape growers but encouraged a cooperative system. Furthermore, partly because Spain remained neutral in World War II, the country faced shaky trade relations with the United States and was not allowed in the United Nations until 1955.
So, in light of all the Spanish government issues, grape prices were low on the priority list.
If the vineyard owners did not form cooperatives, it’s highly likely many vines would have shriveled and the land becomes barren.
Today, the cooperatives take in billions of pounds of grapes every harvest and are now producing high-quality wine to sell in the U.S. market. More than 70 percent of the almost 400,000 hectares of grapevines planted in La Mancha belong to growers who sell to the 130 cooperatives.
Many of these cooperatives are exporting gold medal Crianzas, Tempranillos and white wines for inexpensive prices. Some can be found at values around $7 a bottle.
Many people in the wine business think of these cooperatives as only bulk wine producers, because, I think, they don’t understand the cooperative system. Plus, we tend to think of Old World wine from the Romantic perspective of Burgundy or Tuscany. But, it’s important to not lump La Mancha in with other popular wine regions. The vineyards typically do not have wineries on their properties or ornate tasting rooms peering over mountains. A more analogous description would be the wine region is more like the Nebraska or Iowa, where crops wave for as far as the eye can see. La Mancha’s vines grow near roads, above underground rivers, near historic buildings and in the town centers of the province. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a location within the DO that did not have vines growing somewhere. To live in or travel through La Mancha is to enjoy a sea of vines.
With its intense summers and winters, as well as a variety of good soil, La Mancha’s land has been used to grow grapes for hundreds of years. Wine was made here during the Roman times and was even mentioned more than 100 times in the famous 17th Century book Don Quixote.
Each vineyard owner has the business of growing grapes in his or her veins.
The average vineyard-land owner’s family has been tending to the same land for three or four generations. Some have had the land in their family since the 1600s.
This is similar to every other Old World region, you might say. But the difference in La Mancha is that the majority of these vineyard owners don’t take their fruits to wineries they are sole owners of. Instead, they take their grapes to a cooperative that sells the juice as bulk wine to other private wineries or countries.
While it is probably true that many Italian and French table wines, as well as wine from other countries, could be wine produced in La Mancha cooperatives, most cooperatives use their best grapes to make their own labels instead of selling in bulk. These cooperative wines have won numerous prestigious awards, to include:
- Bodegas Entremontes, a cooperative of 1,041 wine-growing members, earned a Silver Medal at the 2007 Brussels International Competition with its 2001 Reserva.
- Bodegas Cristo De La Vega, a cooperative of 1,200 members, eared a Gran in the 2009 Zarcillo International Contest of Wine with its 2003 El Yugo Reserva.
- Cooperativa Santa Catalina, a cooperative of 1,400 members, earned a Zarcillo Plata 2009 for its Los Galanes Tinto Joven.
- Cooperativa Virgen de Las Vinas, the largest cooperative in Europe with 2,445 members, won the Bacchus de Oro Prize for its 2004 Tomillar Reserva.
- Vinicola de Tomelloso, a cooperative of 63 members, earned a gold medal Grand Selection at the Medalla de Oro for its Torre de Gazate Rosado and a Best of Nation Award for Spain at the 2011 San Francisco Wine Competition for the Torre de Gazate Tempranillo.
So while these large cooperatives, with storage tanks as tall as a major city’s buildings, make massive amounts of wine, they still make very high-quality bottled wine. But, they are often overlooked because their operations are not like other Old World wineries. As evident in Vinicola de Tomelloso’s 2011 “Best of Nation” award at the San Francisco Wine Competition, La Mancha cooperatives‘ wine is not just table wine.
Fred Minnick is an international writer/photographer who covers wine and spirits for several magazines. View his work at FredWrite.com.