Champagne sales dropped by 18% during the pandemic, but, as an Economics Observatory piece reveals, this is typical of behaviour during global crises. The collapse of the dot.com bubble in 2000 and the fallout from the 2008 crisis were marked by 17% and 13% reductions in shipments. In every case, going back over a century, sales bounced back and there is no reason to suppose that this won’t happen again.
Quite recently Jean-Marie Barillere, co-president of the CIVC was predicting sales of 315m bottles this year with a value of €5.5bn. The arrival of Omicron and renewed restrictions may reduce those figures, but it is, in any case, interesting that the 2021 Christmas season saw fewer heavily-discounted Champagnes than buyers are used to. Aldi’s French stores’ lowest price of €12.99 in early December was higher than its bargain-hunting shoppers might have expected.
Customers of those shops on a tight budget might have chosen to buy Prosecco instead – for €4.99. Not so many years ago, the idea of finding off-dry Italian sparkling wine in big French retailers would have been unthinkable. But, so would the bins of sweet JP Chenet ‘Ice’ sparkling wines modelled on the made-to-be-drunk-on-the-rocks Champagne style pioneered by versions pioneered by Moët and widely promoted in Duty Free shops across the globe. Fizz-drinkers with a slightly less sweet tooth could opt for one of the demi-secs that are also increasingly widely available from various origins.
This growth in the popularity of sweeter styles has had relatively little media coverage, as sommeliers and critics continue to focus their attention on the limited-production, zero-dosage, ultra-dry sparkling wine they often favour. Mumm’s Demi Sec Olympe, for example gets fewer mentions than some high-profile grower Champagnes, but the investment that has gone into launching it in association with the champion runner Usain Bolt (the brand’s ‘Chief Entertainment Officer’) illustrates how much it matters to Pernod Ricard.
On the same theme, Asti Spumante and Moscato - two sweet, simple, styles the traditional wine establishment loves to hate will continue to make inroads into the Chinese market. Moscato will prove particularly popular, thanks to its lower alcoholic strength.
On the other hand, natural wine fans, will be pleased to see their favourite Pet Nat gain greater traction, thanks in part to versions offered in cans that will be appealing to recent converts to craft ales.
Globally, sparkling wines have enjoyed the same ‘premiumisation’ trend as other categories. This is true in Spain, with some top quality producers breaking away from Cava and the restructuring of that DO. When Meininger’s Fizz magazine recently tasted 60 examples of super Spanish fizz, some of the most highly rated have price tags that compete with their counterparts in Champagne.
The same is true of English sparkling wine. In 2018, one of the oldest and most respected producers, Nyetimber, launched a white and rosé at £150 and £175 – prices that are higher than the £135 and £140 commanded in the UK by Krug and Dom Pérignon respectively. As the Daily Telegraph critic, Victoria Moore perceptively noted, the winery was applying the classic ‘framing effect’, a ‘classic piece of selling psychology’ that helps to increase the appeal of its Tillington single-vineyard wines which suddenly appear to be attractively priced at the previously apparently expensive £80.
Wine like these and examples from a number of other UK high fliers are helping to boost the reputation of one of the world’s youngest and fastest-growing wine industries. At the end of 2021, there are now an estimated 3,800 ha of vines, twice as much as in 2012, and 70% more than in 2014. In 2020, 7.1m bottles of English wine were sold, just under two thirds (64%) of it sparkling. By 2030, that total figure could be as high as 30m – more than the amount of Champagne the UK – a champion consumer of that region’s wines – currently imports.
How much of that English wine will be sold domestically? This is impossible to say, but much will depend on how it is made to sparkle.
Until now, the reputation of wines like Nyetimber’s has been earned by the application of the classic Champagne method to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grown in a Champagne-like climate. Communication and marketing has often focused on how well these wines perform in blind tastings against the best producers of that illustrious north-eastern French region.
More recently, ambitious British producers have increasing begun to look at using the Prosecco-style Charmat process, using a broader range of grape varieties. A pioneer of this trend is a producer called Gareth Davies whose Prince Charmat sells for £15 in Tesco, the UK’s biggest supermarket.
Volumes of English Charmat may explode if a billionaire investor called Mark Dixon succeeds with his ambition of developing a £60m, 500ha wine estate – Britain’s largest - in the region of Kent.
Not so traditional
So, while England’s sparkling pioneers have based their business model on competing with premium Champagne and pricing their wines accordingly, Dixon and the other Charmat producers are targeting Prosecco.
Neither strategy is without risk. Discounted Champagne is cheaper in the UK than traditional method English fizz, and Prosecco costs less than half as much as its UK equivalent. Will UK consumers alter their behaviour? Will export markets find room on their shelves for the volumes if wine the UK is going to produce?
Time will tell whether the UK adoption of the ‘If you build it, they will come’ philosophy promoted by the Kevin Costner movie Field of Dreams, will be successful.
If UK Charmat really does do as well as British investors believe, producers in other regions may reconsider their decisions to invest in the equipment and more importantly time required for traditional method production.