The French embrace Italy’s Prosecco

French consumers are notoriously unwilling to countenance foreign wines. But, says Sophie Kevany, Prosecco is changing that.

Photo by Jannis Lucas on Unsplash
Photo by Jannis Lucas on Unsplash

Growth of a few percent is never that impressive, unless the context is one of unusual loss or difficulty. France’s Prosecco imports, even as Champagne sales tank and barriers to trade and travel multiply, are just that. 

Sales data for April this year show Italian Prosecco imports to France up by almost 1% in volume and 3.6% in value, compared to the same period last year. In the same month, French Champagne sales showed record losses of just under 63% in volume and 61% in value.

The data, gathered by France’s national food and fisheries agency, FranceAgriMer, comes in its latest wine sector report. The report notes that “since the start of the health crisis, sales have been oriented towards less valued products, with consumers increasingly vigilant in their choice of prices.” 

In a time of crisis, it’s easy to understand why drinkers might choose Prosecco, averaging about €15 per bottle, over Champagne at about €30. But, said author of French wine blog, Vins du monde (Wines of the world), the story of cheap Prosecco versus expensive Champagne is not so simple.

Instead, François Potevin, whose blog often looks at French wine import data as means of uncovering domestic trends, sees three interlocking reasons for Prosecco imports keeping a head above water.  

“First of all, consumers tend to buy what is pushed at them. Prosecco marketing has been everywhere in France in the last few years,” he said. Secondly, Prosecco marketeers “developed a brilliant strategy with the ‘spritz’ cocktail. Aimed at professional woman, it’s easy to drink, comes in a glass and has just the right amount of summery feel and class.” 

The third factor is that the French tend to buy their Champagne in restaurants – shuttered during lockdown. The bars were shut too, of course, but, Potevin said, “it’s easy to buy a bottle of Prosecco and make a spritz at home.” 

So can the data be seen as a positive sign for the bumpy French wine import trade? The answer to that may come from the more international natural wine sector.

Asked if Covid-19-related trade nationalism might threaten imports, founder of natural wine app, Raisin – which currently lists 900 French producers and 1,000 non-French ones – said he believed internationalism will trump nationalism. But, he added, until sustainable shipping solutions are found, imports risk ever more scrutiny. 

“Personally, I believe the nation structure is outdated. There are great winemakers, and artists and musicians, all over the world. I expect the world to become more open, not less, to people producing good quality wines,” said Jean-Hugues Bretin. “Natural wine drinkers in France tend to be very open to non-French wines, but the distance a wine has to travel is definitely a consideration.”
One answer to the quandary would be more ecologically friendly transport. The other, said Bretin, is to limit imports. “I was talking to a winemaker the other day, and we were saying we should only ship wine if there is something special about it. And we should stop shipping the average, drinkable, what we call ‘glug-glug’, wines. There’s no reason for that to be shipped around the world. That can be made locally and drunk locally.” 

Definitely good news, of a sort, for Champagne then, most of which is easily good enough to fall into the special-enough-to-travel category. Add to that an expected domestic Champagne sales bounce in the run up to Christmas, the slow but steady restaurant re-openings, and the government’s planned €100bn pandemic stimulus, due to be released in early September. Caveat importer. 

Sophie Kevany

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