Crémant comes into its own

James Lawrence reports on a once-lagging category that is now bubbling away. 

Château de Saumur in the Loire/David Messineo
Château de Saumur in the Loire/David Messineo

There is no French wine category more ambitious and complex than crémant. It is a sparkling wine style which encompasses more diversity than any other European designation: your glass may contain a 100% Riesling sparkling wine, a 50/50 blend of Muscadelle and Sauvignon Blanc, a 100% Chenin Blanc version or a Champagne style.  

Indeed, this single designation includes eight geographical appellations that can use the term, including Crémant de Alsace, de Bordeaux, de Bourgogne, de Loire and de Limoux. More than 500 producers are currently making crémant, producing over 110m bottles every year.

However, unlike Champagne, crémant has not historically boasted a strong presence in global export markets or commanded the same prestige.

According to sparkling wine expert Essi Evellan MW, the ‘secret’ of putting bubbles into wine leaked out from Champagne into other French wine regions in the early 19th century. Evellan MW explains that, “The growth of crémant appellations is part of a deal struck by the Champagne industry, whereby other French sparkling wines could gain exclusive use of the crémant term for their appellations, in return for the entire (then) EC wine community dropping the term ‘Méthode Champenoise’.” Or in other words, crémant was a political project rather than a quality-led one.

Growth industry

Despite these humble beginnings, crémant brands have made great strides over the past few years, investing heavily in both expanding production and increasing their share of key export markets. According to the Bourgogne Wine Board (BIVB), exports of Crémant de Bourgogne rose by 22 percent in volume to the US market in 2019. British consumers also seem to have developed a taste for the style; exports rose by 67 percent and 42 percent in volume and value respectively in 2019. The Japanese market also showed good growth.

“Sales of crémant have been booming, especially in Scandinavia and in the US. Crémant de Bourgogne has done well, but we also added a Bordeaux style to our range,” explains Philippe Marion, sales and marketing director for Barton & Guestier. He reports that the house ran out of stock in 2019, due to a small harvest the previous year. “As a result, we have more than tripled our crémant capacity in the last five years, investing in a new bottling line and rotating pallets. We’ve also increased our vineyard holdings and grower contracts,” he adds.
Crémant de Limoux and Crémant de Alsace also report a strong uptake in international sales.

“Over the last five years we have almost doubled our sales of crémant,” reports Bastien Lalauze, director of Domaine Martinolles in the heart of Crémant de Limoux appellation. He says exports are now more important than domestic sales, with the US and Italy performing particularly well. “We have invested in the winery, purchasing new equipment and a new disgorgement line. We want to maintain volume and quality, so some parcels in the Limoux appellation that were formerly used to make still Chardonnay have been selected for sparkling production.”

The IWSR’s data indicates that the still wine market in Europe is shrinking, while sparkling consumption is growing. 

Emmanuel Vergely, export manager for Alsatian brand Bestheim, adds: “Sales of crémants have been rising sharply for a decade now. So we have welcomed several new producer/growers into our big family. They represent around 100 hectares of selected vineyards. We’ve also moved grapes allocated for still wine production to sparkling production. This is a growth industry.”

Data from Sopexa supports this assertion: the number of hectares producing Crémant de Loire has grown exponentially since the appellation was created in the 20th century. According to Sopexa’s senior communications manager Victoria Kukla, growers are increasingly registering to work under the Crémant de Loire AOP as it becomes more profitable. This is despite a legal requirement that all stock must be aged for a minimum period of 12 months on the lees. Sopexa reports that from March 2019 – March 2020, exports of Crémant de Loire rose 43.9 percent in value and 49 percent in volume, while exports of Saumur Brut sparkling climbed 17.4 percent in both value and volume.

This growth in export volumes is notable and impressive, particularly considering that crémant lacks a strong regional association and overarching identity.

Core identity

France’s crémant industry mirrors Champagne in one regard: there are large companies involved in marketing a range of labels, in addition to family-run enterprises and craft brands. However, a far greater palate of grape varieties and styles are sold under the ‘single’ crémant banner. And, as with Prosecco, consumer awareness of individual brands is very low, despite a growing awareness of the category itself.

“There is next to no consumer understanding of how crémant is made and what to expect stylistically,” says Jeroboam’s wine director Peter Mitchell MW. “I think the wide variability of styles is the greatest hindrance to crémant’s sustained growth. Crémant is seen as a single category and yet in reality it is several and they should be trying to market their own individual AOP’s – difficult when they share the common nomenclature.”

Juliette Monmousseau, general director of producer Bouvet Ladubay, also has strong feelings about the subject of crémant’s differentiation. “When journalists ask me about crémant’s future, I respond that I don’t see any opportunities for ‘crémant’ as a homogeneous category,” she says. “ I hate the use of this singular description, used to lump together so much diversity. I see opportunities for the multitude of our Loire Valley Sparkling AOPs. This is our opportunity: to emphasise diversity.”

Les Grands Chais de France (GCDF) is one of France’s biggest wine companies, with producers in every crémant -producing region, and they accounted for 21.5 percent of all French sparkling wine exports to the UK in 2019. UK managing director Mark Kears reports that discounters have played a big part in making crémant much more accessible to consumers, as well as online retailers like Ocado.

“The UK trade are now aware that there is a growing crémant movement. Distribution and awareness are both building slowly as retailers start to grow their repertoires,” he says. “At GCF we are definitely selling more and more of our Crémant and anticipating significant uplift as the awareness and trial builds.”

He believes the opportunity for crémant lies in differentiating itself from Champagne and creating its own unique identity and appeal. In particular, it needs to move away from its me-too look and focus on its craft credentials. “If people want to celebrate they will naturally move towards Champagne, so Crémant needs to grab a different sector of the market and carve its own niche.”

The price is right

Yet the export data is unequivocal: crémant is doing well in several competitive sparkling markets, despite a lack of sophisticated marketing. Anecdotal evidence from the wine trade supports this data.

“Sales of crémant, along with saumur and other traditional method sparkling wines from around the world have risen at Oxford Wine Company,” says Ted Sandbach, owner of the Oxford Wine Company. “The independent sector in particular is now seeing customers (finally) starting to tire of Prosecco and look for alternatives in the category.”

This raises the question – what factors have led to a rise in consumer demand and interest?

It is likely a result of the category’s (generally) homogeneous marketing strategy, at least where price is concerned.

Despite the fact that crémant is a diverse category, with distribution in both large multiples and independent retailers, there is a common promotional thread which ties the strategies of big and artisan brands together.

Crémant producers are focused on capturing a commonly discussed ‘market sweet spot’ between Prosecco and Champagne, offering mid-market value to consumers who want to avoid spending large amounts on super-premium brands. There are (almost) no mavericks in this business, charging Champagne prices. This is not an industry driven by high prices and a surfeit of prestige cuvées.

Crémant’s pricing is very consistent: most brands are marketed at between €10 ($11.85) to €18 ($21.33): cheaper than Champagne, but more expensive than lower-end Prosecco. 

“The best opportunity for crémant is alongside overpriced Champagne in the on-trade,” says Philippe Marion. “Crémant is for consumers who enjoy a glass of wine at home, unconcerned with flashy labels. I don’t think we’ll see bling labels on bottles surrounded by fireworks in nightclubs soon, but who knows. Our mission at Patriarche is to provide the best possible value from French appellations, and crémant is the perfect example of such a success.”

Looking beyond price, some brands are developing a story through sustainable and organic viticulture.

Premiumisation

“Since I arrived at the estate, our main goal is to improve in quality each year, step by step,” says owner Etienne-Arnaud Dopff, whos eponymous estate is in Alsace. “This has to start in the vineyard – restrictive massal selection when we replant and organic certification within five years in the crémant parcels.” 

“We have applied for HVE 3 certification – we want to certify 100 hectares,” adds Emmanuel Vergely of Bestheim.

He argues that in a post Covid-19 reality, the category will find a stronger niche as an affordable and quality-led style. “Celebrations will not stop,” he says. They just will be undertaken on a tighter budget. “We see the development of a new segment where consumers are looking for good value for money, emanating from high quality French sparkling wines. The brand equity is already there: it’s French.” He says that Bestheim’s Grand Prestige label is sold at under €15 a bottle, while being made to the same standards as top Champagne. “It provides affordable and celebratory pleasure in a difficult context.”

Of course, the economic shocks caused by the global pandemic have affected crémant producers, as they have Champagne houses. Many firms concede that their sales fell dramatically between March and June 2020.

“The French market has suffered the most because the traditional channels have dried up. Mass distribution has also suffered. But since the beginning of June, sales have started to rise again. This trend is identical for the French and export markets,” says Vergely.

Etienne-Arnaud Dopff adds: “Sales have been really affected and we lost a quarter of our annual volume; the closure of the on-trade in Alsace hit us hard, compounded by a lack of cellar door activity. We just hope now that it is behind us and we can work again normally after the summer period.”

Les Grands Chais de France reports an uplift in certain categories – the company benefits from a strong online distribution network. “We have seen significant shifts in online volumes, even though these were already very strong for GCF, for larger formats and pouches,” says Mark Kears.

The predominant view from brands is that the category will recover from the crisis, if producers focus on DTC selling and online retail. There is also much consensus that crémant can increase its market share in the coming years at the expense of Champagne. The former’s average price point is certainly more ‘recession proof’ than Champagne, while the average grape prices and subsequently production costs remain substantially lower.

The transformation of sparkling wine from an occasional indulgence into an everyday category is surely the marketing masterstroke of the century; in 2019, over 140m bottles of sparkling wine were sold in the UK.

Notwithstanding the looming global recession, crémant is reasonably well-equipped to maintain its momentum. ‘Affordable premium’ could soon become the most valuable currency in the wine market.

James Lawrence

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