The flat sparkling category

Sales of crémant should be exploding in line with demand for sparkling wine, but this isn’t always the case. James Lawrence asks why.

Arthur Metz, Alsace
Arthur Metz, Alsace

Arthur Metz is a bastion of quality in Alsace. Founded in 1904, the winery was purchased by Les Grands Chais de France group in 1991, which clearly has a keen eye for a good investment. Today producing over 685,000 cases of wine, Arthur Metz grows Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Muscat, Sylvaner and Pinot Gris on the foothills of the Vosges Mountains, which is surely one of Europe’s most picturesque vineyards. 

However, if visitors arrive expecting copious amounts of dry Riesling and other aromatic varieities, they will to be disappointed: Arthur Metz confounds expectations by producing large volumes of sparkling wine, many miles away from the streets of Reims or Épernay. A cellar tour reveals scores of bottles waiting to be riddled, along with disgorgement equipment and musty corridors. This could be Champagne, although the final product tastes very different. The prestige cuvée Perle Noire is the undisputed jewel in Arthur Metz’s crown; a sparkling wine of considerable weight, complexity and substance. Yet it is rarely exported; historically, crémant has been noticeable only by its global absence.

Sleeping beauty

Thus the nation that gave us Dom Perignon and Krug continues to keep its other sparkling wine styles largely to itself.  By way of comparison, there are now more than 500 growers making crémant in France, with production exceeding 80m bottles in 2016, according to the Federation of Crémant wines. However, although exports have been rising, the majority (70%) is still consumed within France’s borders. In contrast, total exports of Champagne rose by 3.5% to 153.6m bottles in 2017, according to Le Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC).

But change is afoot. Diversification of the sparkling wine category – particularly in markets such as the UK – is continuing to open up new opportunities for periphery styles such as crémant. Total sales of crémant grew by 7.6% in the period 2016 to 2017 in the UK, according to the industry analysis group IWSR, while consumption of French sparkling wine excluding Champagne equalled approximately 3.718m bottles last year. As one of the world’s largest markets for fizz, Great Britain provides a useful barometer of changing consumer patterns of behaviour.

The director of wine for Four Seasons’ Ten Trinity Square Hotel in London, Jan Konetzki, is one such acolyte helping to spread the word. “If we’re not selling Champagne at Four Seasons Ten Trinity Square, I like to focus on regional French sparkling wines. Our Vouvray Méthode Traditionnelle and Crémant d’Alsace sell well – I love crémant, especially Alsace,” he says. 

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

Supermarket wine buyers would tend to agree: according to Waitrose’s Champagne and sparkling wine buyer, Rebecca Hill, crémant sales in January and February increased by 28% on last year, peaking on Valentine’s Day as shoppers opted for it as an alternative to other bubbly. “Fizz fans are looking for a wider range of sparkling wines that are not only great quality, but affordable too,” says Hill.

Barriers to market

Of course, not everyone in the market is as enthusiastic as Hill. “Much crémant has not been of an especially high standard historically – its packaging was often pretty poor and it is now generally more expensive than Cava and Prosecco,” observes Laytons’ wine buyer, Peter Mitchell MW. He continues: “However, as private label Champagne has risen in price considerably, an opening has appeared for traditional method wines at a certain quality and price level. I suspect the increase in sales has not come for the most part from consumer pull, but rather from retailer push, where price ladders have needed filling.”

Further discussions with both the global wine trade and producers reveal a nuanced picture, with expressions of both optimism and doubt concerning crémant’s prospects for sustained growth. IWSR analyst Helen Jagger underlines the point that Champagne and other French sparkling wine styles including crémant are following the same trajectory, with domestic sales falling and exports rising – coincidentally by 3.5% in both categories in 2016-17. The US, UK, Japan and Scandinavia have all shown growth, according to Jagger.

“I know from looking at Les Grands Chais’ sales figures that the demand for crémant has risen in the UK market and there is significant scope for growth,” says Mark Kears, the company’s MD UK and Ireland operations. “As consumers look for more interesting and better quality alternatives to Prosecco, the crémant category could well benefit, and there is certainly lots of diversity and interest for wine drinkers to discover within the category.”

Smaller producers are also reasonably optimistic about their future. “We have seen good growth in the sales of our Mas de Daumas Gassac sparkling wine in the UK, although maybe not as much as in some other markets [the US]. We have been and are continuing to increase the production of the Mas de Daumas Gassac sparkling rosé,” says Samuel Guibert, co-owner and head winemaker at Duamas Gassac.

Sommeliers in the US concur, reporting greater consumer interest in crémant, particularly on the east coast. “Certainly in our casual restaurants, sales of crémant are rising – there is more consumer awareness and demand for traditional method sparkling wine which is less expensive than Champagne,” says Raj Vaidya, head sommelier at Daniel and The Dinex Group. 

Need for identity

Yet casting a shadow over these positive appraisals is the unfortunate truth that the category does not boast a strong brand identity, a side-effect of crémant’s lack of fixed geographical origin. Styles vary enormously and eight different regions – Crémant d’Alsace, Crémant de Bordeaux, Crémant de Bourgogne, Crémant de Die, Crémant du Jura, Crémant de Limoux, Crémant de Loire and Crémant de Savoie – are entitled to use the prefix crémant. Alsace is the largest, producing 35m bottles in 2016, followed by Bourgogne with 18m and the Loire with 15m, although Crémant de Bourgogne tops the export charts.

Questions over crémant’s lack of strong identity are common and a point of concern for many in the trade. It has long been argued by leading cava producers in Penedès that cava’s lack of fixed geographical origin has been a hindrance to its growth in the premium segment. “I think the wide variability of styles is the greatest hindrance to crémant’s growth,” says Mitchell MW. “Crémant is seen as a single category and yet in reality it is several and they should be trying to market their own individual AOPs – difficult when they share the common nomenclature.”

Indeed, the recurring point about a lack of coherent brand identity is one that Les Grands Chais’ Kears readily concedes. “As there are such a variety of styles and permitted grape varieties, it’s difficult to create a single, strong brand identity which the consumer will understand,” he says. “The category is still only just out of the discovery phase and is only now starting to gain some momentum and distribution. Most of the growth is currently being driven by the discounters.”

Therefore, firms such as Les Grand Chais de France and the Languedoc’s Paul Mas are focusing on building individual brands, rather than attempting to forge a strong identity for crémant as a designation. “Paul Mas Crémant de Limoux and other styles continue to do well in several key markets,” says owner Jean-Claude Mas. “Its USP [unique selling point] is simply high-quality at a very affordable price, which in a sense is far more important than attempting to build a strong image around crémant itself.”

Kears adds: “With Champagne or Prosecco, the consumer knows what they’re going to get when they buy a bottle, an advantage that crémant lacks. So we have started to build individual crémant brands which are selling well with respect to the size of the category in major retailers, such as our Lacheteau Brut and Rosé, which are Crémant de Loire.”

Moreover, Daumas Gassac has achieved impressive growth in a relatively short space of time, proving that in the independent retail sector at least, there is room for niche brands to build market share. Other brands would of course be willing to follow its lead, if analysts could prove that awareness and interest in periphery categories will continue to rise in markets across the world.

“Crémant has definitely been historically under-represented in the States. Nevertheless, people increasingly want a cheaper alternative to Champagne, and also restaurants want by-the-glass options which are more affordable. These are clearly the conditions in which crémant can grow its market share,” argues US sommelier Max Kast. 

But in an era where “next big trend” stories make headlines all too often, a cold, dispassionate analysis is probably required. On the one hand, there is evidence that global distribution is widening, with enthusiasm from both sommeliers and buyers in key markets. In addition, analysts repeatedly talk up the viability of a market “sweet spot” between Prosecco and Champagne – surely crémant’s price point of £10.00 to £15.00 ($12.77 to $19.16) makes the category ideally positioned to take advantage of this gap in the market. However, the specific problem concerning crémant’s lack of strong identity remains a major stumbling block. Moreover, growth has been largely driven in overall volume terms by large discounters, while important markets such as Hong Kong are seemingly indifferent to the category. 

“Historically, crémant has formed a very small part of the Hong Kong sparkling wine market as very little is seen in retail and producers make little to no effort in the fields of promotion and marketing,” says John Chan, head sommelier at Amber Restaurant, Hong Kong. “As a restaurateur, I have not seen any evidence of rising consumer awareness or demand.”

Could crémant therefore hope to crack, or even simply increase its presence in the notoriously challenging Chinese market? “As the only producer with crémants coming from all eight production regions in France, there is significant potential for Grand Chais de France to expand globally,” says Kears.  “However, as the category is still so small, we are in the very early stages of building distribution and awareness, so we are focusing on our distribution strategy rather than marketing, which will come later. Trying to encourage consumers to explore the category is currently challenging due to its lack of coherent identity, but we are trying to enable them to discover our range through new formats and wider distribution.” 

In the meantime, crémant continues to add to the diversity of sparkling wine lists in a growing number of markets, and for that, Champagne’s less glamorous cousin should be applauded.

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