Champagne reasserts itself

Champagne broke sales records in 2015, reasserting its position as top-shelf fizz. Panos Kakaviatos tracks the trends.

Champagne reasserts itself
Champagne reasserts itself

There were headlines aplenty in 2014 along the lines of ‘Champagne is losing its fizz’. Volumes were down, while sales of Prosecco soared. 

Yet the sparkling sales figures of 2015 have continued into the first quarter of 2016, suggesting that Champagne remains the undisputed leader of the high-end sparkling category.  Although Champagne sales increased by volume in France by only 1% over the same period last year, sales of Champagne to the EU (not including France) grew by 2.1% by volume over last year and to countries outside Europe by nearly 5% (value-based figures for the first quarter of 2016 were not available at the time of writing). “The positive trend for exports continues," said Brigitte Batonnet of the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) , although she cautioned that it’s too early to draw conclusions, as the first quarter of a given year is not the strongest period for Champagne consumption.
But one thing is certain: 2015 marked new sales records for Champagne. Turnover reached a new high of €4.74bn ($5.35bn), breaking the previous pre-crisis record from 2007, according to the CIVC.

Although more volume was sold in France, much of the increase in sales value came from outside France, which reached nearly €2.7bn, another record, according to the French Federation of Wine and Spirits Exporters (FEVS). 

From the US (+7.1% by volume), by way of Italy (+9.7%), Australia (+24.3%) and Japan (+13.1%), Champagne volumes outside France shot up in most markets over last year, with exports growing by 12.1% in value overall, according to FEVS. 

The positive results, say the CIVC, are a consequence of sustained growth in shipments, favourable exchange rates in key markets like the US, and rising demand for higher- value ranges, particularly rosé and cuvées of prestige Champagnes. Grower Champagnes contributed, too. While shipments to France stabilised at 51.8% in 2015, they increased 3.3% by volume and by 2.6% by value over last year in EU countries (not including France), with growth to the rest of the world even more pronounced. The Champagne houses, which ship more than 71% of Champagne volume, spearheaded growth.

If that wasn’t enough, 2015 also saw representatives from the States Parties of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee unanimously vote to include the “Champagne Hillsides, Houses and Cellars” on the prestigious World Heritage list.  The honour underscored the region’s singular aspect. “In spite of different Champagne styles, there is only one Champagne AOC,” said Philippe Wibrotte, CIVC public relations director. “We do not have multiple and competing appellations, as in Bordeaux.”   

Caution advised

Not everyone is taking comfort from the numbers. “We still sell most Champagne [just over half] in France,” remarked Antoine Malassagne of the 18-ha family-owned AR Lenoble vineyard in Damery. “We should take more time to communicate our vision, because too many buyers lack a real knowledge of what Champagne is.” 

Although Champagne is unique, Malassagne said consumer perceptions of competition from other sparkling wine regions must be taken seriously. “Yes we have competition, and they are getting better in terms of quality,” he said. “We need to keep making better wines; when I buy a bottle of Champagne for more than €20.00, it should be very good,” he added, stressing that Champagne can only grow in terms of quality, since its borders are finite.  

Alsatian Crémant, for example, has improved over the last few years, said Lionel Neyner of the Strasbourg, France-based wine boutique Au Millésime: “More of our consumers are buying it as a less expensive alternative to Champagne,” he said. By the same token, Australian chain First Choice Liquor proclaims on its website: “Watch out, Champagne, there’s a new sparkling kid in town, and that new kid is Prosecco.” And statistics from the Unione Italiana Vini (Italian wine producers’ union) show a 10% increase in sparkling wine production over the past year, including Prosecco, with increasing sales abroad. 

The Champenoise are not unaware of the threat and have taken steps to keep Champagne at the forefront of awareness. The CIVC has been beefing up educational tastings worldwide, Wibrotte said. For example, its famous annual tasting in London was until recently meant only for the media; however, it’s been opened to the trade, including to sommeliers, restaurateurs, wine shop owners and other buyers who could benefit. More such tastings have been held in San Francisco, New York City and Chicago as well, Wibrotte said.  

Key market growth

Although the major Champagne houses drove most sales growth last year, grower Champagnes also enjoyed excellent results in key markets. For the first time ever, grower Champagne sold more than 1m bottles in the US, representing a growth of over 11% in bottles sold over last year, worth nearly €20m. 

For Raphael Bérêche of Maison Bérêche in Ludes, a highly rated grower Champagne, it is easier to explain the unique virtues of Champagne in export markets, because both critics and sommeliers abroad are more interested in understanding Champagne as a wine. “The reality is that foreign critics come twice a year to our cellars to taste, while most French critics want samples shipped to Paris,” he said. 

Benoît Tarlant, of the eponymous estate in Œuilly, another top grower Champagne, agrees: “Sometimes it is easier to sell to enthusiastic sommeliers in New York than in France, where you have more conservative distribution channels that tend to stick to more classical brands,” he said, adding it was sometimes difficult for sommeliers in France to make discoveries, “but when you go to New York, you have wine lists with maybe one or two major house brands, but four or five grower Champagnes.” 

At MacArthur Beverages in Washington DC, a top US fine wine importer, Champagne sales were up around 10% in 2015 over 2014. “I believe the real reason for this increase was greater interest from my clients in smaller Champagne brands,” said director Mark Wessels. “This is a big change from five to ten years ago, when it was very difficult to sell these smaller names. What has changed is customer perception, as more people perceive grower Champagnes as higher-quality wines, compared to most of the large and well-known Champagne houses,” he continued. “Some of these are grower-producers and some are traditional but smaller grower-negociants.” 

“Growers woke us up to focus on viticulture,” said Roederer executive vice-president Jean- Baptiste Lecaillon, who describes himself, too, as a winegrower.  “Many grand lieux-dits are part of our soils, so we talk all the time about viticulture and quality of grapes,” he said. “Before we preferred to talk about changing labels, and being showcased in nice hotels.” 

The growers, starting with Domaine Jacques-Selosse in Avize and Domaine Egly-Ouriet in Ambonnay, started a “revolution” in Champagne, Lecaillon added, emphasising Champagne as quality wine, first and foremost. “My predecessor never left Roederer, and was never asked to comment on tastings; the focus was all marketing,” Lecaillon said. “But today it is no longer sufficient to rest on the laurels of a brand, and we need to talk more about vineyards. We have gone from the idea of a house style to a sense of place.” 

Grower Champagnes also have an advantage of not needing to purchase high-priced Champagne grapes, thus bringing costs down and making them more competitive. 

Notably, even tough export markets like Italy, which has its own sparkling wines, broke records for grower Champagne in 2015: 14.7% increase by volume and 18.2% increase by value.   

Plenty of promotion

The rise in Champagne sales hasn’t taken place in a vacuum. Major houses with storied histories have been using sophisticated targeted marketing campaigns to promote sales and increase their emphasis on tourism. A visit to Veuve Clicquot in Reims, for example, is like Disneyland for adults. Along with Charles Heidsieck, Ruinart and Pommery, the deep chalk quarries of this famous Champagne house – part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, some 26 metres below the surface – are filled with Champagne bottles of all sizes. Originally used for construction projects during the Gallo-Roman era, the humidity and temperature in these dramatic underground spaces is perfect for wine storage. A closer look at the chalky walls reveals graffiti traversing time, including notes scrawled by soldiers taking cover from the savage bloodshed of the Great War. 

Here tourists will hear about the widow Madame Clicquot, who in the early 19th century took over the business after the untimely death of her husband. She created the first known vintage of Champagne and the first riddling table, which tilted bottles at an angle allowing sediment to slide down into the neck, clarifying the wine. She produced the very first rosé blend in Champagne. By the time she passed away in 1866, her contribution to Champagne was already legendary. Above ground, Veuve Clicquot offers plenty of glitzy contemporary marketing to complement its prestigious past. Its boutique includes bottles packed in megaphone-shaped containers dubbed “Scream your love”, or in yellow mailboxes with the company logo. In the wider world, the house sponsors polo and golf tournaments around the world and creates events such as Yelloween Veuve Clicquot, an annual Halloween party. Such marketing and sponsorship contributes to making it the top Champagne brand sold in the US last year, at just under $39m in sales, according to research company Statistica. 

A better dollar-euro exchange rate has also helped increase sales abroad. Gary Westby has been buying Champagne for K&L Wine Merchants in California for 16 years and says business has been “steady” with Champagne no matter what the currency is doing. “But values we can offer right now are off the charts, due to the favourable exchange rate,” he said. 

The exchange rate isn’t the only thing propelling Champagne sales, however. “There is no comparison in volume or value when it comes to sparkling outside of Champagne,” Westby said.  “Although we do sell good Cava, Prosecco and California bubbles, the real business is done in Champagne and our customers know the difference,” he said. “Good quality Cava under $20.00 and Prosecco under $10.00 are the most relevant price points, but anyone with $25.00 or more to spend goes for Champagne.” 

There’s no doubt that Champagne faces challengers from other sparkling wine regions, especially in lower price points, but it remains recognised as unique around the world. At the upscale City Wine Shop in Melbourne, Australia, for example, “for every one bottle of Prosecco, we sell three bottles of Champagne,” sales representative James Hill told Meiningers. 

Sales of a luxury product like Champagne will always be tied to the state of the economy, and can fluctuate wildly at times. But the overall trend remains strong – something for the Champenoise to celebrate. 



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