Because, for most wine drinkers for most of the last 60 years, there were only two kinds of sparkling wine — French Champagne and the very cheap U.S. stuff that tasted like flat 7-Up (and that still dominates U.S. sales). There was bubbly from elsewhere, of course, but quality was poor and there wasn’t much of available, even if someone wanted to try it.
That has changed over the past couple of years, as I wrote in a story in this month’s Beverage Media trade magazine — and just in time for the holiday bubbly season, when we drink as much as half of all the sparkling wine sold during the year. In this, it’s not so much that Champagne fell out of favor; rather, improvements in quality, increased availablity, and very good prices helped introduce consumers to the Spanish-made Cava, the Italian Prosecco and even fizzy moscato. And, as with sweet red and cheap pinot, consumers discovered they liked the wines.
Or, as one very perceptive retailer told me: “They really don’t care where it’s coming from, as long as it’s different. They aren’t the same old, same old California sparkling wines or the same Champagne. They’re not the same wines that have been around now and forever.”
The story’s highlights and a few other thoughts:
• Bubbly consumption increased by 14 percent from 2007 to 2012, compared to four or five percent (depending on the report) for all wine. Much of that growth came from non-Champagne categories, and especially from Spain (up almost five percent in 2012) and Italy. The Italian surge has been phenomenal, accounting for two-thirds of the increase in imported sales in 2012.
• It’s almost impossible to underestimate the improvement in quality over the past several years. It started with Cava and moved on to the Italian wines, all of which are cleaner, more consistent, and with fewer off notes. They taste better, as simple as that may sound.
• Bubbly drinkers are more open minded than ever, willing to try something that doesn’t come from Champagne. Much of this can be traced to price, since these wines cost as little as one-tenth of Champagne, but it’s also about more adventurous palates. That a sparkling wine made with xarel-lo or glera could be worth drinking never occurred to previous generations of sparkling wine drinkers, who were quite snobby about their bubbly.
• We’re drinking sparkling with dinner more than ever before, which is a very welcome development (as regular visitors here well know). Again, this rarely happened with Champagne, which was seen — and is still marketed — as something for a special occasion.
• Sweet sells, and especially for the Italian brands. The difference is that some of the wines are not just sweet, but well made, something that isn’t necessarily true for many of the sweet reds.
• The generational divide that we’ve seen elsewhere in the wine business has shown up here, too. Younger wine drinkers are more likely to try non-Champagne wines, not only because they’re less expensive but because they don’t know or care that they’re only supposed to drink Champagne. That’s one reason why cocktails made with sparklers are so popular. Who else but someone who wasn’t a Champagne snob would want to drink something like a Bellini, which is made with peach juice?
Photo courtesy EugeniaJoy of Kiev, Ukraine, via stock.xchng using a Creative Commons license