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Tag Archives: Champagne

The revolution in sparkling wine

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Sparkling isn't just for weddings anymore.

Sparkling wine isn’t just for weddings anymore.

Add another change to the wine business, and one that may be even more surprising than moscato and sweet red wine or cheap pinot noir: The popularity of sparkling wine that isn’t from Champagne.

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

Expensive wine 54: Charles Heidsieck Champagne Brut NV

Expensive wine 54: Charles Heidsieck Champagne Brut NVThe occasion required a sparkling wine for celebration, and it required more than cava. So the Wine Curmudgeon, spotting the Heidsieck ($56, purchased, 12%) on the shelf at a local wine bar, opted for Champagne. And why not? How often does the Cheap Wine Book go on sale?

Champagne has long been one of the great contradictions in my wine drinking life. I love Champagne, but I have little use for the Champagne business. It embodies everything that makes me crazy about the way wine works – little regard for consumers, pricing that bears almost no relationship to reality, and the idea it can operate like it’s 1953 and not 2013.

But they do make nice wine, and the Heidsieck is no exception. Look for lots and lots of caramel at the front, giving way to layers and layers of flavor, including white fruit and a mineral finish that has been described as almost iodine by some of my colleagues. This is not a subtle or especially elegant Champagne, and bears more than a passing resemblance to the mass Champagnes, like Veuve Clicquot, that I don’t much care for. But it is incredibly well made and a perfect example of this style. And we had a fine time celebrating the book.

So long, Champagne, it’s been good to know you

The wine business continues to do things no one expects, and the latest Champagne sales numbers are a striking indication of what’s going’s on.

This French wine service story is stunning in its conclusions: “Champagne was dominant 10 to 15 years ago, but the world has changed.”

The story, though written for the European market, is well worth reading because it documents the trend we’re been talking about here for several years (and not just because I’m trying to put together The Cheap Wine Book). Today, when consumers have a choice between two quality products, they’re more likely than ever to buy on price. Champagne exports declined 2.8 percent last year, while non-Champagne sparkling wine accounts for 70 percent of the European market.

In other words, we’re buying more cava and prosecco and so are the Europeans — and that it’s not Champagne doesn’t seem to bother us.This is shocking news, and especially for the Europeans. Their market never, ever worked that way.

This also demonstrates the continuing evolution of the wine market into two tiers – everyday wine drinkers, who are mostly ignored by the Winestream Media, and a much smaller, score-driven minority that still buys wine the old-fashioned way and is doted on by most of the wine world.

And how cheap are these wines? Cava costs €8 (US$11) or less in most European retailers, while prosecco ranges from €5 to €15 (about US$7-$20). Those of you who buy either in the States will note that’s pretty much what we pay for it. Call it the pricing power of the biggest multi-national wine companies (cava giant Freixenet’s annual production is about two-thirds of the entire Champagne region), and they’re more than willing to trade margin for market share – another theme we’ve discussed in detail here.

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