How The Major Sparkling Wine Categories Are Currently Performing

U.S. sales of all types of sparkling wine are on fire. Italy’s Prosecco leads the way – up 27 percent by volume for the 52 weeks ending Sept. 10, 2016 – but France’s Champagne, Spain’s Cava and domestic sparkling wine all show healthy increases, too. Sales of still wine, by contrast, have increased only modestly.

Why are bubbles so hot? Danny Brager, senior vice president for beverage alcohol at Nielsen, which tracks retail sales, says that “it’s not all about Prosecco,” but he gives that Italian wine a lot of credit. “Prosecco definitely brought more people into the category,” he says. Brager cites its affordable price – an average of $12 – and trendiness.

Even producers of other types of sparkling wines acknowledge Prosecco’s value to the overall category. Consumers are “getting their feet wet” by trying Prosecco, says Nicole Lockwood, senior brand manager for Mumm Napa. “I think it’s kind of a stepping stone.”

Bubbly-makers for years have struggled against the idea that sparkling wine is a celebratory beverage to be drunk mostly for New Year’s Eve and on occasions like anniversaries and weddings. Prosecco appears to be helping on that score, too, turning bubbly into an everyday beverage. Brager notes that sparkling wine sales still spike between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, but Prosecco is helping to extend sales to the rest of the year.

As a percentage of the overall wine market, sparkling remains small, accounting for just 6 percent by volume, according to the Beverage Information and Insights Group. Brager says that according to Nielsen data, only about one-fifth of table wine buyers also bought bubbles in the 52 weeks ending June 30, 2016. So there’s plenty of room for further growth, especially among the group of consumers that many companies appear to be targeting: Millennials.

Here’s a look at how the major sparkling wine categories are currently faring in the marketplace.

Champagne

Champagne is considered by most connoisseurs to be the gold standard of sparkling wine (under existing trade agreements, some California producers still are allowed to call their wines “champagne,” but true Champagne comes only from the French region of the same name). Champagne is made by the traditional method, or méthode champenoise, in which the bubbles are produced by a secondary fermentation that takes place inside the bottle. It is generally quite a bit more expensive than other sparkling wines; according to Nielsen, the average cost for a bottle of Champagne is $51 – but Champagne sales are showing healthy growth. For the 52 weeks ending Sept. 10, 2016, Champagne sales were up around 10 percent, both by value and volume.

The overall sparkling trend is helping, says Sam Heitner, director of the Champagne Bureau, USA. “For the most part, the more Americans drink sparkling wine, the better it is for Champagne.” He thinks that as consumers learn more about Champagne’s unique qualities, they become more willing to “spend a bit more money for a special bottle.”

The No. 1 Champagne brand in the United States is Veuve Clicquot, especially the non-vintage brut bottling known as Yellow Label. According to the Beverage Information and Insights Group, imports of all bottlings of Veuve Clicquot for 2015 stood at 441,000 cases, up almost 9 percent from 2014 to 2015. That outpaced Veuve’s sister brand, Moët & Chandon (both are owned by Moët Hennessy).

A company statement attributes Veuve’s success, at least in part, to its flavor profile, which it describes as reconciling “two opposing factors — forcefulness and finesse.” In addition, the company stresses promotional activities, including events like the Veuve Clicquot Polo Classic, held in October in Los Angeles.

Veuve Clicquot and Moët are known as Champagne “houses” and are permitted to buy large quantities of grapes. According to the Champagne Bureau USA, the houses account for more than 87 percent of Champagne shipments to the U.S. That percentage has dropped some as so-called grower Champagnes (producers who grow their own grapes) and bubblies from cooperatives have increased shipments. Grower Champagne imports have doubled over the past decade and now account for more than 5 percent of the market.

Terry Theise is a leading importer of grower Champagne and represents 17 producers. He says that when he began in 1997, there were 33 growers exporting to the U.S., representing 0.62 percent of the market. In 2015, 297 exported to the U.S. Theise says grower Champagne has “all the buzz” and “dominates the conversation among smart wine buyers.” There’s also a feel-good aspect: “You get to support the farmers who have a little dirt under their nails instead of the corporate guys in three-piece suits.”

Shipments from cooperatives to the U.S. have grown more than 50 percent in the past decade, driven at least in part by the largest coop, Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte. Olivier Zorel, Feuillatte’s area export manager for the Americas, says the company’s non-vintage Brut Réserve, which retails for $36, “continues to perform well, as consumers have come to recognize this Champagne consistently delivers great quality at a fair price.” Zorel adds that sales during the holiday season are helped by the release of a specialty bottle.

Heitner notes another trend that is boosting Champagne: the popularity of rosé wines. Nearly 15 percent of the Champagne shipped to the U.S. is rosé, and that figure is growing, despite the fact that rosé Champagne is often significantly more expensive than non-rosé. Rosé Champagne, Heitner says, works well as an aperitif, “but also goes into a meal a little further.”

U.S. Sparkling

Domestic sparkling wine dominates U.S. sales, with more than 55 percent of the market, according to Nielsen. The category – which includes inexpensive wines produced in pressurized tanks (called the charmat method) as well as traditional-method bubblies – is up more than 8 percent in dollar sales and 6.6 percent in volume.

The top-selling traditional-method domestic wine is Korbel, which has seen modest growth. The fastest-growing traditional-method brand on the Beverage Information and Insights Group’s top 20 list is Mumm Napa from the Napa Valley.

Sales of Mumm Napa, owned by Pernod Ricard USA, were up nearly 20 percent from 2014 to 2015. Mumm Napa’s Lockwood attributes a lot of its success to its association with the Napa Valley, an appellation that, for many, is synonymous with high quality. “It’s a strong differentiator for Mumm Napa,” she says.

Moët Hennessy-owned Chandon, the No. 2 traditional-method domestic brand, has seen growth on three fronts, according to spokeswoman Korinne Munson. The winery’s “limited edition” program continues to do well; in 2016, the wines featured bottles by fashion designers Carol Lim and Rebecca Minkoff. In addition, Munson says, the rosé trend has helped drive sales of Chandon Rosé, and the winery has introduced Sweet Star, a sweeter wine aimed at female Millennials.

Among charmat-method wines, Barefoot Bubbly, owned by E&J Gallo, has seen healthy growth – up about 4 percent in 2015 after 22 percent growth the year before. Winemaker Jen Wall says the wines, which retail for about $10, “over-deliver in quality.” Since the first Barefoot Bubbly (Extra Dry) was introduced in 1998, the company has added a number of other products, ranging from Brut Cuvée to Pink Moscato. Gallo’s Andre brand, another charmat-method wine, is the company’s top-selling domestic sparkling.

Cava

Sales of Spanish Cava are up about 9 percent in both dollars and volume, Nielsen reports. Cava, produced mostly in Catalonia, is made in the traditional method – which is particularly striking when you consider that the average retail price is about $9 a bottle.

The top-selling brand is Freixenet, whose best-known wine is Cordon Negro, in the distinctive black bottle (Freixenet is the largest producer of traditional-method sparkling wine in the world). Freixenet’s smaller sister brand, Segura Viudas, has seen particularly healthy growth, up 11 percent from 2014 to 2015.

Jane Scott, vice president of marketing for Freixenet USA, says both brands are being aimed at Millennials with social media and other digital marketing. Millennials, she says, are the target audience because they are adding bubbles to their “everyday repertoire.”

Because Segura Viudas is smaller and not as well-established in the U.S., Scott says, the company can experiment more with its promotional efforts. For example, it has partnered with vocalist and DJ Anna Lunoe on a video titled “Sip It.”

Because of similar pricing, most Cava goes head-to-head in the market with Prosecco. So part of the Freixenet message is what sets Cava apart – traditional method vs. Prosecco’s charmat method – without being “too wine-speaky,” Scott says.

The Cava Regulatory Board is working to promote a new, high-end category – Cava de Paraje Calificado – which was created in 2016. Pedro Bonet, chairman of the regulatory board, says such Cavas must be produced from a single vineyard and conform to other production requirements. “This new category,” he says, “is placed definitely at the tip of the qualitative pyramid of wine and gives visibility to the excellence of Cava.”

Prosecco

Prosecco accounts for 15 percent of U.S. sparkling wine sales, according to Nielsen. “I think it’s got more growth,” Brager says, although he adds: “Nothing can grow at those rates forever.”

Alan Tardi, U.S. ambassador for Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco DOCG, thinks the overall popularity of sparklingwine is one reason for Prosecco’s success, but there’s another element that makes Prosecco attractive: “While trends come and go, America has a long-lasting love affair with all things Italian, and Prosecco is perceived, rightly, by many as the quintessential Italian sparkler.” He adds that Prosecco is also the go-to sparkling wine for cocktails, a hot trend, and “younger consumers, especially the critical Millennial crowd, absolutely adore it.”

Tardi says one of the advantages Prosecco has over Champagne is that “people don’t feel they need a special occasion to enjoy a bottle. Many Americans have no qualms about popping open a bottle for a simple evening at home during the week.” He also says that, in contrast to Champagne, which is fuller-bodied and higher in acidity, “Prosecco is lighter, simpler, fresher and very user-friendly.”

Tardi speaks for producers of the more limited Conegliano Valdobbiadene growing region. Most of the Prosecco sold in the U.S. comes from the broader Prosecco DOC, which produces four times as much wine. But Tardi says the trends he describes apply to all Prosecco.

Brager notes that several of the big Prosecco brands are imported by large companies with good distribution. A good example is La Marca, imported by E&J Gallo, which is the best-selling Prosecco brand in the U.S. and is up 24 percent from 2014 to 2015, according to the Beverage Information and Insights Group. Rich Kranzmann, vice president and general manager, premium, for Gallo, says one reason for the growth is that La Marca “has the look and taste of a luxury-priced wine while still being approachable enough for everyday enjoyment.” The wine is also available in a 187-ml “mini,” which encourages new consumers to try it.

Future Trends

Is the growth in sparkling wine sales sustainable? Most people interviewed believe that it is, at least in the near term.

Take Champagne. Heitner notes that the United Kingdom imports more than 2.9 million cases a year, while the U.S. imports only 1.6 million. “We see lots of room for growth in the U.S.,” he says.

For European imports, the strength of the dollar against the Euro has been important. “Foreign exchange is very much in our favor right now,” Freixenet USA’s Scott says. Most industry people don’t foresee that changing soon.

And as more Americans view sparkling wine as an everyday treat, the growth should continue. “The trajectory of the category is going to continue,” Mumm Napa’s Lockwood predicts. •

A Northern California resident, Laurie Daniel has written about wine for more than 20 years. Her wine column appears in several California newspapers, and her articles have appeared in magazines such as Wines & Vines, Food & Wine, Wine Country Living, Drinks and the Wine Enthusiast.

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