First, though statistics aren’t publicly available for the first nine months of 2008, it is likely that the economic downturn in the U.S. has had a negative effect on sales of higher-priced champagnes and sparkling wines. And it would be naïve to think that condition will change quickly, especially when most economic commentators are currently predicting a recession in the U.S., one that might go longer and deeper than recent, relatively painless recessions. On the other hand, through end-of-year 2007 (the latest year for which 12-month statistics are available), the champagne and sparkling wine segment gained 1.9% over the previous year, notching sales of 13.6 million 9-liter cases.
As usual, among domestic brands, the major players in sparkling wine remain the bulk-process makers E&J Gallo (Andre, Wycliff, Ballatore) and Constellation (Cook’s, J. Roget). The third-best-selling brand is Korbel, the well-known premium California methode champenoise, with sales of more than 1.26 million 9-liter cases, a gain of 2.4%. Other leading performers were the Italian imports Martini & Rossi Asti (803,000 cases, up 1.0%) and Verdi Spumante (773,000 cases, up 11.7%) and Spain’s Freixenet (638,000 cases, up 0.5%). French champagnes among the top 10-selling sparkling brands included Moet & Chandon (488,000 cases) and Veuve Clicquot (432,000 cases).
Trends in Champagne
Champagne is the benchmark of sparkling wine. Coupled with exceptionally chalky soils, unbeatable grand cru sites, a chilly climate and centuries of experience, the wines of the region offer a distinct gout de terroir lusted by consumers and industry insiders alike. If champagne had celebrity status, Veuve Clicquot’s ubiquitous Brut NV Yellow Label would be one of the most famous. “Rosé has been a steady trend over the last few years,” said Aisha Thompson, the senior manager of marketing & communications for Veuve Clicquot at Moet Hennessy USA. “We introduced the non-vintage rosé in 2006 and it’s been doing incredibly well. Coming up less quickly are vintage champagnes. They make perfect gifts and enhance celebratory moments. Wine drinkers have generally become more sophisticated in their knowledge and our house is known for its vintages.”
Old vintage champagnes have also become a mini-trend. In 2006, for example, Veuve Clicquot launched the release of two old vintages. The current releases, a 1988 and a 1985 rosé, retail for roughly $100 a bottle and both show champagne’s evolution with age. “The idea is to make old vintages more accessible. Champagne really is a wine that develops over time. Our rare vintages are delicious, but not so esoteric that the average champagne drinker can’t enjoy them too,” added Thompson.
Dom Pérignon offers Oenotheque, a recently disgorged champagne that has had significant aging on the lees – the current release is a 1995 vintage. Champagne Piper-Heidsieck is also in the business of recently disgorged champagnes and has just released a limited supply of vintages from 1999, 1998, 1988 and 1979.
It was Bollinger that started the craze when they released their RD label. Terlato, the importer, noted, “In the case of RD, we are able to sell a champagne that is 15 or 20 years old, but it hasn’t been sitting around in a cellar all those years. Because it has aged on the lees for most of the time, it’s actually very refreshing. It is an expensive process, but fans understand and appreciate that.”
Among the grand marques, Bollinger’s distinctly big and deliciously yeasty style is a favorite among wine buyers. Gary Westby, the champagne buyer at K&L Wine Merchants in Redwood City, CA, is a huge fan of small grower-producer champagnes but he makes an exception for Bollinger and a couple of other large champagne houses. “Bollinger makes fabulous non-vintage champagne,” noted Westby. He adds, “Out of the big champagne portfolio of LVMH, Ruinart is very exciting – they still use all grand cru sites in their wines. In terms of vintage, perhaps one of the most overlooked among the grand marques is vintage Roederer.”
Champagne Pommery has developed the concept of seasonal imbibing by releasing a line of four champagnes, each one representing spring, summer, fall and winter. “We have released a rosé for spring, a blanc de blancs for summer, an extra dry for fall and a blanc de noirs for winter. We’re always looking for new ways to promote our wines and it’s funny because each wine works incredibly well with its corresponding season,” explained Thomas Lambert-Laurencethe, vice president of Vranken-Pommery America.
Boutique Label Champagne
Some champagne buyers are gravitating towards boutique labels of champagne. Leonardo LoCascio, the importer of Champagne Jacquesson, a small production champagne house, said, “The champagne market is dominated by less than 10 mega producers that are mostly owned by large multinational companies. Big brands have become so big that they’ve lost a lot of snob appeal. Consumers are looking for something different with great quality. Many known prestige cuvees aren’t even small anymore because production has increased drastically.”
Wilson Daniels Ltd. imports the cult-status Champagne Salon and its sibling, Champagne Delamotte. Director of marketing, Paul Englert, said, “Wilson Daniels is about quality and not quantity, so we’ve got small producer sparkling wines in our portfolio. Starting from the very top we have Salon, followed by Delamotte. Salon is the gold standard and it’s sort of a connoisseur’s or insider’s choice of champagne. Delamotte is associated with Salon and though their production is larger, it’s another quality champagne.”
Champagne Delamotte’s signature is low dosage (around seven grams per liter), a trend we’re seeing throughout the sparkling wine world. Another house that is making low/zero dosage their definition is Champagne Ayala. “Ayala uses a high percentage of grand cru grapes, even in their non-vintage brut. They only use first press and the rest is sold to other houses,” explained Vincent Renault, executive vice president at Cognac One LLC, the importers of Ayala. He added, “They add a low dosage of seven grams per liter and they make zero dosage champagne. They are attempting to prove that if you have quality, you don’t need sugar; they are redefining champagne.”
The worldwide demand for champagne is placing pressure on large houses to buy more grapes and thus create more champagne. To meet growing demands in the new markets of Asia and Russia, the appellation of champagne will expand to include new communes. We won’t see any immediate effects of the expansion due to the time it will take to plant vines and bear fruit, but it will be interesting to see how it will affect the future category of champagne.
Even for the hardcore champagne lover, steep price tags makes consuming the stuff on a regular basis a challenge. Fans of mineral laden bubbly are turning to other regions of France like the Loire Valley, where chenin blanc grapes can come from chalky soils giving a wine that is similar to the Côte des Blancs wines of Champagne.
Gary Stewart, the owner of Cellars Wine & Spirits Warehouse in Fort Lauderdale, FL, states, “We offer crémants from France, a lot of which are still under twenty dollars a bottle. Plus, when a lot of our customers see a French sparkling wine, it’s an easier sell because they think if it is from France it must be good.”
From the West Coast
Virtually all retailers sell Californian methode champenoise bubbly, which most concur offer great value for the price. In many cases, well-known champagne houses have corresponding California labels, such as Mumm Napa, Piper Sonoma, Domaine Chandon and Roederer Estate, to name a few. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. As in the still wine world, the range of styles can vary widely.
At Wilson Daniels, the distributor for Schramsberg, for example, Paul Englert stated, “Schramsberg is arguably the best sparkling wine in the world outside of champagne. Their wines are gaining in popularity and over the next year we expect continued growth.”
Other brands also have plenty to offer. Indeed, domestic methode champenoise producers range from premium to superpremium pricing. Several of the best-known performers include the aforementioned Domaine Chandon (sales of 354,000 cases, up 4.4%), Mumm Napa (184,000 cases, up 17.2%), Gloria Ferrer (165,000 cases, up 3.1%) and Piper Sonoma (111,000 cases, up 6.7%). But there are literally scores of additional notable sparkling wines from California and Washington State that can be positioned as great holiday gifts, as well as aperitifs for holiday parties and accompaniments to holiday meals.
Prosecco and Other Italian Offerings
Hailing from Veneto, Prosecco di Conegliano -Valdobbiadene DOC, named after the prosecco grape, makes deliciously light frothy wines using the charmat method. Typically served as an aperitif in Italy, prosecco has recently become a trendy choice in the U.S. Leonardo LoCascio, the importer of Zardetto Prosecco, said, “A lot of Americans drink champagne even though many find it too dry. They tend to like sweeter, creamier tastes. Prosecco delivers exactly that. It’s wonderfully aromatic, flowery, peachy and pretty, and it is very light with a soft and creamy texture.”
Kobrand recently launched a prosecco called Caposaldo Prosecco. John Bradbury, the senior product director for imported wines at Kobrand, explained why the Italian fizz is so popular. “It’s a credibility factor. They think of Italy and they think Ferrari, Armani and the great Italian cuisine. It’s also at a great price point, it is low in alcohol, refreshing and perfect for the summer but it can see you through to the holidays, too. Prosecco is an affordable luxury.”
Santa Margherita has jumped on the prosecco trend, too. “There’s been a dip in general sparkling wine sales, but prosecco sales are on the way up,” said owner Terlato.
Terlato Wines International are also the importers of Ca’ del Bosco, a producer of the more obscure Franciacorta DOCG. Made in the traditional champagne method, Franciacorta is craved among wine drinkers that like a high-quality mousse. Terlato offers, “Franciacorta is very small production. Ca’ del Bosco is the most renown producer in the region and is well regarded for the quality of their sparkling wine.”
Of course, for consumers looking for light, sweet sparkling wines, Asti Spumante and Moscato d’Asti are the deal. Both are DOCG wines from the Asti region of Piedmont and are made from the Moscato Bianco grape. Martini & Rossi sells the top Asti Spumante in the U.S., while sales of Verdi Spumante are not far behind.
When the average price of entry-level champagne is $40 to $50, méthode champenoise wines from other regions can sound incredibly attractive, especially when they run at less than half the price. Cava, Spain’s méthode champenoise bubbly, was once known as the poor man’s champagne, but quality sparkling wines, particularly from Penedès, are coming into their own.
Jose Pastor, the owner of Vinos and Gourmet Inc, an importing company specializing in small producer Spanish wines, brings in two cavas: German Gilabert NV, which retails at around $15 and the Castell de Sant Antoni, a vintage cava that retails for around $40. The former produces 2,000 cases a year, while the latter makes less than 250 cases. Both cavas are meant for a niche market, for the kind of consumer that loves high-quality fizz from under-the-radar producers. Pastor tells us, “In the past two years, Americans have shown more interest for small production cava. As the price of champagne has gone up, cava has become a good alternative for consumers wanting a high-quality sparkling wine at a decent price.”
Pastor also points out that there is growing interest among the industry and consumers for indigenous grape varietals. Though cava production does allow for chardonnay and pinot noir, it is the native macabeo, parellada, xarel-lo and trepat grapes that are most favored by folks craving wines of distinction. Other producers of cava that have impressed the palates of wine buyers and sommeliers are Gramona, Llopart, Raventos i Blanc and Avinyo.
The aforementioned boutique labels may be creating a niche market, but it’s the big brands that are best known by American consumers. Freixenet is America’s best-selling cava and according to David Brown, the vice president of marketing and advertising at Freixenet USA, sales are currently (in 2008) growing, and the company has several new products and initiatives in full swing. “We’re famous for the black frosted bottle of Cordon Negro [Brut]. We decided to update the packaging a bit while keeping true to its original design,” Brown said.
He added, “We also launched a new rosé two months ago. The trend for sparkling rosé has been up. In addition we are sponsoring the new PBS food show featuring Mario Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow in Spain [Spain…On The Road Again], as well as Jose Andres’ cooking show on cable television [Made in Spain].”
Freixenet also own Segura Viudas, a brand that has shown promising growth for the company. The Reserva Heredad, a classy looking bottle with a silver pewter ring around the base of the bottle, is perfect for gifts and sells especially well during the holidays. Said Brown, “When you bring the Reserva Heredad to a party, it looks like you spent $65 on it, but it’s actually a lot less.”
This season will be a particularly interesting one for overall sparkling wines sales. The current economic climate poses a challenge to stores that have noticed customers are tightening their purse strings. Retailer Westby, like many other buyers, is rising to the challenge. “It’s such an interesting market right now. The holiday season is usually hot for champagne and sparkling wines. It’s the lion’s share of the year, so to speak. When the economy is great anyone can do my job and just stock a lot of DP [Dom Pérignon] and Cristal. Having a little a bit of an economic downturn actually makes my job more interesting.”
Sparkling rosés are the big news in bubbly. A number of producers have released new rosés, including Bollinger, Veuve Clicquot and Freixenet, while other houses are increasing their rosé production. Paul Englert, at Wilson Daniels, said, “Schramsberg is making more rosé. It is a category we’ve seen grow to complete acceptance and even preference.”
Mumm Napa has replaced their Blanc de Noirs with a new rosé release. “We just introduced a Napa Valley Brut Rosé, which highlights some of our best Napa Valley pinot noir grapes in a style that is hot with consumers right now,” said Eric Guerra, brand director at Mumm Napa.
Besides being a great vehicle for more pinot noir character (or trepat in the case of cava), its color can have an alluring effect on consumers. Gloria Ferrer in California makes a subtle-hued sparkling rosé. “The Blancs de Noirs has ever such a faint pink tint to it and people are really charmed when they see it,” noted Dave Brown, Freixenet USA vp, director of marketing.
Meanwhile, Bollinger’s new release rosé fulfills the trend for pink fizz while remaining true to its house style.
As expected, retailers have gotten behind the rosé trend, too. As Gary Westby at K&L Merchants puts it, “Rosé is going gangbusters.”