Fizzy logic

A decline in Champagne’s fortunes has been greeted with some churlish sneering. But the Champenois obsession with luxury-good status isn’t particularly endearing, either. By David Williams

Scarlett Johansson relaxes after a hard day of pruning and canopy management

WHAT IS IT about Champagne that brings out, in the modern parlance, the haters? The recent news, via market researchers Mintel, that, by the end of this year, UK sales of the world’s greatest fizz™ will have lost a third of their value since the start of the recession in 2007 – and that rival sparklers such as Prosecco and Cava will have grown 55% over the same period, overtaking total sales of Champagne for the first time in the process – was greeted by a chorus of approval on the places where haters gather, the Twitternetosphere.

Looking at the below-the-line responses to the story across the web reveals a startling level of hostility to Champagne, a sense that it is, in the words of one commenter on the Guardian, “vastly overrated. Well done to the French for managing to make people believe that it was worth paying the premium price for all these years. That’s a good lesson in marketing”.

Mind you, the above-the-line commentary was no less vindictive. “I’ve long believed Champagne to be a bit of a con, and vintage Champagne, which regularly tops £100 a bottle, an even bigger one,” wrote the Guardian’s Oliver Thring. He went on to describe the one in five Brits who still, according to Mintel, “would not consider” drinking sparkling wine in place of Champagne, as “ignorant snobs”.

The hating isn’t confined to the virtual world, however. Whenever I leave the wine trade bubble and chat to – eek – real people about wine, I’m struck by how often they’ll boast about their sparkling wine discoveries with something along the lines of “it’s just as good as Champagne, but about a tenth of the price.” Much the same happens when I recommend a cheap sparkler in the Observer: these are among the few wines that elicit a response from readers.

IT’S BEEN SUGGESTED, not least by the Champenois themselves, that this atmosphere is largely down to the recession. And of course there is some truth in that. Champagne was such a symbol of the pre-Lehman Bros good times that it’s scarcely surprising people have turned to cheaper options in times of austerity.

And it was ever thus: the line on the graph of Champagne sales over the past century traces more or less exactly the same fluctuations as a line representing the Western economy. In a sense, then, this story – essentially, “luxury item sells poorly in recession shocker” – could be considered as no more than business as usual. The Champenois need only wait for the good times to return for their sales to swing back to life.

But I wonder how realistic that is. It seems to me, both from my own very unscientific little bit of research and the more robust figures from Mintel, that some kind of tipping point has been reached in public attitudes to Champagne and that it may never return to its 2007 peak, at least not in this country.

Other indications from the wine market rather back this up. According to the WSTA, the key trends in the wine market when it comes to price over the past year have not been a race to the bottom among cash-strapped punters, but a dramatic rise in what they are prepared to pay. It’s not just that wines above £5 are in growth – how could they not be given the crazy British duty rates? But wines above £10 grew at more than 30% last year, a remarkable fact that rather gives the lie to the notion that tough economic times inevitably make consumers trade down.

NOW FAR BE it from me to lecture an industry that, by any measure, has been wine’s biggest and longest-standing marketing success story, but could it be that changes in the sparkling wine market might mean Champagne needs to tweak its sales patter just a little? Isn’t its fixation on glamour – whether in glossy billboard ads, fashion show tie-ups, or press releases and advertorials so light on facts and so flowery in description they seem to evaporate almost as you read them – now proving counter-productive? In a market that has learned that it is possible to find drinkable alternative sources of sparkling wine for under a tenner, is it any wonder that people have become suspicious that much of the price of a bottle of Champagne is in fact going towards le marketing and down payments on Bernard Arnault’s latest yacht?

Amid all the sometimes-ludicrous excess and gnomic, poetic posturing that surround the sale of Champagne it’s too easy to forget what a great wine it can be. In the UK, the current received wisdom seems to be that Prosecco is far cheaper but just as good and that Britain will soon eclipse its rivals across la Manche.

My own experience tells me that no one outside Champagne is making sparkling wines that even come close to those of Jacquesson, Delamotte, Philipponnat, Cédric Bouchard, Jérôme Prévost and Aubry, to name just a few of my current favourites. A modest proposal, then: if they want to silence the haters, the Champenois might want to start talking a little more like fine winemakers and a little less like couturiers.

(Note: this article first appeared in the September 2012 edition of The Wine Merchant, but due to technical gremlins the final paragraphs were substituted for the beginning of the article. Apologies for this. It’s profoundly annoying, but if Paul McCartney can be forgiven for missing his cue for Hey Jude at the Olympics opening ceremony, perhaps the same benefit of the doubt can be extended to us. Graham Holter, editor.)

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