Champagne’s rollercoaster year

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It’s no big surprise that the global lockdown had a disastrous effect on Champagne sales. But the category has been bouncing back as restrictions lift, and even Brexit doesn’t seem to have derailed progress in the UK. By David Williams

 

This year marks the 80th birthday of one of wine’s most successful generic marketing groups.

The Comité Interprofessional du Vin de Champagne (known these days as Comité Champagne) was formed in one of the darkest moments of the 20th century, helping to hold the industry together throughout the Nazi occupation of France.

Since then, it’s helped Champagne producers weather numerous further crises, most of them economic in nature. From the oil crisis of 1973, to the Great Recession of 2008, sales of fizz have plummeted during stormy periods in the global financial system.

But, as that 80th birthday approached, the organisation had to draw on all of its famed diplomatic ingenuity to weather what is unquestionably the biggest crisis Champagne has faced since the end of WWII.

In terms of sales, 2020 was, as the Comité’s director general Charles Goemaere puts it delicately in his introduction to the body’s annual report, a “particularly challenging” year for Champagne.

Total sales were down by 17.9% to 244 million bottles in volume for the full year versus 2019, while value dropped by 16.7%, shedding some €845m to leave the total standing at €4.2bn.

The going was especially rough in Champagne’s four main markets. France, which as the report says, has been in long-term decline, suffered its 10th consecutive drop in 2020, a 19.9% fall that consolidated the eclipse of domestic sales by exports: the French now account for 46.4% of all Champagne sales, versus 47.5% in 2019.

Meanwhile, the largest market by volume, the UK, lost 21.7% of its volume sales, while the US, the largest by value, was down 18.8% in volume, and Japan shed 24.5% of its imports compared to the previous year.

Context and optimism

How much these bald figures tell us about the real health of the Champagne sector is rather open to question, however. Certainly, the Comité can muster plenty of evidence to suggest these figures are the result of a one-off shock – a drop in sales that is almost entirely attributable to the unprecedented event of the world’s bars and restaurants closing for weeks or months at a time, more or less simultaneously.

As the Comité’s annual report points out: “The closure of bars and restaurants, restrictions on celebrations and the cancellation of numerous events have curtailed Champagne sales and consumption, often drastically.” But this is by no means the only story. “The year has been a roller coaster,” the report continues, “with very sharp falls (April -68%, May -56%) and equally sharp rises (+50 points between April and June), demonstrating the circumstantial nature of the drop in sales.”

Other indicators point to a deep resilience in the Champagne market. The most striking is the performance of Australia, where Champagne imports soared by a remarkable 11.2%, sparking reports of a shortage in the country. New Zealand, too, bucked the trend, with no drop in imports versus the previous year. As the report says, this is largely attributable to the two countries’ “effective handling of the pandemic”. In other words, in markets where life is somewhere closer to the old “normal”, Champagne thrives.

Champagne in the UK

Much of the bigger global picture in the Champagne market can be found in microcosm in the UK.

The 21.7% drop in volume meant the UK imported 21.3 million bottles of Champagne in 2020, and it still has some 16% of total Champagne exports. Meanwhile turnover fell by 21.9% to €338.2m, putting it just behind the US with 12.9% of total Champagne export turnover.

As the report points out, however, the UK was at the forefront of trends that have seen Champagne sales rebound since the first lockdown in spring 2020: a switch to drinking Champagne at home, which was very much a part of a premiumisation of take-home drinking in the absence of the on-trade and public events. Both supermarkets and merchants saw a rise in Champagne sales during 2020, with supermarket sales increasing by 6.1% to 9.8 million bottles, and with many retailers reporting a spike in online Champagne sales.

Meanwhile, the completion of Brexit, much-feared by the Champenois, has, at least according to the Comité, had relatively little effect on Champagne imports, with the EU-UK Trade & Cooperation Agreement “guaranteeing exemption from customs duties”.

 

A vintage year in the cellar

One particularly intriguing detail amid the blizzard of numbers and data offered by the Comité’s annual report is the strong performance of the vintage brut category in the UK.

According to the Comité, almost all Champagne styles suffered a “major” slump in sales in 2020, with non-vintage, the runaway market leader with a share of more than 80%, inevitably enduring the worst losses.

Vintage brut was the single exception, with sales rebounding to a remarkable degree: the style actually returned to growth in 2020, up 18.1% to 0.3 million bottles after what the Comité calls “three years of sustained decline”.

It’s a surge that is in part attributable to the presence of wines from some of Champagne’s finest recent vintages in the market, including 2008 and 2012, but which also reflects a renewed interest from producers large and small.

Also on the up is rosé Champagne, at least in terms of market share: sales of pink styles fared better in the UK than Champagne as a whole, falling 12.8% in volume, but the style’s 10.7% slice of the market is its highest ever in the UK.

A vintage year in the vineyard

Other reasons for optimism in Champagne can be found in the vineyard. Although harvesting conditions were scarcely ideal – many growers remarked on the extra expense and inefficiency caused by harvesting in a Covid-19-safe fashion – the consensus in the region is that 2020 is another excellent vintage, the third of a trilogy of fine, warmer vintages to match the legendary trio of 1988, 1989 and 1990.

With growers learning how to deal with ever-earlier harvests – 2020 was one of the earliest on record, starting a full two weeks before the 10-year average – there is a sense that 2020 may even be the finest of the trio.

It will also be the smallest. After a series of high-stakes meetings over the spring and summer of 2020, the tricky act of balancing the interests of the region’s two big power blocs – the growers and the houses – against a backdrop of large stocks of unsold wine, resulted in tight limits on production: a maximum of 8,000kg per hectare, or a total production of 230 million litres.

And still they came

Covid-19 hasn’t stopped the Champagne houses making their usual flurry of prestige cuvée and vintage releases. Highlights of the past year or so have included such stunning 2008s as Krug, Charles Heidsieck Rosé and Rare, and Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Elisabeth Salmon Rosé; the intriguing 2007 Bollinger RD; impressive 2013s from the likes of Cristal, Moët and Perrier-Jouët Belle-Epoque; and outstanding 2012s in the shape of Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill and Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame.

The increasing respect with which Champagne producers now treat the Meunier grape variety was also acknowledged in the first of a new series of wines from Billecart-Salmon, Les Rendez-Vous de Billecart-Salmon. Conceived as one-off, “pop-up” releases, No 1 is a 100% Meunier Extra Brut, all sourced from the Marne Valley.

The ever-warmer weather experienced in the Champagne region is also leading an increasing number of producers to dabble in still wine. The most high profile – if minuscule in quantity – releases so far are from Louis Roederer, which launched a Pinot Noir red and a Chardonnay white under the Hommage à Camille label earlier this year. The inaugural 2018 vintages have attracted plenty of plaudits from the press, with the inevitable Burgundy comparisons only helped by the prices (€160 for the red; €140 for the white) and the scale of the production (1,600 bottles of red; 2,900 of white).

 

Alliance Riceys – representing growers

Although the houses continue to dominate sales of Champagne in the UK with 86% of the total, the grower movement continues to develop, along with a burgeoning sense of sub-regional identity.

Both trends can be seen in the formation of the Alliance Riceys, a new body formed to represent the interests of five récoltant-manipulant producers (Batisse-Lancelot, Pascal Manchin, Pehu Guiardel, Arnaud Tabourin and Phlipaux Père et Fils) in Les Riceys, a Pinot-dominated commune in the Côte des Bar in southern Champagne, which, as the Alliance points out, is closer to Chablis than Reims.

The group has already put together an online tasting for the UK trade in late June. Growers in other sub-regions of Champagne will no doubt be watching with interest as Champagne continues to develop in ways that the early founders of the Comité could only have dreamed of in the dark days of 1941.

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