Champagne’s reign as the sparkling drink of choice for UK consumers has been dealt two curveballs in the past few years.
Prosecco has obviously posed the biggest threat, threatening to knock Champagne off its perch in terms of value and value sales while achieving the unthinkable and making it socially acceptable to order a glass of bubbles in a pub over a pint.
Then there is the growing presence of English sparkling wine.
It might not be encroaching on Champagne’s market share in quite the same way, but in terms of column inches and space at tastings and event, it has become quite the competitor.
This was the case at Glass of Bubbly’s Champagne Summit in Piccadilly on Monday, where Proseccos and English sparklers sat alongside Champagnes at a rate of about 7 to 1.
Alongside English names such as Exton Park and Charles Palmer was Woodchurch Estates which appeared for the first time as part of the Connoisseur Estates portfolio.
This was the first year the importer and agency business exhibited an English wine since they started representing the Kent at the start of the year.
According to director Andrew Steel, the addition has ‘completed’ their portfolio which also includes Maori label Tohu, Argentina’s Gauchezco and Autréau Champagne.
But for a long time, English sparkling wasn’t a gap that absolutely had to be filled.
“For years I wasn’t sure the quality was there,” he said of English sparkling as a category. “But Woodchurch stacks up in the quality stakes. There’s a clean freshness there that I didn’t see [in English sparkling] before.”
English sparkling still has a way to go to reach the heights of Champagne.
Last year, off-trade value sales were £9.7mn compared to Champagne’s £327.7mn (and Prosecco’s indomitable £534mn): [data Nielsen.]
On-trade sales patterns are similar, showing strong growth for English sparkling at the lower end of the spectrum and a decline / rise in growth for Champagne and Prosecco respectively at the other (CGA Strategy).
For the on-trade, English sparkling was worth £4.2m in 2016, an increase of 117% on 2015.
Sales of Prosecco reached £234.6m in 2016 (+48% vs 2015), while Champagne sales fell 5.8% to £413.6m.
If UK environment secretary Elizabeth Truss’ export figures for English sparkling are to be believed, export volumes will rise from 250,000 to 2.5 million bottles by 2020.
But as Steel says, “There has to be a desire for English sparkling, and people have to be prepared to pay for it.”
A benefit English sparkling has over Prosecco and even Champagne is that “there’s no entry level, which is brilliant, because there’s no discussion on price, just quality”.
The quality was clear was Monday’s event, but so was something else – the disparity in history and experience.
The UK has always been spoilt for heritage, but even the Piccadilly Meridien Hotel where the event was held far outdates the UK’s oldest commercial vineyard.
Woodchurch for example only began in 2010, and now, seven years later has 12,000 vines.
Autréau, on the other hand is family business, where generations of the same family have been growing wine in the same vineyards since 1660.
But as connoisseurs and purveyors of Champagne, our history is as old as that of the Champenois.
This history, and the how the special relationship between the UK and Champagne will be affected by Brexit was a subject covered by The Story of Champagne author Nicholas Faith at Monday’s tasting.
“Brexit is the next step in the story of English and Champagne history,” he said. “We didn’t invent it, but we were first people to sell it in 17th century because we had the right kind of bottles to contain the fizz.”
Brexit, he said, “should be looked on as next stage of relationship between England and Champagne.”
He pointed to a law which was passed in the UK in 1950s to stop the importation of Spanish sparkling wine and calling it Champagne.
This issue also involved tory MP Michael Grylls – father of TV survivalist Bear Grylls – who’s chequered career involved the cash-for-questions scandal in the 1990s and also various stints in the criminal and civil law courts for describing products from his wine company as “Spanish Champagne”.
This all sounds like a bad joke: what do Bear Grylls and Champagne have in common?
But the point Faith makes is that protection of Champagne in the UK will continue post-Brexit, because, after all, if we want to trade with Europe, then we will still have to adhere to its trading laws.
Apart from laws keeping importers in check, there is more that connects us that just the same chalk soil, Faith adds – and Brexit wont affect this.
“For years, the UK has led the taste for Champagne. We’ve always been France’s first market, because we’re willing to try new things. For example, we were the first market in the world to drink dry Champagne.”
As for Prosecco, its rising tide will, “be good for sale of Champagne here [in the UK],” he believes.
“I’m glad sales of Prosecco going up so fast and that it’s cheap,” he added. “Because people will then want something more complex. They will go onto Champagne, which is still the most complex out of all the sparkling wines.”
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