(This is a version of a print article that I wrote recently on the latest trends in sparkling wine. A different audience and a different, broader tone than usual, but perhaps of interest so I’m reposting here).
You can blame the French Revolution.
As part of the social changes embraced in late 18th century France, many strict religious ceremonies were replaced by more liberal secular ones. That meant Champagne replaced holy water to help christen boats, celebrate weddings and kickoff baptisms, with fizz then seen a symbol of joy and fun, with ‘positive effects on women’s beauty and men’s wit’ (if not their dancing).
Since then, bubbles have been locked in as the celebratory drink of choice, whether sprayed all over the crowd on an F1 podium, or sipped by Tour de France riders as they roll into Paris with one hand on the hoods and the other on a flute.
Still, while Champagne has long been the most revered sparkling wine of choice, it has been challenged by a whole new set of fizzy contenders from not only within France, but also Spain and Italy. Locally, you can add in the competition from Australian made sparkling wines that encompass a few styles that most Champenoise would never have imagined to be competitors…
The rise of Prosecco
According to IRI data, the sparkling wine category grew in Australia by 5% in value and 5.3% in volume to January 2017. One segment of that category, however, grew at an astronomical 50.6% YOY by value – Prosecco.
Globally, Prosecco now outpaces Champagne in volume, with an image of freshness and affordability that almost guarantees volumes will continue to grow. Further, the lower price point (75% less than Champagne according to IRI figures) means that it isn’t just festive season consumption, with Prosecco seen as a sparkling for every day.
Looking at Wine Australia figures, imported Italian sparkling volumes grew by 6.7% from 2015-2016, and, as Michael Bynon of importer and distributor Kollaras explains, that growth is easy to understand:
‘This is basically all Prosecco, as Italy’s other famous sparkling wine, Asti Spumante, is in strong decline’ he said.
Perhaps the only challenge with Prosecco is that there is a perceived price ceiling, with even the finest Italian wines a distance off entry level Champagne in price expectations.
As Simon Green of retailer MyWineGuy.com.au explains, however, it is not Champagne that should be looking over the shoulder at top imported Prosecco, it is premium Australian sparkling:
‘Prosecco is the killer for local fizz’ he said.
‘The price to quality to ratio is incredible, plus packaging and marketing pushing out producers. It’s a real threat.’
Flat Aussie fizz
Between 2015 and 2016 Champagne consumption increased by 4.7% in Australia, to go with the huge 7.7% lift for other imported sparkling (Wine Australia figures). Yet locally made sparkling lifted by just 0.6% over the same period, and has instead decreased in volume by 3.2% since 2007.
As Bynon explains, we shouldn’t be fooled by the stats:
‘Local bubbly is falling behind imports in terms of growth but, importantly, it is still the largest category with more than three times the volume of imported bubbly!’ he said.
‘You can’t ignore it and nor do we. Australia makes increasingly fine bubbly and it’s often very reasonably priced for the quality.’
One of the greatest perceived challenges that Aussie sparkling wine face is in the super-premium segment, with Champagne prices dropping down to their lowest point of $55.37/unit last year (Aztec IRI data) and offering a headache for the best local fizz.
Mitchell Harris winemaker and wine bar owner Johnno Harris tends to agree that it’s an issue too.
‘We are seeing high demand on premise for what would be $25-$35 retail domestic sparkling. Beyond $40 retail consumers are weighing up their spend and tend to be buying Champagne or other French bubbles instead’ he said.
According to one of the kings of Aussie sparkling wine, Arras’ Ed Carr, however, while it’s not easy selling premium local fizz, the sentiment is changing.
‘Yes (it is a challenge), because there is the perception that French is ‘best’’ he said.
‘However consumers are becoming more receptive to Vintage Australian sparkling, and we’re seeing this in scan data’.
Aztec IRI figures back that up, with +$35 Champagne growing at 5% in value while sparkling white is growing at 43% in value. It’s off a low base – the super-premium sparkling wine market makes up just 3% of the Champagne market at this price point – but shows the scope.
As Carr also points out, our best sub $25 sparkling is much better than equivalent Champagne too.
‘I see that the market is starting to recognise the different quality levels, with the low price wines showing below par. Tyson (Stelzer) wrote recently that cheap Champagne under $25 is not worth drinking as Australia’s best cuveés at the same price run rings around them.’
Champagne brands still bubbling on
Australia is the seventh largest Champagne market in the world, consuming 7.4 million bottles in 2016. While that is a slight drop off from the all-time record 8.1 million bottles in 2015 (Comité Champagne figures), Australia remains an important market.
The local market continues to be dominated by big house Champagne brands too, with Mumm the fastest growing brand (up by 58% by value) over the last 12 months, closely followed by Piper Heidsieck.
While much has been made about the growth in grower Champagne and smaller houses, these big brands continue to dominate sales, and particularly in the super-premium and luxury end of the market.
Scott Strathearn, of Champagne specialty retailer Champagnegallery.com.au explains that perfectly:
‘Much of our business is based on gifting individual bottles to clients/recipients for celebrations and for those buyers brand is king’ he said.
‘These items being sold are generally driven by the brand recognition for the recipient, to appear to be “prestigious” and “special”. Unfortunately (grower Champagne) does not resonate at times with punters who need the brand to drive home the desired perceived spend and nature of the “special” gift being given.’
Ben Stokes of importer and distributor Illuminati Wines explains this issue further.
‘Our challenge is similar to that of local producers where we are promoting the superior quality of our wine, over multi-million dollar marketing budgets’ he said.
For independent retailers, however, Stokes sees the prospect of smaller Champagne brands as an opportunity:
‘Now more than ever I would see differentiating from the larger chains to be a significant advantage’ he said.
‘Offer the same products at a higher price point than Dan’s or BWS? Or alternatively offer a unique Champagne with a story, superior quality, at a similar price point to the big houses?’
What’s in your flute?
While the focus for Champagne makers continues to be on more traditional styles and blends, there is a palpable sense that other styles are gaining traction – particularly rosé.
With still rosé the fastest growing category in the wine industry (up nearly 31% in 2016 by IRI data), it’s perhaps unsurprising that pink bubbles are on trend (up by 27%).
The rosé uplift has been recognised at the luxury end of the Champagne market, with Taittinger announcing a new super-release release, as Sarah Nichols of importer McWilliams Wines explains:
‘From learnings we have gained from the market and general demand we are excited to be relaunching one of the jewels in the Taittinger crown, the Comtes Rose back into the Australian market in October 2017 (with) Directeur Général Adjoint Clovis Taittinger in Australia to celebrate this launch’ she said.
Locally, Johnno Harris has had a warm reception for his first Mitchell Harris Sabre Rose too:
‘Last year we created 40 dozen Sabre Rose using the Taché method with a fine young Pinot Noir red wine’ he said.
‘This was very successful, in terms of quality and market receptiveness and we hope to tirage a small amount of rosé (50-60doz) this year using some of the Pinot Noir red wine that we made from our Ballarat vineyard.’
It’s not just rosé that is on trend either, with an ancient style of sparkling gaining significant acclaim, albeit within a small niche.
Pet-nat (short for Pétillant-naturel) is a style of sparkling made in the ‘method ancestral’; where the wine is bottled while still fermenting without the addition of extra yeast or sugar. This production style predates the more widely adopted method traditionelle (of bottle fermented sparkling wine) and is effectively the origin of fizz.
While pet-nat styles have remained somewhat in obscurity for years, there has been a renaissance in recent years that has propelled the style back into our sparkling consciousness.
One of the more serious pet-nats released locally is that of the Umbra Method Ancestral from Mark Matthews at the South Gippsland Wine Company.
Here, we see the pointy end of the style, with organic Chardonnay fruit given 20 months on lees before being hand riddled and hand bottled.
As Matthews explains, the appeal of this style is its purity:
‘The big house NV champagne styles are often too expensive, too boring and soulless’ he said.
‘This is the ultimate method to express single site wines as fruit, autolysis and skill are all expressed… artisanal skill will be resurgent in the face of robots and automation.’
One of the biggest challenges with this revivalist style is variability, as Johnno Harris explains:
‘There are some genuine and purposefully made pet-nat styles that are great drinks’ he said.
‘However there also many (unfinished) traditional methode wines that are masquerading as pet-nats where the balance is all wrong.’
‘There is often too much gas pressure, and without a suitably liqueur addition of a suitable dosage they’re excessively aggressive on the palate (and make a great mess upon opening).’
It remains to be seen whether pet-nats are the future of sparkling or just a fad – but the sheer diversity of style means that it’s a style that will continue to attract interest.
The lure of red fizz
Finally, there is one style that is both quintessentially Australian and on the rise (again) and that’s sparkling Shiraz.
While so often pigeonholed as just a Christmas day drink (it is the best ham wine on the planet), sparkling Shiraz has come back into the limelight in recent years, spearheaded by the reborn Seppelt Wines.
Seppelt, who have a history with sparkling red that dates back over 120 years, struck it big time last year and have been riding the wave since, as Melissa Louey of Treasury Wine Estates explains:
‘Our 2007 Seppelt Show Sparkling Shiraz was recently awarded James Halliday’s Sparkling Wine of the Year 2018 – a first for a sparkling Shiraz, and an honour for a wine with such heritage’ she said.
‘Seppelt has long had a reputation for creating the world’s benchmark expression of the style, and this certainly reinforces it…. we did have an influx of sales as a result!’
Indeed Seppelt are now launching a new sparkling range known as the ‘The Great Entertainer’ that includes a $15.99 sparkling red as part of the lineup.
As Green notes, it’s a good thing that sparkling red is back:
‘I hope sparkling Shiraz is getting more success. It’s a classic Australian style and deserves to be acclaimed’ he said.