For a long time, Champagne has been synonymous with style and sophistication. Boutique Champagne house Perrier-Jouët's prestige cuvée Belle Epoque, enjoyed by the likes of Oscar Wilde and Coco Chanel, is testament to this.
But Champagne, and now, hot on its heels, sparkling wine, have both evolved. What was once an occasional splash of luxury, enjoyed sparingly during celebratory treats, has now become acceptable day-to-day.
With all the hallmarks of sophisticated decadence, bubbly has evolved into an everyday treat - as well as offering a splash of luxury for occasions of celebration, romance and glamour. The regional French fizz sells most during the obvious calendar dates for partying and showmanship - but is also used to celebrate birthdays, or even just the end of the working week!
"We typically see Champagne sales peak at different times in the year, with occasions such as Valentine's Day and Christmas being important sales drivers," says First Drinks marketing controller for Champagne Victor Lanson.
But what happened amid the recession? Naturally, people went out less. But something more interesting occurred.
When they did go out, it became marked as an 'occasion' due to its infrequency.
In effect, as pub visits dwindled, premium 'occasion' drinks, began to have their moment in the sun.
"We have seen the emergence of new occasions and different consumer behaviour where the consumption of Champagne is concerned," says Lanson. "Consumers are generally now visiting pubs less frequently but are choosing to really treat themselves on those occasions when they do go. This group has been dubbed the 'weekend millionaires' and they are an important target consumer for Champagne brands in the on-trade."
But, amid the economic downturn, top-end Champagnes dropped in favour over the past two years, with a few brands staying steady. Brands like Piper-Heidsieck, a particularly strong performer, grew at nine per cent year on year, according to First Drinks. But most outlets saw a new breed of fizz take centre stage, with increased sales of good-quality sparkling wines from around the world.
"A significant trend is the rising popularity of sparkling wines. This can be attributed to the increased quality of the category and its price point, which makes it an attractive alternative to Champagne or cava, especially during the recent economic downturn," says Brown Brothers Wines European sales and marketing manager Gail Gilbert. With sunshine encouraging al fresco drinking, sparkling wine that is affordable for consumers, but also appeals to their desire for celebration drinks, enjoyed a lift.
"The good weather this summer has provided a boost for sparkling wine sales, with Constellation's sales over the past eight weeks up 104 per cent by volume and 82 per cent by value," says Neil Anderson, European marketing controller of Constellation Wine's Australia & New Zealand portfolio. "Overall the sparkling market is up 9.9 per cent by volume and 12.3 per cent by value."
Stock up on sparkling
But how might licensees take advantage of the trend? By stocking up on their sparkling range, of course. Wine merchants are savvy to the popularity of sparkling wines already, so many have a great selection from which to choose.
"Brown Brothers has responded to this trend by expanding its sparkling varietals," says Gilbert, pointing out that the most recent launch, Brown Brothers cienna rosso, is a welcome addition to the sparkling range comprising Zibibbo rosa and non-vintage pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier.
"Available at Makro, it is the first sparkling wine to be produced using the unique red grape cienna," adds Gilbert. But are there any other styles that are booming?
"Prosecco, such as the Vino Spumante Extra Dry from Fabiano, has been the brightest star, with its unique slightly off dry peach flavours proving a real hit, and when sold by the bottle at around the £20 mark, it can also retail at £3.50 to £4 for a 125ml glass," says Heritage Wine director Toby Mason. "Pub and bar customers can then feel that they are having a really special glass, perhaps just to start an evening off, at a price that doesn't hit the pocket too hard."
Carlsberg UK director of third-party brands Paul Waller agrees that sales of prosecco are largely driven by "accessibility of the product," suggesting that in many ways "it is more approachable in terms of taste, price and fashionability" than traditional Champagne and, as such, it should not be neglected.
WaverleyTBS wine director Neil Bruce agrees that NV Champagnes and proseccos are becoming more favourable because they are more affordable.
"Prosecco is still 'hot', especially in the on-trade," agrees Anderson.
"Every one of our prosecco wines is in double-digit growth on last year," he adds proudly, reiterating that "Champagne sales have migrated away from the grandes marques mainly to either lower priced Champagnes, such as the popular Reynier and Duc de Roucher brands, or into prosecco".
Helen Davey, wine category manager at WaverleyTBS, points out that the alternatives are of such high quality these days that they aren't a compromise in any way. "Prosecco from Veneto in Italy, spumante from Italy, cava from Spain and crémant in other regions of France or Luxembourg are very acceptable alternatives to Champagne these days and just a quarter of the price," she says.
She believes it is high time pubs took advantage of the trend and started updating their wine lists accordingly.
People have always been so quick to judge sparkling wines based on their location that it's interesting to note that English wine - especially English sparkling wine - is the next one to watch.
"Following the increased credibility of English fizz, we teamed up with Ridgeview, based in Ditchling, Sussex, which seriously rivals many of the big names from Champagne," says Mason. "Coming in at a similar price to a typical 'house' Champagne, the quality is noticeably high; plus it caters for the feel-good factor of drinking a British product, with low miles between winery and bar."
Another way to make the most of the trend for fizz is to educate your staff so they're fully equipped to upsell your wines with confidence.
"Knowledge is power," says Jo Spencer, head of marketing for Champagne at Pernod Ricard UK. "Staff who are educated about Champagne have the confidence to serve and sell it successfully and create a better experience for their customers.
"Last year we launched L'École du Champagne - a session for the trade geared at educating them on how to market and sell Champagne, demonstrating ways for bartenders to maximise profits through their range and menu structure," says Lanson.
"In the sessions, we include comparative tastings with a range of brands, food-matching discussions and sales techniques, as well as looking at an overview of the UK Champagne market and exploring consumer drinking habits and trends. Our intention is that this will become a regular fixture in the drinks calendar and as such we have another session planned for next month".
Neil Phillips, Pernod Ricard UK's brand ambassador for Champagne, features in a Champagne training video that is available free to bars and covers basic Champagne-serving techniques, including: correct opening, pouring, chilling and choosing the appropriate glassware.
"It also contains many other very simple, but highly effective hints and tips on making the Champagne experience extra-special for customers - and extra profitable for pubs and bars. For instance, it explains how serving magnums, rather than multiple bottles, not only adds a sense of theatre, but delivers wonderfully on taste too," says Spencer. Pub managers or owners can download the video from www.drinkology.com to see whether it's something that might work well in their pubs.
Champagne and sparkling wine can often seem like an indulgence, so selling