The priorities of Champagne – Hamish Anderson

Drinks: Champagne
Other: Opinion

Successful brand it might be, but perhaps the time has come for a rethinking of priorities in Champagne

It is often lamented in the wine trade that there are not enough brands. If we only we were more like beer or spirits then the category would be easier to understand and it would be easier to persuade the general public to part with more than the miserly £5.40 or so per bottle they currently do.

The undisputed king of brands on the UK wine scene, however, is not a specific wine but a region: Champagne, and it is having a thoroughly bad time of it at the moment.

Its widely publicised sales figures make gruesome reading: nearly 9% down in volume and 14% down in value.

So how did they react? Well very much like a big brand would. There are, apparently, lots of positives in these figures and the drop in sales is down to Brexit.

The latter claim was met with as much derision as when Jamie Oliver’s PR machine blamed the UK’s withdrawal from the EU for the closure of some of his restaurants. Bear in mind that, as the pound has weakened, every other wine producing country outside of the UK has faced the same currency pressures and it doesn’t seem to be doing them too much harm.

Being a top brand has many pluses: customer loyalty and the ability to charge a premium fora product that others are also making with a similar degree of craftsmanship. Champagne’s story is one of racing cars, society events and fashion creating both a celebratory and aspirational drink. Bring a bottle of champagne around to friend’s house and you are sending a clear message: this is a treat and indulgence.

The trouble is that brands are subject to fashion and need to keep reinventing themselves to remain relevant. Champagne seems to have been associated with the same things for an eternity. 

It also does not have quality to fall back on. Much of its production remains distinctly average and, as its prices have risen, poor value in the wider world of sparkling wine. It is telling that, while Champagne’s figures are bad, the sparkling market as a whole is healthy.

People, it seems, are getting their celebratory fizz fix from elsewhere.The on-trade has a strong role in supporting brand Champagne by highlighting the best of what the region has to offer. Yet for years we have been apologists for the region, agonising over which producer of Burgundy to put on our list but then just simply listing champagne on the basis of who is going to provide the best ‘deal’.

Champagne’s image in in the on-trade would be transformed if it were treated like any other wine and simply listed on what it tasted like. Quality would increase for the consumer and those on the floor would be able to enthuse and communicate about it in the same way as the rest of the bins in the list.

There is an irony that where this is currently happening is not the showcase restaurants with Michelin aspirations, but the independent casual hip dining spots with pared-back lists.There are, of course, exceptions, but generally if you want to taste the interesting stuff from the region don’t go to a fancy restaurant or bar. Precisely because it is sold and marketed like any other brand this is unlikely to change any time soon.

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Hamish Anderson

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