With so much competition, cancelling the annual Champagne tasting is a bold move
The traditional route to burying controversial news is to announce it on a day when something more momentous is happening. The Comité Champagne took a different route, announcing that it will not be holding a tasting in 2017 at the end of July, just as the wine trade was entering full lunch/holiday mode.
Now, I was no fan of this event. There were notable absences from the high quality large properties and in the past few years it had singularly failed to showcase the rise of the small grower movement, a trend the on-trade has rightly embraced. The levels of perfume and cologne worn by exhibitors were legendary and served to emphasise how incidental the taste is to the sale of many bottles of champagne. Yet for all its faults it has been a constant in the calendar since 1994 and has become part of our tasting DNA. Its absence leaves a large hole in the UK tasting calendar.
Viewed in the context of wider generic tastings, suspending it is not a particularly radical move. The UK is a mature market, with other means of communication widely available, and all generic organisations (and those paying to attend) are questioning the scale and relevance of large annual tastings.
A constant since 1994, the Champagne tasting has become part of our DNA
The UK is Champagne's largest export market. This alone would not guarantee investment if the market were stable and competition scarce. But this is categorically not the case.
The latest HM Customs figures show an 80% increase in sales of English sparkling wine over the last five years, while the WSTA reports 50% year-on-year increase in on-trade sales. The market as a whole is predicted to grow by more than 10% by 2019.
The figures are, of course, complicated for champagne, since much of the growth is being driven by the beast that is prosecco, while English fizz is waiting in the wings – and will be hungry for a big growth in sales over the next few years to match its investment in vineyards.
Perhaps more pertinent are the parallels between the bulk, budget versions of prosecco and champagne. Both are cheap and both, in the judgement of many commentators, low quality. Prosecco has caught the attention of the public despite lukewarm reaction from the trade, yet you feel cheap champagne needs the prestige of the region as a whole to maintain its appeal.
The negative response from the UK's Champagne Agents Association highlights that if there is a new direction in the marketing approach, the UK trade don't know about it.
Cancelling a popular, if tired, event is a bold move, but not necessarily a wrong one. The key issue is not its demise, but what The Comité Champagne choose to replace it with.