With reopening restrictions, the loss of corporate Christmas parties and consumers' drinking habits changed by Covid-19, what does this 2020 festive season look like for sparkling wines? Harry Crowther investigates and puts forward his alternatives to Champagne
I have written the lead to this article more times than Bojo’s PR team have changed the tagline for everybody’s favourite pandemic.
Long, boozy work lunches usually pepper the reservation book during the Christmas run up. Sadly a curfew, a scapegoat in the shape of the hospitality sector and restrictive tier system have poo-pooed that.
What does the back end of 2020 and Christmas look like for Champagne’s fizziest time of year? Normally corks would be popping out of premium Champagne bottles. But this season, festivities might be less sparkly – especially for the more expensive brands… so what will win out? Consumers with less cash to spend or those drinking something exhilarating to kick 2020 out in Grande style?
Should we expect a push for premiumisation within the fizz category?
With traffic due to be much lower this Christmas, does this mean that operators need to be settling for what they can get, or should they be trying to make up for lower volumes with selling more expensive sparklers? Should we expect a push for premiumisation within the fizz category?
If we believe economic doom and gloom is about to be on us in 2021, maybe there’s an opportunity here for other, cheaper sparkling wines sitting in the grey area between Champagne and Prosecco: English fizz? Crémants? Even Cavas?
Alex Pitt, wine buyer at The 10 Cases, Covent Garden, doesn’t think people will be trading down at all. 'Guests are spending more on bottles of wine than before [the first] lockdown,' he says. Going on past trends, that would seem to make sense. Last December, according to the CGA, Champagne sales were up 31% in volume and 32% compared to the previous three-month average.
According to Pitt, Champagne basically takes care of itself this time of year, and, 'Having a good Champagne by the glass from November on usually helps to improve sales and spends,' he says. Perhaps not so this year I’m afraid.
Guests are spending more on bottles of wine than before [the first] lockdown
That said, Pitt might have a point. By and large, we can thank social distancing and smaller table sizes for the vertiginous drop in footfall (and don’t get me started on the curfew and substantial meals...). And with that comes a shift in drinking habits. Do smaller reservations mean downsizing serves? If you’re me, then no… But there can be no denying that the combination of fewer guests at the table, plus rising health concerns suggest some people are looking for a smaller serve, instead of a full ice bucket tableside…
'People are starting to skip aperitifs and trade down on sparkling wine,' says Shane McHugh at Goodman Steakhouses.
Surely, lower spends are also a result of people fretting over the economic future and tightening their purse strings. Not according to McHugh: Goodman’s still wine spends, for example, have shot up 15% since reopening after lockdown 1.0 – in other words, the drink less but drink better trend is here to stay.
'I don’t see a big change [in average spends]', says Restaurant Story’s Jonny Kleeman. 'We see strong Champagne sales year-round.'
While that’s understandable in a destination establishment like Restaurant Story, is it true for the wider on-trade? And, should that mean opportunity knocks for more expensive sparklers – the big Champagne names and even English fizz?
Taking a chance
Predictably, maybe, post-lockdown consumers tend to look toward more premium brand choices. It’s much easier to drop your cash on something that you already know, right? Bibendum’s Imran Choudhury is happy to point out that, 'the last few years have seen value over volume and sales of Grandes Marques [the big Champagne Houses] are in growth'.
Upgrading doesn’t always necessarily mean just selling more expensive Champagne, it means diversifying as well
Sadly, what this also seems to imply is a potential decline in sales of Grower Champagnes and other types of fizz, which will struggle to contend with the powerful marketing of established houses and the cheaper, ubiquitous prosecco.
Or does it? With uncertainty the only certainty for now, drink less but drink better might be an opportunity for some less-mainstream offerings.
Premiumisation is, of course, a thing. Ideally, it should be woven into the fabric and culture of anybody who sells wine. Not just because it gets more cash in the till, but also because it pushes guests to explore the world of wine, broadening their horizons and giving them new experiences.
And upgrading doesn’t always necessarily mean just selling more expensive Champagne, it means diversifying as well. Try bringing more esoteric fizz on to your menu, make it pop, list it by the glass but make sure your staff know the wines – at the end of the day, they are the ones selling it.
Certainly, some operators are looking to push more by-the-glass (BTG) sparklers this year. Restaurant Story’s Kleeman believes a strong, fizzy BTG presence might be a good bet if – as seems inevitable – Covid-19 restrictions continue to limit table sizes when things reopen in December. And his suggestion for a BTG upgrade? 'English sparkling… always performs well and is on par with Champagne,' he says.
At The 10 Cases, Pitt is not so sure. 'As a BTG offering I find it [English sparkling] too expensive,' he says, arguing there are better value Crémants, Cavas and even Sekts on the market for consumers looking to trade out of Champagne.
So, is this year a prime chance for diversification? Will we be seeing more alternative fizz on BTG lists? Goodman’s McHugh is quietly optimistic when he predicts: 'I think people will venture down avenues of discovery this Christmas.'
I think people will venture down avenues of discovery this Christmas
There are plenty of options for your list of course. Why not go for a fashionable Pet Nat? Or maybe it’s going to be you who will ultimately bring Cava back from the dead? Constant, evolving demand over recent years does suggest that consumers are increasingly open to trying new things. But to shift lesser-known sparkling wines, staff recommendations and training will be crucial for sure. With these wines, you can’t – and shouldn’t – rely on your list to sell itself. Consider which wines your team can capably hand-sell at the table. That could and should dictate what type of listings you choose to run with – Champagne, English or otherwise.
'The focus has always been on the upsell and team knowledge,' says Hannah Plumb, talent and culture director at The Alchemist, who highlights the importance of team incentives to maintain spends.
With 20-plus sites from Newcastle to Portsmouth and a focus on fun, theatrical and experiential cocktails, Plumb hopes to see a boost in sparkling spends as we go into December, though she acknowledges that without the corporate, six-people-plus Champagne breakfasts in London and exclusive site buyouts for the company Christmas party, expecting 'huge sales' might be a little optimistic.
Time to celebrate?
That said, rumours of optimism’s demise are premature.
I mean, who can forget the 4 July this year? It took on a whole new meaning for all of us in 2020: reopening weekend. Punters were flocking to their locals faster than to a Boxing Day sale on Oxford Street.
Plumb believes guests will be looking to 'celebrate after another closure and will have surplus cash to spend,' while Goodman’s McHugh predicts, 'it’ll be a free-for-all with many looking to get themselves back out there!'
Surely, what many in the trade are hoping for is some sort of 'pre-Christmas treat mentality' will seize us all as we hurtle towards whatever year-end festivities will be permitted and that should go some way to mitigating the effect of fewer bums on seats.
So, no need for panic yet in Epernay, but December might be the time to target the cautious consumer so they can sit back with a glass, or bottle of something sparkling new and different, and wave goodbye to 2020.
Crowther's alternative sparklers
Graham Beck, Blanc de Blancs, 2016, Robertson, South Africa
Move aside Champagne. Lovely age on the nose complete with vanilla and spice. Creamy texture with a citrus drive on the finish. Top traditional method fizz.
£16.03, Bibendum, bibendum-wine.co.uk
Salasar, Carte Azure, Cremant de Limoux, NV, Languedoc, France
Another wonderful Prosecco alternative. Soft texture, warm fruit and weight with a mineral periphery. Great value.
£8.24, Great Grog, greatgrog.co.uk
Hunter’s, ‘Offshoot’, Pet Nat, Sauvignon Blanc, 2019, Marlborough, New Zealand
Familiarity with originality here with another Pet Nat. Savvy B drinkers need to try this. Cloudy grapefruit juice with grip, texture and pinpoint acidity. A bottle of fun.
£12.00, Jeroboams, jeroboams.co.uk
Llopart, Rose, NV, Corpinnat, Catalunia, Spain
Had to, Llopart have divorced themselves from the Cava designation in the name of quality and formed brand Corpinnat. Shy up top, salty saline on the palate with a lovely concentration of bright red fruit. Don’t drink Cava? Think twice.
£15.37, Bibendum, bibendum-wine.co.uk
Henners, Brut, NV, East Sussex, UK
Excited to see what the future holds for Henners with Collette O’Leary as their new winemaker. Lovely balance of fruit. Red apples sit next to cut grass with real focus. Great Champagne alternative.
£20.75, Boutinot, boutinot.com