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The World’s Taking a Shine to Sparkling Wine
Changing attitudes fueling frothy growth!
The holiday season is fast approaching and once again the annual ritual of focusing on sparkling wine has begun. While all producers of sparkling wine have done a terrific job making what was once almost exclusively a wine of celebration more commonplace, the truth of the matter remains that sales soar over the holidays, and sadly, people still refer to more or less all sparkling wines as Champagne. I hope the irony is not lost on them as they increasingly look outside of Champagne to satisfy their bubbly desires. While consumers can be forgiven for mistaking sparkling wine for Champagne, the wine professional cannot, and stocking one’s shelves with the right blend of sparkling wines for the holidays is as crucial as it is difficult, as the perception of sparkling wines evolves. While they always say that past performance is not a guarantee of future returns, sparkling wine trends over the recent past show clear indications that warrant our attention.
Certainly the monster in this discussion must be the phenomenal rise of Prosecco. I hear my colleagues cringing at the very mention, thinking who in their right mind would compare the two wines? That is a question that is difficult to answer, though according to recent sales data millions of people are making Prosecco their sparkling wine of choice. Globally, with 307 million bottles sold, there was more Prosecco sold in 2013 than Champagne, who finished in close second with 304 million bottles.1
While such a slight advantage might seem an anomaly in a close race, Prosecco production in 2014 clocked in at closer to 400 million bottles!2 It is no longer a contest as Prosecco has become the most popular sparkling wine in both the UK as well as the favorite imported sparkling wine of the USA.3
Prosecco has almost single handedly been driving the recent growth in Italian wines, accounting for the lion’s share of the 25% increase in sparkling wine production the country enjoyed in 2014. While Prosecco is undoubtedly the great sparking wine success story of recent years, that story may be peaking as demand outstrips supply and the average price of a bottle of Prosecco flirts with the $15 price point. Brands such as Barefoot, with $67 million in sales in 2014, (third highest sales in the USA for sparkling wines4) and Cupcake ($30 million and eighth most sold sparkling wine brand in the USA4) continue to hold the line on pricing, putting pressure on both the Prosecco market as well as the sparkling wine market in general. It’s only a matter of time before even high volume brands begin to edge up in price.
As pricing creeps up, Prosecco must reckon with competition from producers both near and far. In Italy, just to the west of the Veneto, one finds a bevy of terrific sparkling wines that blend a moderately fruity character with the complexities ageing on the lees gives traditional sparkling wines. While some of these wines are ambitiously priced to compete with the top sparkling wines of the world, many remain powerful players in the high stakes value wines category.
From Lombardy we have Franciacorta, produced in the traditional style primarily from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, though some Pinot Blanc and a drop of Gris is not uncommon. Franciacorta has slowly come into its own over the last two decades as producers have learned that they are not Italy’s answer to Champagne, but rather a unique expression of that magical blend of varieties and environment that we call terroir. Consumers have been responding positively with 2014 sales of Franciacorta up 10% over those from 2013.5 While Prosecco has been a global phenomenon, Franciacorta continues to rely heavily on their domestic market, as exports remain stubbornly under 10% of the 15 plus million bottles produced annually.6
With so much inexpensive sparkling wine, and Italian sparkling wine in particular, in the marketplace, it’s not surprising to see Franciacorta continuing to struggle for traction on retail shelves.
Just as Franciacorta is fighting for our attention, a new Italian player is emerging in the market. From Trentino, snuggled between Lombardy and the Veneto, TrentoDOC is capitalizing on the crisp mountain whites that emerge from the abrupt hills of the region to create a wine that is both unique, yet comfortably in the traditional style. With 39 producers and an annual production of some 9 million bottles7, they would seem to be but an annoying thorn in the foot of the larger regions, but consider that two of those producers are Ferrari and Mezzacorona and you can see that there will be marketing power and prowess shouldering the heavy lifting here. The smaller producers, who for the most part really are small with an annual production averaging just 15,000 bottles, might just appeal to the geek end of the sparking wine market as folks work their way through Italian sparklers in search of something new and different.
If we needed any additional evidence of the growing complexity of the sparkling wine market, consider the world of diversity these three small regions of Italy provide, just a scratch of the surface of sparkling wine trends and global production. While one can offer a broad overview of the situation, you have to get out there and experience all these wines yourself in order to understand this glorious diversity. I can touch on Italy, and will offer insight into some of the new world options for sparkling wines below, but with bubbles being produced from Brazil to Ontario, England to Tasmania, cataloging them all is too great a task for a simple article. The wine professional needs to taste, explore, and discover. While there is no better place to explore sparkling wines than ProWein, Dusseldorf’s annual homage to the global wine industry, I continue to see wine professionals shying away from the large scale tasting event. In response all I can say is that ProWein, the only wine event exclusively for wine professionals, is the only place where you have the access, and the time to truly explore the world of wine. Whether at the Champagne lounge or visiting with the 100s of sparkling wine producers showing their wares, ProWein allows attendees unprecedented access to wines and winemakers that can help us all understand the nuanced differences between Franciacorta, TrentoDoc, and yes, even Champagne.
Champagne, after all, remains the benchmark by which all sparkling wines seem to be judged, though price seems to be playing a crucial role in the continued growth of Prosecco and méthode traditionnelle alternatives such as Spain's Cava. While Prosecco gets all the attention today, Cava continues to soldier on as the affordable méthode traditionnelle option each holiday season. With exports that on a bottle basis exceed those of champagne, 154 million bottles compared to Champagne's 149 million, Cava remains a significant player, particularly at the less expensive end of the market, where prices for big brand Cava remaining under $10 a bottle.
As mentioned, we now have sparkling wines from the new world, with Brazil being a big player, and even Peru offering up some convincing examples, but perhaps the most surprising development in the world of sparkling wines comes from the bridge between new and old worlds. England pushed the boundaries exploring and settling the new world, and today they are fast becoming a player in the sparkling wine industry. Shocking at first, but when one realizes that the chalky soil that forms the foundation for Champagne continues north, through those white cliffs of Dover and under the English countryside it all starts to make some sense.
Producing some 4 million bottles of bubbly a year, English sparklers are not yet a threat to Champagne who exports nearly 33 million bottles to the UK annually8, but the wines are winning awards, attracting critical attention, and in a recent blind tasting, bested some well known Champagne9. With this attention it will not be surprising to see both sales and production grow for these wines, though on an appropriately modest scale.
While England’s sparkling wine industry is taking off, the US market continues to be dominated by its own domestic production. With a modern 50-year history of traditional sparkling wine production to draw on, and the freedom to experiment, one of the top producers in the US is located in New Mexico, it’s no surprise that the ever-adaptable Americans have carved out a large slice of the market for themselves. They even have sparkling wine from pineapples made on Maui, and it’s actually delicious. Ultimately, for the true aficionado I suspect that the increasing complex and distinctive sparkling wines emerging from the Pacific Northwest, Oregon in particular, will be grabbing headlines and winning blind tastings sooner rather than later.
Pineapple wine, Peruvian wine, and we haven’t even mentioned Germany’s Sekt (third in global sparkling wine production10) or Russia's booming business (fifth globally10) or Argentina’s 150 producers11 exploring the country’s rich potential for producing world-class bubblies. There is obviously much more work to be done here. the trends all point towards increased production of sparkling wine, global consumption of sparkling wine, and competition in the marketplace, and to stay one step ahead we must stay informed. Book a trip to ProWein 2016, International Trade Fair for Wines and Spirits (March 13 – 15 in Düsseldorf, Germany) and discover what the world of sparkling has to offer!
Gregory Dal Piaz has been involved with wine for over three decades, in restaurants, retail, and writing. Editor-in-Chief of SimplyBetterWines.com, he has spent 2015 researching and writing in Chianti for a book to be released next year.
10 International Organization of Wine and Vine OIV Focus Sparkling Wine 2014