Sparkling wine: A world turned upside down

The face of sparkling wine could change as global warming takes hold. Hamish Smith investigates

The sparkling wine world of the future will be “turned upside down”, the ‘flying vine doctor’ Richard Smart told the International Sparkling Wine Symposium in December.  For once this wasn’t a tired old platitude – Smart meant it literally. He says the effect of global warming on the traditional sparkling wine regions will send the bubbles industry south, from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere. 

“So far, sparkling wine is an Old World phenomenon – you have not allowed the cheeky New World to have much of an impact,” said Smart at the Denbies Wine Estate-held event. “But sparkling wine is the canary in the cage because it is so sensitive to climate change. The world’s ocean currents are of great importance [to climate] .You guys in the Northern Hemisphere will get hotter than us in the south. So if you want to think about where you would invest to produce sparkling wine – where there will be a stable climate in the next 30-40 years – then you have to invest in the south.” 

Smart cited Darwin, concluding it is not the strongest or most intelligent producers that will survive but those that adapt best. “Traditional regions will need to revise their varietal wine styles – or refuse to admit their wines have changed.”

Ed Carr, group sparkling winemaker of Accolade, also speaking at the symposium, is focused on Tasmania because of its ‘heat degree days’ measure: “The magic number is 1,000, where you are in a cool enough climate but you get full ripeness,” he said. 

Using the same barometer Smart set out the traditional regions and migration options. He said the south west of England has a HDD of 720, so has problems with ripening, the south east of England is 840 – the point at which grapes ripen – and the Champagne region is at 900. 

The next group Smart calls the “Champagne wannabees” of Central Otago (920), Derwent Valley, Tasmania (1,020) and Yarra Valley in Victoria, Australia (1420). Then the warmer zones in Spain, Italy and Australia, the examples being emerging region Franciacorta (1,750), Asti (2,000), Cataluña (2,020), Prosecco (2,020) and Riverina, New South Wales (2,040).

For Smart, New Zealand is best because of its availability of land in a stable, cool climate. But as Prosecco producers might say, warmer-climate sparklers are selling rather well at the moment. Could it be it is not production that is moving but the orientation of our taste buds?

The opening tasting at ISWS offered a gamut of sparkling styles that few knew existed. One that stood out was a Chilean rosé made from the traditional but under-threat País grape, made by Miguel Torres Maczassek. He later told DI: “Today Chile has an historic opportunity to stand out with sparkling wines. The remaining challenge is to have a Denomination of Origin for Chilean sparkling, in order to protect the grower and the vinification method and to ensure the quality of the wine. The idea is give it a name like Spain’s ‘Cava’ or the Italian ‘Prosecco’ or the ‘Champagne’ of France. This category could be built on the País grape – it has quality and authenticity and should be made with the traditional method.” 

The opening tasting showcased 16 sparkling wines but there was one major talking point. Wine number six had the room chirping when it was revealed to be the first vintage of Domaine Chandon India, one of six of the globally branded, locally produced sparklers by LVMH. Sparkling supremo Tom Stevenson was excited by the find: “I think it’s a very good wine – it speaks of the quality of Chandon as much as it does India.” 

But his words soon followed his wine into the spittoon. “It’s a bit of a disaster,” host Essi Avellan told the room on realising wines five and six had been mixed up. What had been heralded as a major breakthrough for perhaps the world’s most exiting new wine country, turned out to be Slovenian sparkling wine, Istenic No 1 Cuvée Speciale. “I’m so disappointed it wasn’t the Indian,” Stevenson told DI. “It’s a pity, I really got my hopes up.” So what about the real Domaine Chandon India? “I thought it was a bit pongy on the nose, as if there were some reductive elements.” 

Maybe it is churlish to bring this gaffe to print, especially as Avellan’s tasting revealed brilliant and exotic wines that showcased the great work that went into her update of Stevenson’s seminal World Encyclopaedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine

But the fact an Indian wine could
pass for a Slovenian – or vice versa – without even the bristle of a connoisseur’s nostril hair, shows what a fragmented and fast-moving world sparking wine has become.   


Production may be diversifying but what of consumption? Richard Halstead, CEO of Wine Intelligence, says in many markets sparkling wine fits with a trend towards mixed-gender socialising, sitting as a ‘unisex’ drink somewhere between what is perceived as “male red wine or beer and female white wine or cider”. 

By country, according to the IWSR, Germany headed the volume stakes with 46 million 9-litre cases in 2012 (+1.3% increase on 2011), France is next, down 2.3% to 31 million cases and Russia fell 2.6% to 27 million cases, though is known for its seesaw sales. The US – which is wine’s great hope – continues to rise, up 3.5% to 18 million cases. In fifth is Italy, down 5.9% to 10 million cases, the UK is up 2.8% to 9 million cases and Spain dropped 6.1% to 7 million cases. 

It is only at eighth position that we find our first Southern Hemisphere country, Australia. But perhaps it is the potential of Brazil – a huge producer of sparkling wine itself – China and India that holds the most interest for the future. According to IWSR, Brazil was the 11th largest consumer in 2012, having risen 4.9%. For China and India it’s relatively early days. Between 2012 and 2017 IWSR expects 5% growth to 5 million cases for China and 17% growth to 1.2 million litres for India. These forecasts probably don’t take into account LVMH’s arrival in the markets.

The company has been in Brazil since the ’70s, will launch its first Chinese wine in September 2014 from its Ningxia winery near Mongolia and has just launched its first Indian vintage, via bought-in local grapes. Next October Indian Chandon will see a release made from its own grapes produced in Nashik, in Maharashtra.

According to Moët Hennessy’s head of estates & wines Jean-Guillaume Prats: “We could have two yields a year – one in September and one in April – but for quality reasons we harvest once in January. It’s Southern Hemisphere timings in the North.” Prats says early signs are that sales are doing well among the target middle classes of Mumbai and Delhi, thanks to its price positioning under Champagne, which carries a 150% tax levee.

The beauty of this scheme can be best admired in India. Here above all, it makes sense to produce locally, with duty immunity. At Wine Vision in November Rajeev Samant, CEO of leading Indian wine producer Sula Vineyards, advocated LVMH’s ‘mixed plan’ of imports and domestic investment, which offers competitive and luxury wines to the market, while keeping state governments onside.

LVMH is said to be leading discussions on duty reform. A three-tier system has been proposed, leaving the 150% levee for the cheapest imports, but wines over Ä3 would drop to a 100% duty multiplier, and wines over Ä7 only 50%.

Back at the ISWS, talk moved to China. According to Wine Intelligence’s Halstead, sparkling wine is still a ‘novelty’ in China. “In Japan it took a long time – and we can project that on to China. I think we are 25 years away,” he said. Whatever the time frame, LVMH is well placed. 

Tom Stevenson gave DI his view on the move: “It’s purely economics for Chandon. If Champagne takes off in China, the whole of Champagne would be lost down a black hole. Therefore you have to go into the country to produce it. It will be much cheaper without the distribution and tax costs.” 

If we are to ask any set of producers what the secret to sparkling wine sales is, we should ask those of Prosecco. If you want to see how far Prosecco has come in 15 years, pick up the first edition of Stevenson’s aforementioned opus from 1998, in which the region is summed up in one paragraph, and not very positively. Now the region produces 250 million bottles annually, knocking shoulders with Champagne and Cava. 

Roberto Cremonese, export manager of Bisol, says Prosecco’s success is not luck. “People like its uncomplicated nature, its low alcohol and acidity and fresh fruit.” 

Wine writer Charles Metcalfe chips in: “The human being is uniquely programmed to prefer ripe berries over unripe berries – it’s not unnatural to like something sweet.” 

So, will tomorrow’s producers be looking to the Prosecco, not Champagne, style? Massimo Tuzzi, chief international officer at Casa Vinicola Zonin thinks so: “Many producers in Brazil, Australia and New Zealand are already trying to imitate the Prosecco style and this trend will probably increase in the future. If Champagne is a black tie, Prosecco is smart-casual – and it is a wine with great value for money.”  

Like Prosecco, Cava is starting to sell in emerging markets. Damian Clarke, managing director of Cava brand Freixenet, says: “Emerging markets represent a great opportunity for this segment. A large segment of consumers cannot or do not want to spend Ä30 on Champagne yet want to celebrate with a sparkler.” 

So will we see any LVMH-esqe projects from Cava or Prosecco brands? “On our desks we have projects under investigation, but for now we cannot disclose anything,” says Zonin’s Tuzzi. And Freixenet? “Our production sites are in developed markets for the time being – US, Spain, France, Australia, etc,” says Clarke. 

“However, we are studying several projects to establish a winery in a selected emerging market.”

So there we have it. LVMH is leading the way and the category looks keen to follow. Whether these emerging markets are ready, it’s hard to say. But sometimes you don’t know what you want until it’s right there in front of you.