Champagne: Pick of the sparklers

With the term ‘sparkling’ gaining credence in wines from England, Canada and Spain, champagne can’t afford to rest on its laurels. Jamie Goode reports


IS THERE NO END TO the world’s thirst for sparkling wine? Over the past decade, interest in all things bubbly has risen and risen. Along with Provence Rosé and perhaps Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, sparkling wine is one of the few success stories in what otherwise has been quite a difficult time for wine.

But we are now entering an era when, in terms of pricing, champagne is facing some very real competition for the first time. In the past, sparkling wine could be split into champagne and cheaper alternatives. If people could afford the real thing, they bought a bottle with the C-word on the label. If they couldn’t, they’d go for an alternative that lacked the same cachet. This is changing and other sparkling wines are emerging from the long shadow cast by champagne. They are becoming confident in their own identity, and the term ‘sparkling wine’ is no longer pejorative in the way it once was.

The great strength of the Champagne region has been the power of its collective brand, which has been reinforced by the strength of the marketing of the Grand Marques. For most consumers, wine is impossibly complex, with the distributed nature of its production and the resulting thousands of different labels. This is where regional brands come in, but they are at risk from low-quality products bearing the name. A brand is a promise, in terms both of what to expect from flavour and consistency of quality.

Champagne also has the benefit of large brands with a significant marketing budget, which then become (almost) household names. This, in turn, reinforces the regional brand. The biggest threat to champagne isn’t its competitors, but poor-quality, cheap supermarket champagnes used as trade drivers. If champagne becomes everyday, it is no longer special. Another factor in the success of this regional brand has been the clever way the region has worked collectively in controlling the quantities released to the market, which helps keep prices firm.

Tom Stevenson, one of the leading sparkling wine authorities, is well placed to assess whether champagne is finally facing real competition from other regions in purely wine quality terms. For the past five years he has been tasting top sparkling wines blind in the Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships (CSWWC).

He says: “From a purely qualitative perspective, comparing like with like (ie bottle-fermented sparkling wines from classic champagne grape varieties) and putting to one side true quality deluxe cuvées such as Cristal, Comtes de Champagne, Dom Perignon, MCIII, Grand Siecle (magnums) and Krug (because no one else in champagne, let alone the rest of the world, can match its almost unlimited budget and priority sourcing), five years’ of niche sparkling wine judging at the CSWWC has demonstrated conclusively that the best players in Trentodoc and Franciacorta can easily fight it out with champagne, particularly if you taste the magnums. Top English and Australian sparkling wines can also compete at this level.”