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.”

For now, though, champagne needs not worry too much about losing market share to its qualitative peers, simply because of scale. The figures for champagne shipments in 2017 show that total sales were 307.3m bottles, up by 0.4% compared with 2016. This is split almost exactly between the French market (down by 2.5% at 153.7m bottles) and exports (up by 3.5% at 153.6m bottles). For exports, European Union (down 1.3% at 76.6m bottles) has been taken by non-EU markets (up 9% to 77m bottles). The region achieved a record turnover of €4.9bn.

Stevenson recognises this. “The caveat is, of course, is that none of these top-level competitors represents a real commercial threat because the production levels are relatively insignificant,” he says. “However, with a trend to establish sparkling wine-specific vineyards, the introduction of technology such as jetting and Mytik, and the ability of emerging industries to avoid clear-glass bottles, high-quality sparkling can and is being produced in some of the least likely locations around the world at the very time that the avoidance of sulphur is killing off the quality and longevity of an increasing number of backward-looking champagne producers, both among the houses and the growers.”

Jetting is a technique used at bottling to reduce oxygen pick-up. A small dose of liquid is ‘jetted’ into the mouth of the bottle just before the cork is applied, and this fills the headspace with carbon dioxide that bubbles up from the wine, clearing out any oxygen present.

Mytik is the taint-free micro-agglomerate sparkling wine cork produced by DIAM. And Stevenson thinks that clear glass is very risky, even though it can be attractive packaging, because of light strike, which is unfortunately common in sparkling wines bottled in clear glass.


With a current production level of 4m bottles, projected to grow to 27m by 2040 (40m bottles of wine, 68% sparkling if the current ratio holds), English sparkling wine is not currently a major threat to champagne.

Technically, this should be British sparkling wine because there are some producers in Wales, but the term ‘British wine’ has been tainted by cheap wines made from concentrate in the UK. But it is attracting quite a bit of attention, and achieves prices similar to champagne.

If buyers can be found for the wines that will emerge from the new vineyards coming into production, and this current rate of growth is maintained, then Brit fizz could take a good slice of the 33m bottles of champagne sold in the UK each year, and continue to carve out a niche in export markets.

The charge for champagne’s export success has been led by the marketing savvy and spend of the large champagne houses, plus their buying of house pours in restaurants. Do the English producers have the same dedication to marketing? The likes of Nyetimber, Chapel Down, Gusbourne, Hambledon, Coates & Seely, Ridgeview, Rathfinney, Hattingley Valley and Camel Valley seem to get it, but they are a long way from being competitors to the Grand Marque champagne houses, because of scale.

However, Nyetimber has been growing, adding vineyards in Hampshire and Kent to those of its Sussex base, and engaging in the sort of marketing befitting of a top champagne house – powerful branding, sponsorship of events, and a luxury brand bus. For English sparkling wine it’s becoming clear that wine quality is not the issue and, as a collective brand, there’s a reassuring consistency to quality that must be maintained for its long-term health.


Currently a bit of an outsider, Canada is making some good traditional method sparkling wine that could surprise a lot of people. Nova Scotia in particular is making waves with its cool, maritime climate. Benjamin Bridge, the most well known producer there, has been joined by Lightfoot & Wolfville and Blomidon in making top-quality bubbles. But this is small scale, as are many of the excellent sparkling wines coming from the Okanagan in British Columbia and Niagara and Prince Edward County in Ontario. Canada is just one of many countries which has upped its sparkling wine game, and it is just beginning to get traction in export markets.


Cava has struggled with image and low pricing for a long time now, but of late there has been a concerted effort to change things. In June 2016 a new classification was unveiled by the CRDO del Cava (Cava Regulatory Board), called Cava del Paraje, which translates as Single Estate Cava. This is a premium category for cavas made with grapes from exceptional terroirs. The wines have to be made from vines at least 10 years old, and must be hand harvested with a maximum yield of 8 tons/ha. The wines must be aged on lees in bottle for at least 36 months and made in a brut style.

Then, in 2018, a group of elite cava producers launched a collective brand called Corpinnat within the cava DO. The founder members of this project were Recaredo, Gramona, Llopart, Nadal, Sabaté i Coca and Torelló, which aim to bring prestige to the cavas coming from the Peñedès region, the historical heart of sparkling wine production in Spain. It’s open to all producers within this territory who abide by the following rules: manual harvest, certified organic grapes, use of historical varieties, ageing on lees for longer than 18 months, and paying above a minimum price for grapes.

But celebrated producer Raventós i Blanc, invited to be one of the founding wineries, decided not to join. In 2012 it left the cava DO and formed a new, quality-minded DO, Conca del Riu Anoia. “The requirements of Corpinnat are less strict than what we have for Conca del Riu Anoia,” says Marta Ràfols of Raventós y Blanc. “There’s no need for a vineyard on the property; no need to be 100% organic during the first three years; no vintage is required, and so on.” It also feels that because there is no desire to create or work towards a new DO, Corpinnat doesn’t fit with its aims, and points out that over the past few years many other similar collaborations or groups have been formed within the DO.

In June 2017, Rioja’s Consejo Regulador (DOCa) altered its rules to allow the creation of quality white and rosé sparkling wines, made using the traditional bottle fermentation method and aged for a minimum of 15 months or 36 months, depending on the tier.

If more Spanish producers could produce top-quality, champagne price-level wines, then they could have the volume to dent champagne’s market share. There’s a lot of work yet to be done, of course.


Champagne is currently facing some competition for price points that it used to own – albeit competition that is, for now at least, limited in scale. Internally, too, the success of champagne means that grape supply has become a key issue for the larger companies. As Bruno Paillard recently stated to me, there is now a champagne war, with the different houses competing fiercely for any available grapes, which will end up increasing grape prices. Indeed, the Moët Hennessy Champagne Services (MHCS), the leading player in the region, raised the grape prices it pays by 5% in October 2017. This follows on from a 4% price rise it introduced in 2012. It has enough clout to set prices across the region, and can afford to pay extra, and it is a strategy to secure grapes in a very competitive market. In a region where the growers own 90% of the land but the houses produce 70% of the wines, this is a big issue. This will put pressure on margins, and it also means that the incentive now for champagne is to add value.

Mechanisms already exist for this. While the core business will always be non-vintage blends, vintage wines, rosés and prestige cuvées all occupy higher price points. In the end, it’s likely that champagne will be focusing exports on markets willing to pay more, and will occupy a higher price point, which then leaves its current price points open for ambitious non-champagne sparklers.