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Opening up the sparkling world

There’s much more to fizz beyond Champagne and the quality is high, as consumers are discovering. James Lawrence reports


Varying the diet

Ongoing recruitment woes, a cost of living crisis, rail strikes: a bit of good news would not go amiss this month. Fortunately, the relative buoyancy – and growing diversification – of the sparkling wine market is definitely a cause for fizzy celebration in the beleaguered (but resilient) hospitality sector.

Yet that's precisely the point: the rise of Prosecco, once an unknown quantity in Britain, has revolutionised attitudes towards sparkling by pushing it outside the exclusive confines of the celebratory sphere. At the same time,  Franciacorta, English sparkling and other emerging styles are also poised to increase their market share, particularly as Champagne prices have gone through the roof of late.

Meanwhile, sommeliers require new ways of maximising revenue while still wine volumes continue their (overall) decline. Sparkling wine, though, is achingly on-trend, so the scope to encourage further premiumisation across different categories is unprecedented. The question is: are consumers willing to bite, and, if so, where are they biting?

Moving beyond Champagne

“As much as I love the history, tradition and art that surrounds Champagne, the world has so many more delights to offer with sparkling wine,” enthuses Mickael Metayer, head sommelier at A Wong.

He continues: “In total, we currently offer more than 45 different labels and vintages of sparkling wine, including Champagne. However, the demand for alternatives has gone up as the overall cost price of Champagne has risen over the last few years. Indeed, sparkling wines, especially English sparkling wines like Nyetimber, are stirring a big interest among our clientele. At the same time, we have a lot of guests enquiring about crémant.”

According to Julien Beltzung, executive sommelier at The Glenturret Lalique, rampant inflation forced his hand in 2023; two new crémants were added to the Glenturret's list, also available by the glass. “They have been incredibly well received by guests due to their quality and value,” he says.

Beltzung and Metayer believe we are starting to witness a major cultural shift in the market, as consumers realise that their expensive, high-quality options are not limited to Champagne. This potentially has significant repercussions for the on-trade, if the paradigm has indeed shifted from merely trading-up to trading across. “Our list is longer than just Franciacorta and crémant, as the rest of the world is producing sparkling wines of very high quality. We added a sparkling wine made by Feudi di San Gregorio, for example, from the region of Campania,” says Gino Nardella, master sommelier at the Stafford Hotel.

However, Anthony Gopal, head sommelier at KOL, argues that categories which price themselves at Champagne equivalency may face an uphill struggle to win over consumers.

“At KOL, we have always offered numerous alternatives: skin-contact fizz, Pet-Nats, and the Austrian traditional-methods,” says Gopal. “Something off-piste, like Peter Lauer’s Sekt or Tscheppe’s sparkling Sauvignon, is completely mind-bending; people are often surprised and delighted. These wines broaden horizons. But there isn’t (yet) a major thirst for alternate fizz simply because most people in this country don’t know that the quality that exists.”

Value sales

Nonetheless, it is inarguable that Champagne no longer has the prestige segment to itself; several influential sommeliers, including Beatrice Bessi (Chiltern Firehouse) and Julien Beltzung, have re-oriented their lists toward better value, high-quality bubblies. In January, Le Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne (CIVC) revealed that global shipments fell by 8.2% to 299 million bottles in 2023, compared to 325 million in 2022.

But it is also clear that France's seminal celebratory tipple still has plenty of cachet; total value sales remained buoyant at above €6bn, according to the CIVC. Moreover, while overall consumption has fallen, exacerbated by rising competition and inflation, the fine dining sector remains a key destination for blue-chip labels.

“Claridge's has a reputation for its Champagne collections, so we always sell a good amount of Champagne. I find that many guests are willing to pay more for a nice bottle of Champagne compared to a bottle of still wine,” says Emma Denney, head sommelier at Claridge’s Restaurant.

According to Lorenzo Lentini, head sommelier and restaurant manager at Ikoyi: “Champagne still dominates the list of most Michelin-starred restaurants because it has consolidated its position over two centuries. Champagne combines soil, grape, experience and knowledge in one place, and it is challenging to find all those ingredients elsewhere. Those who want to make good sparkling will find the ultimate recipe with time. So, there is a growing thirst for better value fizz, but the popularity of Champagne, paradoxically, drives it. This increase in the consumption of wines with bubbles, combined with the diversification of wine sales, spiked the demand for most sparkling wines. Amazing producers are popping up all over the globe.”

From aperitif to digestif

However, while there is a divergence of opinion concerning the future of non-Champagne alternatives, the subject of gastronomy and sparkling wine arouses great excitement – and a widespread consensus. Many sommeliers report that tradition no longer dictates how consumers engage with fizz; it has evolved beyond its classical role as an aperitif.

“At A Wong, still wines make up the largest contribution towards beverage sales, however, the contribution from sparkling wines is on the rise, especially during our Touch of the Heart lunch. The light and delicate flavours of dim sum pair exceptionally well with Champagne, making it a popular choice,” says Mickael Metayer.

“I have observed a strong inclination among our guests to order Champagne by the bottle during lunches,” he adds.

Emma Denney is another advocate of utilising the full gastronomic potential of sparkling wine. “I personally love the idea of a bottle of Champagne or sparkling to have throughout the meal – we do welcome guests who will enjoy a bottle over several courses. There are so many different options to choose from on our wine list, from your classic Champagnes, to German Sekt, to Austrian sparkling and in a range of styles. Champagne and sparkling wines are not just for aperitifs, they should be considered as versatile and well-suited to food pairing as still wines.”

Thus, despite the cost of living crisis, restaurateurs have proven that people are willing to stick with sparkling throughout the meal - and trade-up to pricier fizz – if given a sufficient reason to do so. Enjoying a crisp, refreshing glass of bubbly is no longer a seasonal treat, and so building momentum from this year-round consumer phenomenon presents a golden opportunity to drive sales of higher-tier brands. Cin cin to that.