What The Pros Know: The Future Is A Diversity Of Sparkling Wine

Food & Drink

No need to get fixated on Champagne when there’s a world of bubbles out there.

In a year where climate change, shuttered bars and restaurants, a pandemic, consumer anxiety and a cog in the global supply change all conspired to wreak havoc on some sectors of the wine industry, sparkling wine lived up to its name, delivering an iridescent end to the year with increased awareness, sales and quality coming to market.  

After a first somber year in a pandemic, Champagne sales declined, but rebounded in 2021, along with other sparklers produced across the globe. This month, Reuters reported that Champagne sales have rebounded from a troubled pandemic year and are now about 10 percent by value ahead of their 2019 peak. And Business Wire reported the increasingly popular sparkling wine “is a major driver of growth in the overall wine category” with a “rapidly growing” share in the global wine sales.

“Nobody really knew in the beginning of the pandemic how consumers will react. During the first lockdown, they were shocked and stopped celebrating, but very shortly consumption bounced back and it is now even higher than prior to the crises,” said Dr. Andreas Brokempers, of CEO Henkell-Freixenet, which includes a range of sparkling wines produced in Europe. “This was the biggest surprise for us and it was the same in nearly all markets.”

Though Champagne’s sales recovered, the region now faces a looming supply shortage, due to lower yields, a result of both weather disasters and regulations imposed by the Comite Champagne, causing bubbly fans to look to other regions to slake their thirst.

“Sparkling wine is starting to become a real wine category, meaning that it is not only used for toasting but also for enjoying the great diversity of styles and origins,” says Dr. Brokempers. “We believe that the consumers learn and understand more and more the diversity of sparkling wines, they drink it more frequently also combined with good food.”

More than just a trend, the future continues to looks bright for a diversity of sparkling wine, say these experts (responses edited for length and clarity).

Cava and Prosecco. “Cava and Prosecco have exceptional quality and at an affordable price,” says Dr. Brokempers, adding that many styles can mimic Champagne’s character. “Crémants and also Cava Reserve and Gran Reserve [can express] secondary aromas like brioche, nuts.”

His company is a powerhouse for two of the most popular brands, Mionetto (Prosecco) and Friexenet (Cava), which in 2020 produced 26.6 million and 99.3 million bottles respectively.  The Prosecco category was boosted this year with the official approval of Prosecco rosé—out of the gate this year with more than 80 million bottles sold.

“We expected a very strong start, but even we were more than surprised by the global demand for Prosecco rosé … I´m sure it was the fastest start for a sparkling innovation ever in history, [and] I expect further growth in the coming years. Prosecco rosé combines the most relevant trends in sparkling wine.” He adds, “We see the potential for the Cava category as with the Prosecco category.”

Dr. Brokempers, however, sees supply issues on the horizon for the Italian sparkler.

“At the moment, we face a really difficult supply situation on Prosecco. The main driver was beside the great success of the Prosecco Rosé, the harvest. With a normal harvest and all the volumes coming into the market for Prosecco Rosé, it comes to a real shortage and we see the prices increasing heavily. We believe Prosecco will remain short. For Cava the situation is a bit better but as soon as shortage comes to Champagne, Prosecco and Crémant, also Cava will get a push and then the stocks can decrease very fast.” 

The CEO says analysts are we already seeing a growing demand for Crémant (the company produces it from Loire Valley under the brand Gratien & Meyer) “as the specialty that is nearest in style and origin” to Champagne, and similar demand for fermented sparkling wines with a longer aging like Cava Reserva and Gran Reserva.

In Conegliano Valdobbiadene, Prosecco’s high-quality, high-elevation DOCG region, Elvira Bortolomiol, president of the Consorzio of Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore, said, “We believe that the positive trend in the sparkling wine category at an international level is also having a positive effect on our denomination and may continue to do so in the future.”

She called 2021 “a very positive year,” with production exceeding 100 million bottles—about 42.1% of that sold in 180 countries.

The year 2021 for the denomination started with lower availability of product than the previous year, due to a 2020 harvest characterized by a more contained production,” she said. That was corrected in 2021, with a 12% increase in certified production based on the first 10 months of 2021. “In addition to the goal achieved in 2021 in terms of volume, the goal we are most proud of is that of quality,” she said. For foreign markets, she estimated increases in value close to 30%.

Bortolomiol said the Rive category—the pinnacle of terroir and quality in the Prosecco Superiore DOCG, showed significant growth—14% volume and more than 36% value between 2019 and 2020. She said the small sub appellation (615 acres) demonstrates that “Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore is a cultural product, the fruit of man’s work in harmony with nature.” The umbrella appellation was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019.  As for rosè, she says, “we do not plan to introduce it in our appellation.”

Crémant, France. Numerous regions in France produce Crémant, a lower-fizz, creamier style of sparkling wine that, like Champagne, is produced in the traditional method of secondary fermentation in the bottle. Crémant from Alsace has enjoyed commercial success—it is the second most consumed sparkler in France after Champagne, representing 40% of sales in the category.

“In the U.S., exports of Crémant d’Alsace have increased by +61.5% in volume as of October 2021 v. October 2020,” says Foulques Aulagnon, export manager of Vins Alsace, the official promotion and regulatory agency that handles the region’s commercial wine business. Crémant d’Alsace rosé accounts for just more than half (54.7%) of the sales.

Aulagnon says a progressive 10-year production trend means “there is a healthy stock available. [and], since there is no vintage mandate for Crémant d’Alsace, there is no concern about shortage of stock.” 

It remains a strong contender for those seeking the taste profile and quality of Champagne without the price tag. “Crémant d’Alsace offers a great alternative in terms of quality and price for Champagne lovers,” Aulagnon says, adding that some cuvées are aged on the lees for many years. He also noted that many Alsace producers, who previously had one Crémant d’Alsace, now offer two, three or even more cuvées, each reflecting their place.

“The diversity of Alsace terroirs adds a different note to the wines,” Aulagnon says.

Cap Classique, South Africa. Another high-quality traditional method sparkling, this one from South Africa, is gaining ground. Called “Methode Cap Classique” (MCC), it is the fastest growing category in that country, doubling in output every four and a half years, says Jim Clarke, marketing manager for Wines of South Africa USA. Citing Gomberg-Fredrikson’s imports/exports report, he noted as of October 2021, MCC imports to the U.S. were up 70% YTD over 2020.

Though it’s been around for 50 years, South Africa’s sparkling wine is now riding a new wave of awareness. “The term ‘Methode Cap Classique’ is the first New World designation for traditional-method sparkling wines that doesn’t ride on the coattails of Champagne” Clarke says.

“It seems like people are already discovering Cap Classique,” he said. “Aside from the shortage, Champagne was already becoming more and more expensive, so people have been looking for traditional-method wines that are more affordable. I think the quality-price-ratio makes a huge argument for Cap Classique.” Many entry-level MCC wines retail for $18 to 20 and some that undergo years of lees aging cost less than an entry-level Champagne.

But despite the growing demand, Clarke says not to worry about supply. “There’s enough around, as the industry has already been planning for and expecting growth for the category.”

Domestic sparkling, California. “We were seeing an increase in demand for our sparkling wines before news of the Champagne shortage hit the market, says Remi Cohen, CEO of Domaine Carneros, the Napa-based winery founded by Champagne Taittinger. “Even prior to the pandemic, sparkling wines were on the rise [and] since the pandemic, this increase has surged.”

Like its sister winery in France, Domaine Carneros make its sparkling wine using Méthode Traditionnelle using Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the same grapes found in Champagne.

Also as in Champagne, California’s roller-coast natural events—drought, wildfires—have affected production. Though Domaine Carneros’s production is “in a good position,” Cohen says, “If demand continues this strong, we may experience challenges with supply as the 2020 and 2021 vintages had low yields.”

But, she says, winter season is off to a good start with plentiful rains filling their reservoirs. “Wine is rooted in agriculture, and as a grower-producer here at Domaine Carneros, we are accustomed to cycles of limited and excess supply and do our best to manage supply despite these challenges.”

“As an industry, we have successfully shared the versatility of sparkling wines to be enjoyed on their own and with a wide range of food pairings. People are discovering that they can enjoy bubbly more regularly and they do not have to save it for special occasions.”

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