Global sales for sparkling wine, announced this month, have soared in the last decade according to influential trade magazine the drinks business. Production has risen 40 per cent compared with a rise of just seven per cent for still wine. Sparkling represents seven per cent of global wine production, up from four per cent in the year 2000.
At the same time China, hitherto regarded as a market which did not much like cold, sparkling (and white) wine, has become the fifth largest importer of champagne in the world.
Champagne remains the most prestigious of bubbles. But sales of prosecco (produced from the Venice area in Italy) have even overtaken those of champagne in the sparkling-mad British market. The US and Britain compete for the title of the world’s largest importer of champagne.
Prosecco is now widely available on tap, pulled like beer. Cava, from the Spanish region of Catalonia (of which Barcelona is the capital) – thanks particularly to the world craze for tapas bars – has also gained significant market share.
A critical difference between champagne and “brands” such as prosecco and cava, however, is price. The latter two tend to inhabit the cheap and cheerful category; and they’re easy drinking, too.
But onto the premium market have emerged two new key players. Franciacorta, a region in Italy granted DOCG status in 1995, only started producing sparkling wine in the 1960s, and the wines have only been appearing on export markets in the past 15-20 years.
Even younger is the English wine industry, which really only took off 15 years ago. Sparkling wine accounts for 66 per cent of wine production, and this segment is destined to hold the future for the country’s wine industry. “There is no doubt on the quality of English sparkling wine,” says Hong Kong-based winemaker Tersina Shieh, who studied oenology in England, at Plumpton College, and is thus very familiar with the English wine industry.
It is an extremely dynamic environment, with major investment projects already achieving quality success (and even breaking even), including Nyetimber, Hattingley Valley and Hambledon Estate. Hambledon owner Ian Kellett had been watching the industry for years, as a senior food and drink analyst, before he dipped his toes in. Christian Seely, managing director of AXA which owns among others port house Quinta do Noval, is a partner in sparkling wine producer Coates & Seely. Rumours persist that champagne producers from just across the English Channel have been sniffing around.
The industry is becoming very much part of the English landscape – in both senses. The Duchess of Cornwall, in her capacity as president of the United Kingdom Vineyards Association, officiated at the launch of Hambledon Estate in Hampshire; and Vince Cable, secretary of state for business and one of the most senior members of the British coalition government, spoke at the opening of Rathfinney, a 64-hectare property in Sussex. Former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, Lord Ashcroft, is an investor at Gusborne in Kent. Kellett, at Hambledon, is using the fact that Hambledon Village is the cradle of cricket in his marketing. His logo features the famous two-stump wicket of the time, with two historical bats and a ball. He believes this could help him enormously in the South East Asian markets.
Simon Robertson, owner of Hattingley Valley, thinks that English sparkling does have potential on the export markets. “Outside the UK ‘English’ is generally taken to equate to high quality, so when people taste our wines it is of no surprise to them that they are [high quality].”
Industry insiders such as Bryony Wright, co-founder of the England-hosted International Sparkling Wine Symposium, now in its fourth year, refutes the idea that a single “brand” is required for marketing in the manner of Champagne or Franciacorta. “There are enough strong producer brands in the market already that have collectively helped to raise the overall quality perception of brand English sparkling,” she says. Robertson adds that English sparkling tends to appear on wine lists and on shelves alongside champagne – “which is probably not a bad place to be!”
While there are similarities between English sparkling and Franciacorta, Mauricio Zanella, president of the Consortia del Franciacorta, does not see English sparkling as competition. “We see them as complementary as they provide consumers with different styles that fulfill different needs,” he says. Zanella places them both in a buoyant growth segment in a climate where, he says, “consumers start to tire of the two-dimensional profile of entry-level fizz”.
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