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Prosecco Conquers All? ,,, Comentario de / Comment of Wines Inform Assessors

Prosecco Conquers All?


There's a big gap between the top and bottom of the UK's sparkling wine market,

© iStock | The UK has a bouyant market for sparkling wines, but it's mostly shared between Prosecco and Champagne.


James Lawrence reports.



"Give a man a reputation as an early riser," author Mark Twain is alleged to have said, "and he can sleep 'til noon."

Prosecco is a topical case in point; unscrupulous producers could fill their bottles with a concoction of horse piss, carbon dioxide and sugar and the ubiquitous bubbly would still fly off the shelves. It boasts the right price point, a name that rolls off the tongue and is incredibly trendy; offering a quaffable style and lower acidity that suits today's sparkling wine drinkers perfectly.
Simply put, Prosecco is firmly entrenched and will only get more popular in the UK, despite constant protestations from critics that there are better value sparkling wines out there.
"Diversification of sparkling wine continues to be a hot topic, but the reality is that the big players [Prosecco and Champagne] continue to be real linchpins. Both regions have serious cut-through with consumers," agrees James Reed, sparkling wine buyer at Majestic.
The dominance in a market of a particular wine style is hardly groundbreaking news, of course; Parisian sommeliers – especially the older generation – are notoriously suspicious of non-French wines, while restaurateurs in Rome will only move away from Chianti, Brunello and Barolo at gun point.
But surely Great Britain, and in particular London, should be different – this is an open-minded and dynamic wine market, with no historic tradition of producing wine. Indeed, a quick glance across London alone reveals a growing number of specialist wine bars, retailers and young sommeliers eager to expand their horizons.
However, according to Nielsen data, over the past three years Prosecco has been aggressively squeezing out the competition, with almost every "periphery" category in volume decline.
For example, in 2014 Australia and New Zealand both lost over 20 percent of their volume in retail sales, while US sparkling lost 21 percent of its value in the UK market.
In contrast Prosecco and Cava now control over 70 percent of the retail market between them, although Cava has also lost market share to Prosecco in recent times. So with the non-Champagne market continuing to be dominated by Italian tank-fermented fizz, one wonders if there is room for other sparkling wines in the increasingly polarized UK market?
Or is it time for Cremant, Sekt and Cap Classique to pack up their bags and go home?
Restaurateur Neleen Strauss has spent years encouraging her clientele to branch out from the sparkling clichés, and therefore understands the difficulty of getting Brits to move outside of their comfort zone all too well.
"We list plenty of Champagne and it's easier to sell what the market knows, but it's boring as hell," says Strauss.
"The South African sparkling wine brands do not have the budget of the Champagne houses for marketing and creating awareness, that in essence is their problem," she adds.
However, Strauss also admits that she sells a decent amount of Graham Beck Rose and Blanc de Blancs, although as she runs a very niche, South-African themed restaurant, you'd expect that to be the case.
James Hocking, owner of The Vineyard Cellars, is another entrepreneur who refuses to shut out the world's best value sparkling wines.
"We represent Schramsberg, California's best sparkling wine. It is a tough sell for us, despite being California specialists." says Hocking. "But we do manage to get through around a pallet a year."
Nevertheless, the financial picture emerging from those attempting to promote "minor" sparkling wine styles is somewhat of a losing battle, although that hasn't stopped investors from trying.
In 2013, restauranteur Richard Bigg opened "Copa de Cava" in London, a groundbreaking venue that only listed premium Cava in an attempt to prove that it was far more than a cheap, supermarket Champagne alternative. Its success hinged on food matching and the popularity of Spanish food – alas, the venue closed in 2016 after it proved to be financially unviable.
Yet market analysts repeatedly talk up the viability of a market "sweet spot" between Prosecco and Champagne or, in other words, the £15-20 ($20-27) brigade. To that end Moet-Hennessy introduced their Chandon Argentina brand to the UK in 2014, with the aim of capturing consumers who wanted to trade-up from Prosecco, but who weren't prepared to fork out for Champagne.
But do they actually exist?
"There's a gaping promotion hole between Prosecco and Champagne," argues James Reed.
"In this sweet spot there's a lot of opportunity for different sparkling wines to enter the market. Here the advantage of having a prestigious winemaking pedigree can go a long way (for instance Cloudy Bay). I think also people have been brought into sparkling wine by the recent Prosecco bubble – and they are now looking for the next big thing."
However, Ted Sandbach, owner of the Oxford Wine Company suggests that this is overstating the point.
"Most consumers not in the market for Champagne rarely look beyond Cava and Prosecco," says Sandbach.
"Cava is considered the drier alternative to Prosecco – that's as far as the majority of consumers go in terms of considering sparkling wine alternatives. Price is still a driver and Cava/Prosecco drinkers tend not to trade-up."
In addition, leading sommelier Xavier Rousset underlines the point that even great value, traditional method styles are at a natural disadvantage, simply because of a lack of consumer understanding.
"High-end products require a founding myth to engage the consumer, which Champagne has but New World fizz, even considering the high quality on offer, simply doesn't," he said.
Meanwhile, Cremant and Sekt remain a minor part of the UK repertoire, despite the value they can represent. "Quite frankly, no one knows it, no one asks for it – Sekt is a complete dead duck," said Oxford Ted Sandbach bluntly.
Moreover, leading sparkling wine experts are yet to be convinced by Cremant or Sekt, and hardly pour lavish praise on the two styles. The Christie's World Encyclopedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine observes that "too much Cremant is decidedly mediocre," while Sekt is described as "a very low-grade product of no individual character, and thus of no interest to discerning drinkers on the international market."
"How so much Sekt can be consumed by the Germans themselves is a real mystery," asks Essi Avellan MW rhetorically, as she knows full well the answer is because it's dirt cheap and German.
But if entry-level or "sweet spot" sparkling wine styles are struggling in the UK, then surely categories that rival NV Champagne in price have no future at all?
"Not all all," answer the trade, who point to English sparkling and Franciacorta as two examples of a periphery wine style with a healthy, if niche future ahead.
Indeed, English fizz has stolen a march with upmarket dining establishments and retailers across the UK.
Yet the average price of leading brands such as Nyetimber and Gusbourne often outstrips a decent swathe of supermarket Champagne, especially when the discounting frenzy starts.
"Of all of them, English fizz has the most potential; there is significantly improved quality and consumers have a much better understanding of what it is," says James Hocking.
"We hardly sell anything that isn't Champagne, Prosecco or Cava and there's certainly not a lot of room for the periphery styles in the UK market," adds Wine Buyer Christine Parkinson.
"Of the alternatives, I actually think Franciacorta stands the best chance: the style is, of course, very different to Prosecco, but Prosecco's success seems to have driven interest in Italian sparkling wines across the board."
Her cautious optimism would seem to be borne out by Franciacorta's Consorzio, who point to a steady rise in export volumes: sales of Franciacorta in the UK rose by over 170 percent in volume across the 2014 calendar year compared with 2013, according to their data.
The UK now accounts for more than 7 percent of total exports of Franciacorta, compared to barely 3 percent in 2012. Impressive, especially when one considers the challenges of selling a relatively obscure product that hovers around the price point of entry-level NV Champagne.
"Unlike Champagne, our secret is that Franciacorta has no co-operatives, and no lazy producers," said former Consortium President Maurizio Zanella. "We are quality-focused vintners who simply grow our own grapes, produce and market the wine."
However, Zanella is under no illusion about the challenges that lie ahead for Franciacorta. "In the UK there does seem to be a culture of 'Champagne and then everything else' on wine lists," he says.
"When an entry-level Champagne is priced at £30 [$40] then the nearest non-Champagne must be generally a minimum of £5 less."
But ultimately, there is more reason to be optimistic about Franciacorta and of course England's chances for growth than say Cremant or New World fizz. The two categories benefit from considerable consumer goodwill – either fostered from patriotic fever or a love of all things Italian – and are generally focused on high quality, at least at the top end. Anyone who has sampled Bellavista or Nyetimber can vouch for that.
If nothing else, their relative success casts doubt on the notion that consumers are looking to trade-up from Prosecco by spending a few more quid; Franciacorta and certainly English fizz often compete directly with Champagne, both in terms of price and prestige.
Perhaps, therefore, the secret to gaining a foothold in the UK arena is not by undercutting Champagne and simultaneously touting a higher quality alternative to Prosecco message, but by screaming: "I may cost as much, but I'm so worth it."
Top 5 great value sparklers that aren't Prosecco:
Prices worldwide on Wine-Searcher (US$, ex-tax, per 750-ml bottle):

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