CHAMPAGNE BULLETIN OCTOBER 2020
All eyes on the end of the year
More about that later, but first… famous brands are undoubtedly superb, but the smaller guys are sometimes the ones to watch.
Even though I have been lucky enough to taste some of the finest champagnes produced by the most famous brands ( I even worked for one of them for many years) my real interest has always been in the smaller, independent houses many of which deserve more recognition, not just for the wonderful champagne they make, but also for the way they work. In my experience it’s often these smaller companies that start the trends that are later taken up by the bigger names.
That’s why I was interested to read a recent article announcing the creation of a body, headed up by Champagne Henriot and called Alliance Terroir, whose aim is to better understand and promote the many terroirs of Champagne.
One of the activities of Alliance Terroir is to dig trenches in vineyard plots to study the composition of the soil, the different geological strata, how the vines’ root systems develop in each one and to analyse the microbial life in the soil and measure the amount of water retention.
All these are worthy aims that are very useful and there is no question that Champagne Henriot is a fine house. What struck me however is that work just like this has been carried out quietly for years by many smaller houses, without any fanfare or fuss, just because it makes good sense to gather as much knowledge about your vines and your vineyard as possible.
Take Champagne Coessens in Ville-sur-Arce for example.
Jerôme Coessens produces 8 different wines (6 champagnes and 2 coteaux champenois) from just one terroir called Largillier and from just one varietal: Pinot Noir. He can achieve this diversity in part because many years ago he undertook exactly the type of excavations now being suggested by Alliance Terroir.
If you have a mind to, you can read the results of the digs on the downloads available (in French) on Jerôme’s web site, but they can make challenging reading unless you are a budding pedologist. What is far more exciting mind you, are his wines – well worth trying if you have never had the pleasure.
Further north, in Ambonnay, you’ll find that Benoît Marguet is similarly fascinated with the soil in his plots and has been for years and years as you can see from these pictures I took on an extremely cold January day a few years back.
That’s Benoît in the fur hat standing in one of the many trenches he and his team examined that day. The other onlookers are fellow champagne maker anxious to learn so that they too can put similar ideas into practice in their own vineyards.
To my mind these concrete examples show once again that many so-called new ideas come from the small enterprises who can be more agile, innovative and dynamic than their larger cousins.
Watching the numbers
60% or more of champagne sales occur in the last three months of each year, so from that point of view, the start of the COVID episode, last March, happened at the least damaging period of the year. Even so, the drop in sales due to the restrictions on business put in place, was very significant, falling over 50% in May compared to the same month in 2019.
Now however, the first hopeful signs of recovery are beginning to show.
LVMH which owns the largest stable of brands in Champagne, reported improved sales in the third quarter of this year and Pol Roger has seen the decrease in its sales versus 2019 reduce month by month from -35% in May, to -30% in June, and to -25% in July. By the end of September, the decrease had reduced to -15% and it is set to come down further in October.
Not great numbers, but far less severe than the worst-case scenario that some were talking of 6 months ago
Taking champagne as a whole, the total shipment figures for August were actually UP 15% (+ 1.1 million bottles) compared to August 2019.
So, some reason for guarded optimism and some signs of the resilience that everyone has been hoping for, but watch this space for the next three crucial months.
Here’s a topic that will be of interest to all those who have contacted me about creating a private brand of champagne.
The flurry of celebrity wines being launched on to the market shows little sign of slowing down and, indeed, that’s no surprise since the sales are so buoyant.
Kylie Minogue (Australian singing star) sold 70,000 bottles of her Provencal Rosé in the first week after launch.
Ian Botham, a famous former English cricketer has sold £4 million in value this year alone and his range is currently available in 14 countries, whilst Graham Norton (English TV personality) has sold 10 million bottles of his wine range since 2015.
Other celebrities (Idris Elba and Brangelina) have announced and/or launched their own champagne brands this year and we have covered these in previous bulletins.
The key thing to take from these stories is twofold:
To succeed on a large scale, you don’t have to be an internationally or nationally known celebrity; what is vital however is that you have, or have access to, a large following or database of followers.
The second key to success is having a good distribution partner. Creating the wine or champagne is an important part of the process but getting it into the hands of customers is equally important.
Trouble at mill
For many of you this title may not make sense – it’s an old-fashioned expression, from Yorkshire I believe – that suggests that all is not well, and more trouble is probably on the way.
I mention this in connection with the story that you may recall from an earlier bulletin about the spat between the SGV (Syndicat Général des Vignerons de la Champagne) and the VIC (Vignerons Indépendents de Champagne).
The VIC occupied offices in the SGV building in Epernay and was associated with the SGV in so far as the VIC was represented by the SGV in meetings of the overall governing body in Champagne.
Just before the harvest this year, the VIC lost faith that the SGV was properly defending the interests of the members of the VIC at those meetings. The VIC president then told the members to withhold their subscription payments to the SGV and the disagreement lead to the VIC being told to vacate their office in the SGV building.
In the latest twist, the VIC have just re-elected, their president who was such an outspoken critic of the SGV, and they have done so with a near unanimous vote. It doesn’t look as if they are in any mood to soften their stance.
It will be interesting to watch and see how things pan out and this story provides yet more proof that there’s never nothing going on in Champagne.
That’s it for this month. I hope you’ve enjoyed this run down of news from Champagne that you may not have come across elsewhere.