Champagne Bulletin December 2020


Beyond the obvious

This month’s bulletin is a little longer than normal because there are several interesting topics to explore, particularly around the theme of exploring some of the less well-known, but fascinating and rewarding aspects of champagne. I hope you’ll find it interesting.

Credit where credit is due

VinousAnyone who has met me over the past few years or has read any of my posts will know that I am a great fan of the smaller, independent champagne makers. That’s why I am sometimes disappointed by the results of the innumerable champagne competitions and awards which invariably give all the top accolades to a limited number of well-known brands.

I don’t wish to suggest that these brands are not all of very high quality, it’s just that the lists are often very predictable. For me that raises a few questions:

  • Which champagnes did not make the Top 10 or Best 20, or whatever name is used.
  • Which champagnes simply did not enter the competitions and were not even tasted?
  • Which champagnes were entered for the competition but found to be of lesser quality than the winners?

I short, I just feel that some of the amazing champagnes made by less well-known producers don’t get the attention they deserve from many mainstream wine commentators and publications.

That’s why I was so pleased to see the list of ‘Must Have’ champagnes listed by Antonio Galloni in his recent article Champagne 2020 New Releases published on his web site Vinous. Here’s the list and you can see that it includes only one name that I would call a ‘major’ brand· 

  • Barons de Rothschild Blanc de Blancs Rare Vintage Cuvée Spéciale
  • Chartogne-Taillet 2016 Extra-Brut Blanc de Blancs Heurtebise
  • Christophe Baron 2016 Brut Nature Les Hautes Blanches Vignes (Magnum)
  • Ulysse Collin NV Extra Brut Rosé de Saignée Les Maillons (base 2016)
  • Marie Courtin 2017 Extra Brut Sans Soufre Présence
  • Georges Laval 2016 Brut Nature Les Chênes
  • Laherte Frères 2016 Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs Les Grandes Crayères 1er Cru
  • Cédric Bouchard-Roses de Jeanne 2016 Blanc de Blancs La Bolorée
  • Jacques Selosse NV Extra-Brut Le Mesnil sur Oger Les Carelles (2013)
  • Jacques Selosse NV Extra-Brut Aÿ La Côte Faron (2013)
  • Taittinger 2008 Comtes de Champagne
  • Veuve Fourny & Fils NV Extra-Brut Rosé MV 13 Vinothèque
  • Vilmart & Cie 2012 Coeur de Cuvée

Each and every one of these champagnes is worthy of any champagne enthusiast’s attention but it must be said that some of them are not cheap, so for anyone with a more modest budget Mr. Galloni also made a list of a few other ‘ Must Haves’ at more affordable prices:

Arnaud Margaine

  • Margaine NV Brut Le Brut ( Arnaud Margaine pictured left)
  • Chartogne-Taillet NV Brut Cuvée Ste.-Anne
  • RH Coutier NV Brut Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru
  • Gatinois NV Brut Réserve Grand Cru
  • Laherte Frères NV Brut Ultradition Blanc de Blancs
  • Christophe Mignon NV Brut Nature Blanc de Noirs ADN de Meunier
  • JL Vergnon NV Brut Nature Blanc de Blancs Murmure 1er Cru

Everyone has his or her own favourites and opinions of course, and personally, there are several other names that I would have included in one or other of these lists, but the point is that there is a whole world  to discover beyond the famous brands and it’s well worth exploring.

If you’re a champagne lover who usually sticks to the main brands, you may be wondering how to start learning more about the rest of the iceberg that most people never see.

 If that’s you, then take a look at My Champagne Expert, the online champagne course I created after living and working in Champagne for almost 20 years. It will guide you through the region the people and the wines and turn you into a champagne expert in your own right. Here’s a link to find out more.

It’s the distribution stupid!

So, if these smaller brands are so good, how come I don’t see them in my local wine shop or restaurant and what makes the bigger brands so successful anyway?

Enherbement well doneWell, there are a number of factors that explain the success of the famous brands: well managed vineyards and skilful wine makers are two of them, but the smaller producers can lay claim to these attributes as well.

Two important areas where the small producers are less able to compete are the scale of production and the quality of the marketing, but in my opinion, the main reason for any brand’s success the distribution.

The reason why so many people rarely get to drink anything other than brands such as Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, or Lanson, to mention just a few popular brands, is not because those brands are the best on the market, although they are all of excellent quality.

The real reason is because these brands are available almost whenever the consumer goes. It’s all very well wanting to try something different but if the bar you’re in only offers one option, the chances are that brand will be one of the big names.

Of course, in order to get your brand into the maximum number of outlets you have to have very large-scale production, so that mitigates against the smaller operations too, but as Antonio Galloni suggests, great quality is not limited to just a handful of famous brands and you will usually be rewarded with a great experience if you venture to try something from an independent producer the next time you are considering buying a bottle of champagne.

Bad timing

Generic casesIn previous bulletins I mentioned that all eyes in Champagne were focussed on the end of the year in the hope that sales would bounce back in the crucial run up to Christmas and the New Year. Alas, instead of an improvement in the situation regarding COVID, a second lockdown was implemented which cut the ground from under the feet of all those looking for some rays of sunshine at the end of the year.

Nevertheless, if we look for a few less-discouraging numbers we can see from the figures recently released by the Comité Champagne that in the year till the end of October shipments were down 7.9% versus October 2019. Perhaps not too bad a result, all things considered.

The bulk of this decline was in France (-18.3%) and to a lesser extent in Europe (- 2.8%), but shipments to the rest of the world were up 3.6% versus October 2019 with the USA, Canada, Australia, China and Hong Kong driving this growth.

However, the full year picture shows no real recovery with the 12-month moving annual total (MAT) to the end of October running at 253.1 million bottles. With lockdown restrictions in France and most of Europe showing little sign of improving, the MAT will probably fall again by the end of December, albeit with some green shoots in North America and Asia.

A word about private brands

Many of you reading this bulletin will have contacted me about creating a private brand champagne and you may be asking what all the news above might have on your projects and ambitions.

Crystal Ball 2You won’t be surprised when I say that I don’t have a crystal ball and can’t predict the future. In fact, no one can.

I have just read an article by a university professor who specialises in the study of the champagne industry. He is confident that some things will change as a result of the events of 2020 but quite what is another matter – we may see this happening, but on the other hand, that might happen, or then again it’s possible that the other might come into play.

Not very helpful stuff, but is there anything we can say with certainty?

On the supply side and referring back to some of the topics mentioned above, the famous, luxury brands will never agree to produce private label champagne. That has never been their policy and they will not change now.

Equally, the smaller producers who are beginning to build a reputation will not be interested in private brand business either. Most of them have relatively limited production and their increasing prestige means they can sell all the bottles they produce anyway.

That still leaves hundreds of good quality champagne makers to choose from. Many of these, particularly those who depend to any extent on the French market, will have seen their sales declining and will therefore be all the more open to new opportunities.

On the demand side, the small but welcome signs that champagne sales in the USA and Canada are holding up well, are encouraging.

A good quality champagne, supported by a well-planned marketing strategy and reliable, (not necessarily widespread) distribution will always have a good chance of success.

Anyone who would like to discuss a private brand project is welcome to contact me by email to explore the idea and the options available.

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Many thanks for reading this far and for your interest.

With sincere wishes to everyone for a healthy, happy and prosperous New Year in 2021

Jiles Halling

30th December 2020