Champagne and its alternatives

champagne

Not all bubbles are equal, writes Ben Canaider

Sparkling wine is definitely a three-speed economy

One speed—and the most famous—is champagne. From Champagne. Australia is the 7th largest champagne market in the world. Just under 7.5 million bottles were shipped to this country in 2016 (back in 2006, that figure was just under three million). It is clearly an important player in both off and on-premise sparkling wine sales.

The second speed—and perhaps the most over-revving right now—is other imported fizz. Such things as prosecco from Italy, cava from Spain, and sparkling fuzz from New Zealand. Cava is particularly a hit with younger, higher-spend patrons, and patrons who identify as women.

Staggeringly, however, recent consumer research has suggested that one in every two people drinking a glass of fizz (of any kind) is drinking prosecco. So I trust you’ve got a couple of these alternatives on your wine list.

The third speed is local or domestic sparkling wine. It’s the slowest, and slowing down as we speak. And this despite the fact that there are plenty of high-quality sparkling wine makers here, producing excellent wines, yet admittedly at prices that are often higher than champagne. The only highlight for Australian sparkling winemakers seems to be in niche markets, or with moscato, which we are exporting to overseas markets at a growing rate—due, in part, to moscato’s lower alcohol by volume percentage. And perhaps the style’s innate sweetness.

With these overarching factors in mind, perhaps the best way for any owner/operator to tackle the question of sparkling wine on-premise sales is to look at those aspects of the category that are generally not working in Australia.

L’originale

Let’s start with champagne. While the overall figures are good (and, ditto, by volume Australians are actually the 5th largest drinkers of champagne in the world), there are some champagne sub-categories that are not so popular, at least according to the latest macro sales data. Amazingly, these are the subcategories I see most often on uber-trendy wine lists, and they also happen to be wines I like myself.

Rosé champagnes, grower champagnes, obscure (to Australians at least) champagne houses… While we import and drink a lot of champagne, we import an extremely low number of houses and styles. We are well and truly rooted to a few known champagnes, which we even afford cute nicknames, such as Bolly and Moet (pronounced to rhyme with that Victorian country town, Moe…) No doubt off-premise sales of such champagne dominate growth, particularly with discounting. And if that’s the case, then adding the niche champagnes to your list can work in three ways: a) you are not competing by price comparison with the well-known champagne houses discounted by the big retailers; b) you’re being cutting-edge and educative with your wine list; and c) you’re bringing food and wine pairings back into the game, thanks to rosé champagne’s stunning ability to be served with a range of entree dishes.

“Cava is particularly a hit with younger, higher-spend patrons, and patrons who identify as women.”

Rosé champagne sorts out all sorts of salmon, and most fish dishes. It is as happy with a charcuterie plate as it is with a quiche. Composed salads, a mixture of good Chinese dumplings. Sushi, prawns, oysters… Promote it thusly through the menu and wine list.

The potential game changer in on-premise is, however, grower champagne. These are sparkling wines from Champagne made by the people who grow the grapes. Rather than selling grapes to one of the bigger houses (like Veuve or Taittinger), who then use the grapes to produce a blended, consistent, year-in-year-out ‘house’ style, these growers make real wines from real vintages with real personalities. Champagnes aficionados love them. Because they seem like they’re actually from a vineyard somewhere. Labels from growers will wear the fine-print term “Récoltant Manipulant”. Two excellent examples are Larmandier-Bernier Latitude Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs, and Veuve Fourny Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru. With low sugar (or dosage) levels, these are wines for sophisticates—which your clientele must be. They stand alone as an aperitif, and they also suit very austere hors d’oeuvres.

Another reason it might be wise to get into niche champagne is changing drinking habits: in 2016, over 200 different champagnes were imported into Australia; 84 came from growers. A trend?

Prosecco & Co

On those odd occasions, however, when your venue is temporarily overrun by people who want much, much keener QPR (Quality Price Rapport), then the new area of growth in Australian sparkling wine sales is to where you must go: prosecco and co.

Imported prosecco has two distinct advantages: firstly it is imported, which means it isn’t Australian. (It’s a bit like driving a European car rather than a Japanese one made in Thailand.) Secondly, whereas champagne from Champagne is known to be posh but très très expensive, prosecco is thought to be posh (European…) but extremely affordable. So you can drive an imported car without the $5000 per month repayments.

Prosecco does have some factual advantages, however. It’s lively, fresh, appley, citric, and—at least in the good ones—dry. It can be served heavily chilled (the colder the better) and it suits aperitif as well as antipasto. You can even drink a glass of it with a fruit dessert. So it fits in all over your wine list and menu. More importantly is the fact that thanks to Australian-Italiano wine-making traditions, more superb quality prosecco is now being made in Australia, and at very attractive LUCs. Go to the King Valley in North East Victoria for Pizzini and Dal Zotto prosecco.

¡Hola Cava!

Sitting a little higher in the LUC chain, but still below a lot of champagne, is cava. This Spanish sparkling wine is—despite the tapas revolution still occurring in Australian pubs, clubs, cafes, bars, and restaurants—still a little misunderstood. Customers understand the basics of champagne; prosecco doesn’t really need an explanation as it is Italian; but cava is, and made from grapes no one has ever heard of (macabeu, parellada and xarello…). The key to its sale is food. Make it a natural equation. If you serve tapas, serve cava; if you serve antipasto, serve prosecco; if you serve hors d’oeuvre, serve champagne. It’s not rocket scientology.

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