The bubbles bubble

Helping customers understand why champagne is the secret to sales success in Australia, says Ben Canaider

There are real on-premise opportunities if you understand the champagne market.

There are real on-premise opportunities if you understand the champagne market.

In 2012 Australia consumed 5.4 million bottles of champagne. One third of all these champagne sales were transacted on premise. While you reach for the calculator, let me provide the answer: 1.62 million bottles. On premise. How many did you sell? More importantly, how much more can you sell, and what is the best way to do it?

Before some recommendations, some background. With regard to Australia’s consumption of champagne, there’s another interesting industry statistic, according to Champagne’s Australian representative body, the Champagne Bureau of Australia: despite the global economic miasma, sales of fizz’s real deal are up. And by a not un-eye-catching 11.4 per cent compared to 2011 sales. Last year we were the eighth biggest consumer of champagne in the world; this year we’ve risen to seventh. This puts Australia at the front of champagne’s sales growth, with Japan running a close second. And with sales of champagne actually dropping in France itself, this only means one thing—more attention and marketing of champagne in Australia.

Of course, the Australian dollar’s recent parity issues have helped imported products of all kind. No wonder then that new champagne houses abound. Indeed every sommelier and her dog is importing one… How champagne sales growth continues should dollar parity wildly adjust is not hard to guess—champagne sales will drop, particularly as such sales are heavily subscribed to by the 18-to-30-year-old demographic, and when the price goes up, affordable luxury finds itself on the shelf. This point is driven home by a comparison of pre-GFC average retail prices of champagne in Australia compared to 2012 prices: $75 in 2007; $50 in 2012.

One strong area of growth within the category over the past year was vintage champagne. Non-vintage might still make up 96 per cent of all champagne sales in Australia, but the vintage version—representing the best wines from exceptional years—grew by nearly 80 per cent in 2012, or an additional 100,000 bottles of vintage wine in one year alone.

Wine education, a general wine savviness among younger consumers, and the discounting of standard NV champagnes has no doubt helped this growth of vintage bottles. If NV is affordable—or almost ‘everyday’—then the traditionally more unattainable vintage champagnes are seen as the new and very acquirable aspirational drink of discovery. How far the bubble might last, however (and apologies to everyone for that appalling pun…), is a matter of some concern. France’s own champagne consumption was down five per cent in 2011 to 2012. Traditional champagne bellwether markets like the USA and, importantly, the UK, are also experiencing a slide in sales, down nearly nine per cent and six per cent respectively.

Relying on global economic trends to drive your wine sales is hardly the best practice of hospitality business, I hasten to add. If champagne has—for a raft of reasons—attracted the attention of on-premise consumers then it is your job to leverage that natural advantage. And once again information is king. If, through your service, wine list and general marketing you can discreetly inform customers about some of Champagne’s secrets then you’ve got a customer if not for life, at least for their life cycle.

Helping customers make sense of the nomenclature of Champagne and the nature of Champagne’s many houses and growers is one way to do this. As more and more champagne brands have flooded the Australian market over the past five years, the more sense you can make of it all to your customers the better they may well feel towards you.

Along with a notion of the difference between NV champagne and vintage champagne (the former being the house style that is designed to never change and the latter being a more individual expression of one vintage and its own unique conditions), there are important points to flag concerning styles of champagne.

Brut—meaning ‘dry’. This is almost a generic descriptor for champagne, but if you establish that most champagne is indeed Brut, then you can introduce the following styles to your list.

Blanc de Blancs—the white of whites; made from 100 per cent chardonnay with no pinot noir or pinot meunier to be seen. These are very elegant and age-worthy champagnes.

Blanc de Noirs—Champagne made only from the abovementioned pinots. Lack of skin contact during manufacture prevents any leaching of colour, so you get a white wine with the two pinots’ body and oomph.

And the worth of this wine list sub-categorisation? You’ve turned one champagne category into three, and each sub-category demands its own timing, food matching, stemsware, and service traditions. A glass of Blanc de Blancs with the first-course fish? A glass of Blanc de Noirs with a main-course terrine? Champagne becomes a table wine…

Champagne houses, as opposed to growers, is another area of your marketing endeavour. The bottle’s label indicates whether a champagne is a big company ‘house’ or a smaller, more hands-on ‘grower’. The houses’ labels carry a prefix NM (négociant-manipulant); growers’ labels are prefixed RM (récoltant-manipulant). The NMs are the big houses and big brands—the ones that sponsor James Bond and cafe umbrellas.

The RMs, however, are where more of the wine geeks are heading, particularly as more of these wines make there way into Australia. These growers’ champagnes are considered more individualistic, less manufactured, and more redolent of the vineyards. The fact that such wines have very little retail presence is also an attractive aspect for anyone with an on-premise liquor licence. Some of the growers’ RM wine worth considering include Larmandier-Bernier, Pierre Gimonnet and the tongue-tying Egly-Ouriet.

And a final point on professional development: if you or your staff are champagne addicts and want to pursue its study, look at the Vin de Champagne Award. There’s a professional section for the wine and drinks industry, and an amateur award for those enthusiasts wise enough to have proper jobs. And there’s a trip to Champagne for the winners.

This great content is produced for members of the Restaurant & Catering Association. Find out about becoming a member here.

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