End of an era for cheap champagne as French opt for homegrown quality or low-cost foreign fizz
Champagne producers are turning their backs on low-cost fizz in France as rising grape costs push up prices and French drinkers opt for quality home-grown bottles or low-cost fizzy alternatives like Prosecco.
In what could be considered a matter of national pride, the French are the world’s number one champagne consumers with corks popped at special occasions and aperitifs, particular during the Christmas season.
While champagne bottles fetch high prices abroad, the French have long been spoiled for choice with an offer of cheap fizz for the domestic market, some of it of dubious quality.
However, French tastes for low-cost bubbly between €12 to €20 plummeted by 13 per cent between 2010 and 2016, with this price range now accounting for less than 50 per cent of the market for the first time.
In the past six years, supermarkets’ own cheap champagne labels have slumped by 38 per cent, meaning they now sell around five million of the 310 million bottles sold by the Champagne appellation.
Experts say the drop is in part down to changing consumer tastes, with the French preferring quality over quantity for food and drink in general. Organic brands have jumped 16 per cent this year alone.
Independent champagne producer Cyril Janisson said the French were increasingly shunning dubious bubbly.
“There is a revolution going on with many people prepared to pay a premium for top quality products that costs a little more,” he told the Telegraph.
It is not uncommon to find champagne for around €6 in budget supermarkets, meaning that a bottle is worth no more than the grapes used to fill it, as chains have clashed in price wars to the detriment of producers.
“Low-cost champagne is a catastrophe,” said Mr Janisson. “Our production costs are higher than the total cost of a champagne bottle you find in some supermarkets. They sell industrial champagne, mine is artisanal. It’s the difference between buying industrial bread or from a real boulanger.”
Cheap champagne is also falling foul of rocketing grape prices, which have prompted independent growers to sell all their harvest to the big champagne houses.
Prices rose this year by five per cent as big players like Moët Hennessy paid a premium to ensure top quality.
Wine merchant Gael Chauvet said changing consumer tastes for extra dry champagne was forcing producers to improve quality.
“Twenty years ago, there was a lot of cheating going on with extra sugar added to hide a multitude of sins and raise yields. That has become much harder to do but higher quality means smaller yields and volumes,” he said.
Low-cost bubbly has also lost out to even cheaper foreign alternatives, including prosecco, cava, New World sparkling wine and French crémant.
Instead of producing mediocre fizz in bulk, growers seeking to circumvent the big brands will have to seek niche quality markets in the same way that craft beers in recent years, Martin Cubertafond, Sciences Po lecturer and champagne author, told Les Echos.
Such quality bottles could triple from three per cent to 12 per cent by 2030, he said.
Top Champagne houses are quietly welcoming the development, as they have looked askance at very cheap bottles for image reasons.
“The problem is, displaying champagne that costs little more than soda gives the consumer the impression that it is a banal product, whereas it is a product of exception,” said a source at the Champagne board.