Sparkling wine may be “hot,” but what does that really mean?
Is there any wine category that’s had more ups and downs than sparkling wine?
Twenty, thirty years ago and more here in California, many of the French Champagne houses, looking forward to the coming Millennium (not the religious one, but the turn of the 21st century), believed so strongly that Americans were turning into a bubbly-drinking people, and would consume humungous quantities of it on the evening of Dec. 31, 1999, that they established wineries here. Taittinger went to Carneros, Moet & Chandon and Mumm to Napa Valley, Roederer to Anderson Valley, Maison Deutz to Arroyo Grande Valley, and I even remember when Laurent-Perrier was going to partner with Iron Horse, in the Russian River Valley. Not from Champagne but from Spain, Freixenet went to Sonoma and Codorniu to Carneros. Am I forgetting anyone?
Alas, Americans disappointed the Euro bubbly makers by not becoming a sparkling wine-consuming nation, and those wineries had to change business plans. Some, having already planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, went into the still wine business. It cannot have been an easy time for them.
But suddenly it seems like sparkling wine is “the hottest category in the world.” At least, that’s what the drinks business is reporting.
Granted, a lot of that popularity is driven by the fantastic success of Prosecco, a very nice wine that is affordable. Many people I know in my own circle always have a bottle of Prosecco in the fridge. Here in the U.S., the Wine Institute reports sparkling wine shipments increased 7% last year over 2014. That’s pretty good—a lot more than my (and probably your) checking account is paying. So how do we account for this new popularity of bubbly and, more importantly, will it last?
Well, Prosecco obviously is a huge part, but an even greater part is that Americans are finally realizing what some of us have been trying to get across forever: Champagne/sparking wine is not just for New Year’s Eve, weddings and anniversaries! It’s probably the most versatile wine in the world with every type of food imaginable, and it can fest up an ordinary occasion in a way still wine can’t. And I see no reason why this trend shouldn’t continue.
The big question for luxury producers—in California, I’m thinking of Schramsberg, Iron Horse and a few others—is how they can manage to sell more expensive wines. It is quite true that, objectively, a Schramsberg sparkling wine is better than a Prosecco, but that’s from a critic’s point of view. I’m not sure that the average consumer would discern that. Nor would he or she see any reason to spend $50 on bubbly when $17 will get them something fine. Can America truly become a sparkling wine-drinking country beyond Prosecco?