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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?

  1. Steve, you are right, of course, about Prosecco. I think the interest in the bubbly is slowly extending further, and, if I might add to your comments, will likely provide a positive answer to your question.

    For just a few shekels more than the cost of Prosecco, there is an entire layer of CA sparkling wine, most at front-line retail of $22 or so and frequently available at discount, that in its best variations, see Roederer Estate or Domaine Carneros Brut or Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Blancs, or the less well-known but delightful Gruet Rose, made in New Mexico from home-grown and more coastally grown grapes, are exceptional values for the money.

    Prosecco has certainly helped expand the range of choices among sparkling wines, and may well be bringing new enthusiasts to the category. That new enthusiasm for the bubbly ought to translate into increased appreciation of the entire panoply of choices.

  2. Glad to see Charlie’s shout out to Gruet, which I enjoyed last week at the Winter Wine Festival in Taos. Especially delicious is their Sauvage, which is bottled without dosage. The success of sparkling wine in New Mexico has me wondering how many other places in America that we normally don’t associate with fine wine could produce credible sparkling wine. I suspect there are many climates where achieving 19 or 20 brix is doable– and acidity levels too high for still wine would lend themselves to sparkling…

  3. Unmentioned and possibly overlooked regarding this uptick in sparkling wine consumption: Millennials buying inexpensive Prosecco or Cava to make Mimosas consumed during the weekend.

    Front-line $20-plus California sparkling wines are too expensive for making Mimosas. Too high quality whose innate character would be masked by the fruit juice . . . when all they want is fluid and alcohol from the chosen bottle.

    Steve, query your Oakland-based Millennial friends: are they drinking a lot of Mimosas these days?

    (Even money says they are.)

  4. Observations from self, friends, and family.

    Virtually everyone prefers method champenoise such as the entry-level Domaine Carneros/Roederer Estate over Prosecco when given both side by side. When Prosecco is served a number of mixers are often used from the start by about half of the people, including sparkling beverages such as San Pelligrino or still juices such as Tangerine juice and orange juice. People will also mix these into the champenoise, but seem to feel more guilty about doing it.

    As price increases in sparking, it starts to polarize the group especially if the bottles are acid driven such as grower champagne or Ultramarine for example. Some people will LOVE them and some will really dislike them, usually in line with their opinions on sour beer.

    A lot of marketing and press lately goes towards bottles of grower champagne over the big houses. I have had more bad experiences than good with grower bottles, many having highly elevated levels of acetaldehyde and other flaws that make them honestly a chore to consume. If new sparkling drinkers buy into the buzz and purchase an ~$50 bottle of grower Champagne that turns out to be flawed before ever tasting a major champagne label I can totally understand them being happy with Prosecco and not willing to pay the premium to try more Champagne.

  5. If Americans wanna start consuming prosecco like the Italians, bartenders should start pushing the Aperol Spritz for $3.00 a glass like they do in Italy. Technically, 2.50eu a glass, but I’m rounding up.Yes, it’s that cheap.

  6. The problem with American Sparkling Wine is a serious problem of branding.

    Champagne is the world’s elite sparkling wine. It is wealth, prosperity, celebrations, and the formality of ‘French Luxury Culture.”

    Prosecco is ‘cheap champagne that’s still pretty good.’ It is family, friends, mimosas at Sunday Brunch, Netflix on a Tuesday, and the stereotype of ‘Italian casual lifestyle.”

    What is California Sparkling Wine’s message? “Better than Prosecco, but cheaper than Champagne?”

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