Bubble bursts in UK Champagne market

Sharp fall in the import of champagne from France to UK observed last year compared with strong rise in sales the year before.

Despite the obvious plunge in sales, the UK is still the largest consumer of champagne outside of France. Whilst it may not be a surprise that during these continued times of economic hardship, sales of sparkling wines such as Prosecco and cava are eating away at the more expensive French champagne brands, it is a demonstrable u-turn on the 12 month period before this where sales of champagne actually rose considerably despite the recession.

The latest figures have been published by the industry's trade body the Champagne Bureau which represents 14,000 growers and "houses" in France. Shipments to the UK fell by 2.7% in 2011 to 34.5m bottles from 35.5m in 2010, after leaping by 16.3% the previous year.Shipments are not the same as sales but are a likely indicator, as bubbly does not tend to be stored in bulk.

Despite the fall, industry in the UK have remarked that the figures still reflect excellent performance and if anything was not as bad as some had feared.

In total, 141.3m bottles crossed the French border last year, and the UK has been the number one Champagne market outside France for 16 years - 78% ahead of its nearest rival, the United States.

The Champagne Bureau director, Françoise Peretti, said of the UK figures: "'It's a love story, it really is. Never mind the mood of austerity. Champagne shipments for 2011 closed within a whisker of the volume for 2010 - and that's remarkable in the current economic climate."

She said that with major celebratory events to come this year in the UK such as the Olympic and Paralympic Games in London and the diamond jubilee, the prospects for 2012 were even better: "Champagne is forever Britain's first choice for celebration, and we have a great deal of celebrating to do."

Guy Woodward, editor of Decanter magazine, said: "Although the UK remains by far the biggest market for champagne, our consumption is actually falling. As such, we're one of the few major countries that is drinking less champagne than we used to. There's no doubt the economy has had an impact there, and the emergence of decent cheaper alternatives such as Prosecco has also affected things.

"It'll be interesting to see, this year, whether English sparkling wine can make any inroads into champagne's market dominance. If it's ever going to do so, 2012 is surely the year. Production and quality are both increasing, and patriotism is bound to play a part."

He went on: "The advantage that champagne has is one of size. Its brands are so established, and so huge, that they wield huge power at both ends of the market - sponsoring high-end, aspirational events on the one hand, and being discounted in supermarkets, which use champagne to drive volume and footfall. Other sparkling wines can't compete with that."

Both consumer markets and the beverages industry have seen a strong clawing back of market share by English vineyards such as Chapel Down wines, Denbies Estate and others.

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