Revelers Choose Sparkling Wines Over Champagne

fromKQED

'Tis the season for bubbly, but the recession has left champagne sales flat. Some high-end champagnes may be heavily discounted this holiday season. In the rough economy, many are looking at sparkling wines as an alternative.

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When the cork flies out of the bottle at midnight tonight, you may want to check the label. In this rough economy, many people are looking at sparkling wines as an alternative to champagne. There are plenty to choose from, as KQED's Cy Musiker reports from San Francisco.

CY MUSIKER: Let's start with the bad news in the city of Reims, the heart of French champagne and the home of Daniel Lorson. He's communications director for the main champagne trade organization.

Mr. DANIEL LORSON (Communications director, Comit´┐Ż Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne, CIVC): We are suffering now a severe downturn, especially in the export markets.

MUSIKER: That's an understatement. Shipments of champagne to the U.S. are down more than 40 percent in the first three-quarters of the year. And we're champagne's second biggest market after the United Kingdom. Sales are creeping up in this last quarter following an improving economy, but not much.

Mr. KYLE NADEAU (Manager, D&M Wines): Everybody is still very price conscious about things. I don't think everybody thinks we're quite out of the dark yet.

MUSIKER: Kyle Nadeau manages D&M Wines, a champagne specialist in San Francisco's Pacific Heights. Want a hard to find bottle of Salon 1997? Last year, it would set you back close to $500. Nadeau is selling it this year for just over half that price. Many other champagne houses are cutting prices, but Nadeau says more customers are looking elsewhere for sparkling wines.

Mr. NADEAU: Absolutely. I have seen a big increase in non-domestic champagne sales, particularly from Burgundy, Cremants, things like that, Proseccos.

MUSIKER: So those are sparkling wines? Cava's also from Spain?

Mr. NADEAU: Absolutely. Yes.

MUSIKER: Yeah. And Prosecco, a sparkling wine that's from near Venice in Italy?

Mr. NADEAU: Correct. And, yes, they are generally perceived as sweet, but you can actually have some very dry Proseccos, as well.

MUSIKER: And they're a lot of fun like champagne, but a lot less money.

Mr. NADEAU: Absolutely.

MUSIKER: And fun is what a lot of wine drinkers were looking for to lighten these grim economic times.

Mr. JON FREDRICKSON (Wine industry Consultant, Gomberg, Fredrickson & Associates): I still want to celebrate. I still want to have some sparkling wines. And I'm just not springing for the higher priced brands.

MUSIKER: That's wine industry consultant Jon Frederickson explaining they way wine drinkers spent their precious few dollars in 2009. Frederickson says sales were up about 11 percent for the best-selling and cheapest bulk-processed sparklers: Cook's and two Gallo-owned brands, Andre and Barefoot Bubbly. But sales of better quality and pricier domestic bubblies made in the true champagne method were down by the same margin - about 11 percent. One exception, perhaps: Gloria Ferrer. Their Sonoma brew got some great reviews, goosing sales a bit in this holiday fourth quarter, according to brand manager Sarah Pearson.

Ms. SARAH PEARSON (Brand Manager, Gloria Ferrer): I don't have any solid numbers at this point, but I would expect for us to be up somewhere between 10 to 15 percent over last year.

MUSIKER: And looking back to France, there's no need to worry about the survival of French champagne houses. Their sales and prices surged through most of the decade. Here's Daniel Lorson again from the champagne trade group.

Mr. LORSON: It's the end of a cycle, and I would consider it as a mere episode in the long history of champagne.

MUSIKER: And Lorson says some people will always seek out champagne, no matter the state of the economy.

Mr. LORSON: Remember, what Winston Churchill said, he said about champagne. In victory, I deserve it, and in defeat, I need it.

MUSIKER: For NPR News, I'm Cy Musiker in San Francisco.

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