Own-labels have all guns blazing in bubbly wars

23 March, 2007

They've been a huge hit with shoppers looking for a value treat and they've surprised tasters with their quality. So how are the big brands squaring up to supermarket Champagnes, asks Emma Eversham

When six professional tasters blind-tasted a range of Champagnes for the December 2006 Which? Magazine, no-one would have predicted the effect the results would have on sales of one in particular.

Sainsbury's Taste the Difference Premier Cru 2000 beat big-name brands - including best-seller Moët & Chandon - to the top of the list and customers couldn't get to the wine aisle quickly enough.

Sales rocketed by 3,000 per cent and demand was so great that by Christmas Sainsbury's had sold half its stock for the year ahead.

The story was a positive one for own-label Champagne and one that shows customers are perhaps becoming less interested in buying a bottle for the label and taking more of an interest in the contents. The figures certainly seem to support that thought: according to Nielsen, sales of own-label Champagne in the off-trade grew by 8 per cent (volume) and 12 per cent (value) last year, while the Champagne market overall stayed almost flat, rising just 1 per cent in value and volume .

But just how important is own-label Champagne to buyers and are branded Champagnes really affected by own-label's increasing sales growth?

Tim French, wine buyer at luxury food and drink retailer Fortnum & Mason, knows the power his own-label Champagne h as over customers.

The store stocks a range of five, including a Brut Reserve and a Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru, which make up 50 per cent of the store's Champagne sales.

"Own-label is a very important part of my trade," says French . "We have a recognised brand people come here for."

Space given to Champagne has increased by 200 per cent at Fortnum & Mason's Piccadilly store since the wine department was moved to the lower ground floor and sales of Champagne have increased by 30 per cent.

French says: "Champagne is hugely important for our business - it's a luxury product and it's something that is given as a gift because it delivers. This year, because we have given it a lot more space, sales have gone up ."

Luxury names such as Fortnum & Mason and Harrods will always find it easy to sell own-label Champagne because they themselves are brands ­synonymous with luxury.

But supermarkets, which do not have the same level of prestige, are also seeing their own-label offerings selling as well, if not better than, the branded Champagnes they stock.

Melissa Draycott, senior wine buyer at Sainsbury's, was the person responsible for putting the Taste the Difference Premier Cru 2000 on shelves. Although she had picked it from Champagne house Duval-Leroy, wh ich has been making Sainsbury's Champagne for 25 years, she had not predicted it would be such a success.

"It was phenomenal how much we sold," she says, "and it's got a good following now. I think people have tried it and seen how good it is compared with some of the bigger brands."

Other supermarkets have had similar success stories with their own Champagnes. Tesco's Premier Cru came seventh in the same Which? taste test and one store has won numerous awards for its six-strong own-label range.

Tesco's France and sparkling buyer Kevan Smith said own- label did "extremely well" considering the category had limited opportunit ies for promotions.

"Our Champagnes have won numerous awards and get regular write-ups in the press, which I think consumers have latched on to," Smith says of the increasing popularity of own-label.

However, he also thinks Tesco Champagnes are popular because of their reasonable prices. He says: "I think most supermarket own-label Champagnes are very good quality and as the big brands move ever north with their price points, the gap between own-label and all the big brands is increasing.

"Own-labels haven't really moved in price for a few years now, so they are becoming increasingly better value for the customer. You can buy a Tesco Champagne for £14.99 and thoroughly enjoy it or you can pay £24 or £25 for a bottle of Moët and enjoy it just as much."

At Waitrose, sales of own-label Champagnes, which include a Brut, a Blanc de Blancs and a Blanc de Noirs, have been "slightly" higher than branded Champagnes for six months . But a spokeswoman says general growth for the category has been "pretty much neck and neck".

With own-label taking a hefty share of the market, aren't those producing branded Champagnes feeling left out in the cold? Apparently not. Simon Sua of Maisons, Marques & Domaines, the UK distributor of Louis Roederer Champagne, refuses to see the resurgence of own-label as negative for branded Champagnes. He says: "In a way we are not directly threatened by own-label - we see them as quite useful because it means people are drinking Champagne.

"People trust their supermarket and they find having that Tesco brand quite reassuring. Maybe it's a good thing for branded Champagnes because it means people eventually might trade up." He adds: "Of course, if own-label is at the same price point as branded Champagnes it becomes a threat, but for us it's not relevant, because we are pitched at a different market."

Smaller labels are also happy to let supermarkets do what they do. Champagne Montaudon, one of the few remaining independently-run Champagne houses, has just revamped its packaging but has no plans to compete against own-label .

Luc Montaudon sa ys: "Champagne Montaudon has never had the inclination to enter the price wars associated with supermarket sales, but the brand competes in a way through its independent retailers. Our strategy is to sell through independent retailers to reach the consumer on a more personal level and it is for this reason we have been able to listen to our customers and make changes ."

Big name input

It is interesting that many top Champagne houses are producing Champagne for supermarkets and other retailers to sell under their own name. At Waitrose the Brut Champagne is made by P&C Heidsieck and the Blanc de Noirs by Alexandre Bonnet. Sainsbury's uses Duval-Leroy to make its Extra Dry, Rosé and it's Taste the Difference Premier Cru.

Branded Champagnes from these houses are also on sale in supermarkets, but for a higher price than the own-label offerings. For example, Waitrose Brut sells for approximately £14, while Piper Heidsieck's Brut is priced at £6 more.

It happens at the luxury end of the market too. At Fortnum & Mason the Blanc de Blancs is produced by Theophile Roederer and the winemaking team responsible for luxury brand Cristal. However, the Blanc de Blancs is on sale for about one-tenth of the price of a bottle of Cristal.

Savvy shoppers have no doubt recognised the link and the obvious value for money , but established names are quite happy for this to happen because they see it as a way of keeping bad quality Champagnes out of the market.

Sua says: "It's great the supermarkets are using some of the better Champagne houses because it keeps the quality up and protects the name of Champagne."

Whether own-label is beating branded Champagnes in the popularity stakes for supermarkets doesn't seem to be an issue . Waitrose has seen sales of the category shoot up 19 per cent (value) over the past year and is continuing to look at ways of increasing market share of what is a "buoyant sector" .

The same goes for Sainsbury's which has seen sales of Champagne increase by 11.5 per cent, and Tesco is "pleased with the growth" of sales of its 35 branded Champagnes and six own-labels.

Their results, compared with sales figures for the category overall, indicate that supermarkets are the ones shifting bubbly in the market. Whether it has their name on the label or that of a Champagne house, it doesn't seem to matter.

Champagne in brief

Taittinger will be supporting the opening of the V&A museum's spring exhibition Surreal Things: Surrealism and Design.

The event, on March 27, will feature special bottles of Taittinger Champagne wearing Salvador Dali moustaches.

Brut Reserve bottles and magnums have also been melted down and moulded to form a glass drapery inspired by the melted clocks in Dali's work The Persistence of Memory.

Lynn Murray, of Hatch Mansfield, Champagne Taittinger's UK agent , said: "Taittinger is renowned for its involvement with the arts, being the preferred Champagne for BAFTA, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Old Vic."

The exhibition opens to the public on March 29 and runs until July 22.

Wine journalist and broadcaster Philippe Boucheron is hoping to raise money for Birmingham Children's Hospital by staging the biggest-ever charity Champagne tasting.

Seventy guests will gather at the Malmaison Hotel in Birmingham to taste at least 25 Champagnes on April 26.

Research has shown that the Guinness Book of Records does not feature a Champagne tasting record, so Boucheron is hoping to set one at the event.

Tickets are £35 for one or £60 for two. Call Birmingham Life magazine on 01527 558470 to book.

Wine merchant Berry Bros is holding a one-day Champagne wine school, giving those with a penchant for Champagne the chance to find out more about the drink.

Simon Field MW (pictured) will teach participants how Champagne is made and examine the range of styles, from dry to sweet.

The one-day course will also look at vintage variation and the influence of different grape varieties.

Twelve different Champagnes will be tasted throughout the day - including Bollinger, Gosset, Pol Roger and Krug - and the session will continue with a three-course lunch.

Courses take place on March 31 and May 26. Tickets are £225. Go to www.bbr.com. class="bold">Exhibitors limited to three selections at tasting

The Champagne Information Bureau Tasting

Banqueting House, Whitehall, London SW1A 2ER

Tuesday March 27 from 10am to 5pm

Contact Peretti Communications 0207 915 4777

The CIB's annual tasting returns to its old home of Banqueting House this year after last year's venue of Riverbank Park Plaza Hotel failed to impress. Sixty-eight exhibitors from across France's Champagne region will be presenting their wines. However, they will have to choose from their selections wisely because this year they are only allowed to show three.

A CIB spokesman said: "It's a slightly different format in that this year each exhibitor can only show three wines - a non-vintage, a vintage and one free choice - but there will be central tables where other vintages and non-vintages can be shown."

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