Champagne industry is turning its back on the UK when it should be doing the opposite

The UK is the world’s largest market for Champagne and after years of decline sales have finally started to pick up once more. Volume sales have grown 0.7% and values are up 1% (IRI, year to March 2016) and it is now worth more than £250 million in the UK off-trade alone. It therefore beggars belief to learn that the Comité Champagne has decided to scrap its annual London tasting.

It is the only real activity that happens in the UK market all year and gives the category a great chance to market itself and its wines to the UK consumer press, who then pass the messages on to millions of British drinkers. The Champagne industry should be scaling up its UK activity to counter the rise of Prosecco, English sparkling wine, cava, cremant and various other challengers to its throne, not turning its back on its most loyal market. 

The event has been running since 1994 and Francoise Peretti, who heads up the Champagne Bureau admits it “has been successful” but says “we feel it is time to review it”. She says: “Comité Champagne has been reviewing the annual tastings around the world and that it was decided to pause the activity in the UK for the time being.” Does this mean that annual tastings in other markets will continue? If so, it is a bit of a slap in the face to the UK. She adds: “The event, which has been running since 1994, has been very successful, but we feel it is time to review it. Should the Comité Champagne decide to maintain the event, it is unlikely that it would take place before 2018.”

She says that going forwards Comité Champagne’s chief purpose is one of education. That makes a lot of sense because, in the UK at least, consumer education concerning the category is poor. The industry benefits from some truly fantastic brands, and that has driven it back into growth, but it has done a shocking job of explaining why it deserves to command a higher price point than Prosecco. Very few UK consumers know about the traditional method and why it is more costly and delivers more complex wines than the Charmat method, and Prosecco sales are going through the roof (up 34%, according to IRI).

In 2014, when OLN asked the Bureau what it was doing to educate consumers, a representative explained the difference between the two methods. We said we knew the difference, as does the majority of the trade, but when we asked how it might be planning to spread the message to millions of Brits we were met with anger.

In 2015 we asked the same question, and were told that digital education is the future and that a series of YouTube videos would help spread the word. “We are taking on the challenge of communicating more to UK consumers,” it said. “The primary goal is to make consumers interested in Champagne and know the difference between Champagne and other sparkling wines. It will take Champagne one step at a time, explaining the history, the soil, the appellation.” We asked how it might drive traffic to the videos and the Bureau couldn’t say. In the past year several videos have been posted on its YouTube channel. But it has just 343 subscribers and its 30 videos have had 47,893 views, an average of 1,500 people per video. The most popular had 9,000 and the least popular had 47. Educating 1,500 people per video, across the entire world, isn’t going to do much when it comes to explaining to the general public the amazing craft and skill that goes into making Champagne and why it deserves a higher price point.

We hope the Champagne industry improves its digital offering to target more consumers because it produces such great wines, which can deliver strong margins for UK retailers, and we want Brits to be enthused about the category. We want Prosecco drinkers to trade up to Champagne because that drives value into the market and is good for the health of the UK wine trade.

We are not saying it is solely down to the Champagne Bureau – brand owners, retailers, bar owners, sommeliers and journalists all have a role to play – but a clear strategy for the UK would be welcome. If the London tasting is axed for good, it would be encouraging to see that part of the marketing budget devoted to engaging the UK consumer press and all their readers in different ways, perhaps with smaller regional events across the UK or a genuinely top notch digital campaign that reaches many more consumers.  

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