The well-dressed young woman from Moët & Chandon was suggesting something that many American consumers of champagne would consider a bit strange: drinking it on not-so-special occasions.
“Our champagne can be enjoyed throughout a meal and with many different kinds of foods,” said Elise Losfelt in French-accented but impeccable English during a tasting at Perch, a glamorous rooftop lounge in downtown Los Angeles.
Losfelt was in Southern California to talk about the Grand Vintage 2006, a highly anticipated offering from one of the world’s leading champagnes makers since its founding in 1743. She had done some thinking about food-pairing possibilities.
“With the 2006 I think of cooked food, not raw. It has the presence and maturity that goes with meat or fish – veal, for example; or lamb could be nice. And you don’t want just a light seasoning with this champagne but rather something creamy to counterbalance the acidity. I think I would love to have a risotto, maybe with a hint of lemon or some mushrooms. You could also go with roasted root vegetables.”
Losfelt is one of ten winemakers at Moët & Chandon. Their paramount task is to ensure the quality and consistency of their bubbly.
Losfelt is also in the business of finding new opportunities for her august brand, and lately there are compelling reasons for Moët and France’s other champagne makers to plumb the American market and persuade us to drink it at home with dinner.
Champagne has been suffering through a long slump since the Great Recession took its first chomp out of everyone’s disposable income. Global sales of champagne, which by definition can only be produced in the small northern French region of the same name, reached a high of 339 million bottles in the last pre-recession year, 2007, and champagne makers raked in a record-setting 4.5 billion euros. Then the slide began, and it hasn’t slowed. Champagne sales declined worldwide almost 14.2 million bottles in 2012 over 2011, a 4.4 percent drop. 2013 and 2014 saw declines that were estimated at three to four percent each year.
Even in France, which consumes 51 percent of the global supply of its famous bubbly, sales were down more than six percent in 2013, according to Reuters.
Not surprisingly for a beverage associated with good times, champagne sales have suffered most in countries whose economies have been hit the hardest in the last few years. The European Union changed its champagne-buying habits more profoundly than many other parts of the world, suffering dramatic year-over-year declines, including a drop of more than seven percent in 2012. Matters weren’t helped by champagne growers, who were emboldened by the heady profits and big demand of the mid-aughts and overplanted, leading to what some industry analysts say is an oversupply of champagne’s principal varietals, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay.
The U.S., Australia and Asia remain bright spots for the champagne market, with consistent increases in the mid single-digits – much more than that in up-and-coming China. “The (Chinese) market is still in its infancy, but it is capable of evolving very quickly,” Etiennne Auriau, chief financial officer of Laurent Perrier, told Reuters.
Other factors besides unsteady economies are threatening champagne’s popularity in some parts of the world. Its share of the overall bubbly market is declining steadily as those seeking less-expensive sparkling wine are turning to Italian prosecco, Spanish cava and other alternatives. Sales of prosecco have shot up in Britain over the last three years.
In the U.S., a robust panoply of domestic bubbly, mainly in California and Washington, makes up more than half the nation’s total consumption of sparkling wine: 8,938,000 cases out of a total of 17,700,000 in 2012. The French have shot themselves in the foot over here: respected houses such as Mumm and Roederer have partnered with California producers to make American sparkling wine that provides excellent bang for the buck.
Since Losfelt and her colleagues are trying to convince us that champagne should be what’s for dinner and most of us start to think about what to do for Valentine’s Day, we decided to ask some local retailers and tastemakers about champagne’s current position in the American marketplace. Will it become America’s next Bud Light, or will it always be confined to “special occasion” status?