An increasingly demanding consumer

Sep 14, 2020 • 5 mins

Champagne is no longer shrouded in mystery like it once was and has lightened up a bit. The new consumer is approaching champagne with more knowledge and higher expectations.

Don’t listen to those who claim that champagne is “losing its soul” through its growing use in “coquetailes”, as writer, Roger Nimier, wrote. The trend isn’t really taking off, a relief for purists who believe that champagne should not be altered in any way, shape or form. The “new” consumers would not dream of spoiling a good champagne although they have no qualms about mixing a prosecco with other liquids. In this era of “dilution”, champagne is holding its ground. More or less…

The under 30’s, “coca cola generation” of consumers, have a palate that has been conditioned to be sweeter and they tend to prefer demi-sec champagnes. According to the General Union of Champagne Winemakers (the SGV), presided over by Maxime Toubart, this has given some champagne houses the idea of launching a demi-sec champagne, such as Moët & Chandon’s ICE, especially for cocktails.

Champagne continues to symbolise celebration, elegance, French art-de-vivre and luxury. The cliché of ceremoniously opening a bottle of champagne to celebrate a special event may now be a thing of the past, but Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are still considered to be “champagne moments”. Although champagne consumption in France remained stable in 2017(1), the 10-year trend shows a sharp decline (-33 million bottles). The warning signs are there, even if 8 out of 10 French people still drink an average of 9 bottles per year. Valentine’s day, for example, is no longer synonymous with champagne drinking whilst cocktails, whether or not they include sparkling wines, are also impacting champagne sales. What’s more, champagne is still struggling to find its place at the dinner table. The so-called “gastronomic” champagnes are, in reality, rarely drunk with a meal and instead served as an aperitif, mostly consumed standing rather than sitting, and rarely with food, aside from a few canapés.

Champagne is often given as a gift. It is typically the bottle one takes to a dinner with friends, and it should not cost more than e25. But when it’s a romantic dinner the budget goes up and sometimes even out the window! The big brands are ordered to impress the object of one’s affection. Rosé champagnes are also popular as “the consumer likes to view the world through rose-tinted glasses”, so to speak. There has been a boom in sales of champagnes with a salmon-pink hue, obtained by adding a small amount of red wine or by macerating the grapes with their skins(2). In fact, the demand for this style has been steadily growing for several years now. 

According to a recent survey by the SGV, the average French consumer is 47 years old and the gender split is equal. Most have very little knowledge about champagne, whether in terms of its region or its production methods. However, although the majority of young consumers (25-34 years old) remain unbothered by their lack of knowledge, a growing number genuinely want to know what they are talking about and what they are drinking. This is not just the case for champagne but for wine in general. These “young”, more knowledgeable consumers are experimental, open-minded, unbiased and keen to try everything.

Christian Bedat, a wine store owner in Biarritz, has two types of customer. The first does not wish to spend much and prefers wines from smaller champagne houses. “This type of customer has contributed to the success of our €21 bottle of Bauget-Jouette, from a négociant in Epernay,” he says. The second type of customer is more demanding and generally looking for a specific style, e.g. a low dosage, a Blanc de Blancs or an organic champagne. “This type of customer is driving our sales of Jacquesson and De Sousa. My typical customer could also be female, aged between 35 and 45, married with a good job and not necessarily after a rosé champagne”.

Élodie Cadiou, who runs Parisian wine store, ‘Et si Bacchus était une femme’, tells us that her clientele is wealthy, experimental, and appreciates wine advice. “My typical customer is male, aged between 38 and 45, and discreetly wealthy. He prefers a ‘brut nature’ and often goes for organic or biodynamic wines, despite not fully understanding what these concepts mean, and is pleased that champagne is now getting into this. He initially asks for something around €25 but can easily be tempted by a €38 bottle such as the cuvée Originelle from Françoise Bedel (biodynamic)”. Her wine shop in Paris’ 5th arrondissement also stocks the Brut from Elise Dechannes (Les Riceys) and champagnes from Dosnon, a small champagne house with a growing reputation. “The Drappier Brut Nature is very popular despite its €40 price tag and the Roederer Brut Nature, with its elegant Philippe Starck bottle, also sells very well in the festive season. My customers no longer automatically ask for Ruinart as if it were synonymous with champagne, although they do sometimes confuse a Blanc de Blancs for a cheap sparkling wine!”. It’s clear that the consumer still has a lot to learn…

These increasingly high expectations are confirmed by the Champagne Committee which reveals that the consumer’s changing mindset is indeed having an impact. “Modern” champagne consumers want to drink less but better quality, they are showing a growing interest in vintage and extra-brut champagnes and are tending to go for the prestigious brands that reflect this preference to “drink less but better”. These urban and increasingly hedonistic consumers are now paying less attention to the price tag and taking more interest in what they are drinking. They are reading wine blogs and magazines, chatting to wine store staff, and even visiting the wine region at the weekends. They are aware of champagne’s superiority to other sparkling wines and reinforce (as if there were a need to!) the fact that champagne will continue to be the ultimate symbol and guarantee of quality, even if it is outsold in terms of volume by the legions of foreign sparkling wines in many markets (it accounts for 15% of sparkling wines, 1% of all wine in the world, 12% of world sparkling wine consumption, but 40% of its total value.) Excellence is the keyword, now more than ever. 

(1) 153.7 million bottles sold on the French market (a slight decrease of 2.5% in 2017). The sector saw a record turnover of e4.7 billion in 2017, a 3% increase, and a 4% rise in value (307.3 million bottles shipped including 153.6 million on the export market: a 3.5% rise), according to the Champagne Committee. Considering the rather gloomy economic environment, this is a good sign.

(2) Although Ruinart was the first champagne house to use elderflower juice to colour its white grape musts in 1764, the first rosé champagne was in fact invented by Veuve Clicquot in 1818 by adding red wine from Bouzy to its musts.