Sign of the times as Champagne gets swapped for Cava
Cava is emerging as a competitive player in the international sparkling wine scene as global crises drive consumers to seek cheaper alternatives.
Times are tough but everyone still needs a little sparkle in their lives.
That's the message from the bubbles industry's latest figures, which indicate champagne sales are going flat while more affordable upstarts like prosecco or cava continue to fizz thanks to a trend towards everyday indulgence.
For rap stars and Premier League footballers, it still has to be Cristal. But for many ordinary consumers, even in France, cava will do just as well to get the party started.
"Champagne was dominant 10 to 15 years ago, but the world has changed," said Jean-Philippe Perrouty, director of drinks analyst Wine Intelligence (WI).
"In a nutshell, Champagne now has at least two very strong competitors -- sustainable competitors."
Although exports of champagne, which can only be produced in the region of the same name in northern France, grew slightly (3.4 percent) in value terms last year, the number of bottles sent overseas fell 2.8 percent.
Even on home turf, the king of sparkling wine is looking ready to abdicate its crown, with sales down 5 percent in value terms in a market into which foreign competitors are making inroads.
France, Spain and Italy supply 80 percent of the world's sparkling wine, but demand has been buffeted by economic headwinds in the traditional European and US markets.
"The prolonged economic downturn in these economies has played havoc with demand for sparkling wines, channelling consumers downmarket," Food and Agribusiness analysts at Rabobank said in their quarterly wine report, published this month.
Searching for lower-priced bubbly, consumers have turned to cava, the bulk of which is produced in Catalonia, and prosecco, mostly made in the foothills of the Alps in northern Italy.
Cavas generally retail for under eight euros ($10.75) a bottle in most European markets while prosecco ranges from 5-15 euros, with only its top wines coming close to the price of entry-level champagne.
"Prosecco and cava are seen as affordable luxuries. They have turned sparkling wine into informal, more frequent consumption, but they are also able to compete with Champagne at the fringes of the Champagne market," said Perrouty.
Spanish Cava producer Freixenet produces 200 million bottles a year -- not far off the 309 million bottles shipped by the entire Champagne region in 2012, and 80 percent is sold on export.
It is a market leader in the UK and in France, now the joint third biggest selling brand of non-champagne sparkling, a sector that accounts for 70 percent of the market.
"It's in our DNA to push into new markets," said Philippe Laqueche, general manager of the cava producer's French subsidiary Yvon Mau. "We're recruiting new consumers and making the market grow."
Consumers in emerging economies like Brazil, Russia, Nigeria, Mexico and China are growing markets for the sparkling wine industry.
"Consumption of sparkling wine in China is still quite low compared with other BRIC countries like Brazil (seven times bigger than China) or Russia (60 times bigger)," Gil Serra, area manager for Freixenet in China, told AFP.
"We think the real potential for sparkling wine consumers is with the young professionals, which perceive sparkling as celebration, prestige, sophistication, relaxed atmosphere and friendly gathering."
With the Chinese palate preferring sweeter styles like Italian Asti, Australian moscato and cava semi seco, corks are mostly popping in nightclubs and karaoke bars.
"Cava is showing some positive signs in certain type of night clubs and trendy bars. Keep in mind that champagne's main sales channel is high end night clubs, hence it would make sense for cava to follow this trend," said Don St. Pierre JR, executive chairman of ASC Fine Wines in China.
Suzanne Mustacich / AFP / Expatica
Photo credit: John Loo