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A Wine Market Mystery
By W. Blake Gray
Dec 15, 2009
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Forget your personal tastes for a moment.  I've got a wine market mystery for you.

Americans as a whole like New World style wines.  We're not alone -- the whole world is getting Newer all the time.  Most of the time we wine geeks bitch about it, but businesses wouldn't keep making products a certain way if they didn't sell.

Here's the mystery:  Why doesn't this apply to sparkling wine?

I've been puzzling over this while tasting great bubblies from California and France.  There is a clear difference in style.  California bubblies are generally fruit-forward.  French bubblies are generally more subtle.
In other words, Old and New World bubblies are different in exactly the same way as still wines.

So why does France continue to dominate the premium sparkling wine market?

I'm not talking about cheap bubblies.  California actually accounted for 58% of US bubbly sales by volume in 2008, according to Gomberg-Fredrikson.  But most of that is Andre, Cook's and the like.

The premium market for sparkling wines fermented in the bottle is very different. 

The Nielsen Company reports that domestic sparkling wines sold for an average of $8.31 a bottle over the past year, while imported bubblies other than Champagne sold for $10.05 a bottle.  That leaves Champagne, which is suffering in this market from the recession, but not enough to get much cheaper.  Sales are down 23.6% according to Nielsen, but Champagne is still what Americans buy when they want pricey bubbly: the average bottle sold for $44.72.

Then there's production volume.  Hugh Davies, proprietor of Schramsberg, says there's about 25 times as much premium Champagne made relative to comparable US sparkling wine -- and his estimate includes Korbel (which does make a very nicely priced brut rosé that I recommend).  It also includes French-owned domestic wineries like Domaine Chandon, Roederer and Mumm Napa.

American-owned traditional-method premium bubbly makers are few: Schramsberg, Iron Horse and J in California and Argyle in Oregon.  That's about it.  (I like New Mexico's Gruet, but their wines aren't expensive and it's run by French immigrants.)

The reason other wineries aren't rushing to turn California's bounty of Chardonnay grapes into bubbles isn't the expense and difficulty of making it.  In fact, in the 1960s many famous Napa Valley wineries like Robert Mondavi Winery and BV made a little bubbly.

The problem is that most US consumers aren't interested in buying California bubblies over $25.  Davies claims, "Dom Perignon does over 50% of the premium business in this country.  In California restaurants, you see some California sparkling wines.  You see less the farther you get from the state."

Again, I ask, why is that?  I'm not going to say corporate French bubblies aren't great.  LVMH owns Dom Perignon, Krug, Veuve Clicquot, Möet & Chandon and Ruinart.  It's a big company, but that portfolio has some superb wines.  With its background in fashion, LVMH understands that while marketing can take prices to the stratosphere, the quality has to at least be good enough for buyers to not feel cheated.

That said, the best of these wines are still very French -- leesy, toasty, rich, even with Sherry-like flavors -- while the best domestic bubblies deliver clean, bright green apple and citrus fruit.  There's a clear line of demarcation between Old and New World.

It's interesting to taste the same company's wines made in France and the US.  I like Roederer bubbly a lot from either place: the Roederer Champagnes are subtle and elegant, while the Roederer Anderson Valley wines are bright and vibrant.

"We have an advantage over Champagne in that regard," Davies says.  "We have the opportunity to pick the fruit riper.  If you compare New World Pinot Noir to Burgundy, the New World would show a brighter fruit.  It's the same for sparkling wine."

Bubbly consumers would seem to be less sophisticated on aggregate than still wine buyers.  Think about it -- if you have an aunt who has bought three bottles over $25 in her life, odds are great that one of them was Champagne for a wedding or other celebration.  A general rule of thumb all U.S. sommeliers know is that the less people drink wine, the more likely they are to want something easy to understand, and that means bright fruit rather than elegance.

So again, ignoring our personal tastes, why isn't the New World style taking over?

I have asked a question I can't really answer, and neither can Davies, to his endless frustration.

"The sparkling wine category reminds me of the spirits category, where you have these giant brands," says Davies.  (In fact, the H in LVMH is for Hennessy, and the company also owns Glenmorangie, Belvedere and Chopin.)  "Even people who like wine, not many of them drink sparkling wine.  Somehow we've been boxed into the corner of weddings and celebrations.  Some influential critics don't give the category a whole lot of attention.  Look at Wine Spectator's Top 100 wines.  How many are sparkling wines?"

In fact, the Spectator might be blamed for ignoring the category, but not for ignoring US wineries -- of the 3 bubblies in its 2009 Top 100, two were American.  But Davies does have a point; couldn't a Top 100 make room for more than three bubblies?

It would make a huge difference if Robert Parker paid attention to bubbly, but he doesn't.  David Schildknecht covers Champagne for the Wine Advocate, which would seem to be a large responsibility.  But he's also responsible for the wines of Germany, Austria, South Africa, New Zealand, Alsace, Burgundy, the Loire Valley, Languedoc-Roussillon, and just for good measure, Eastern Europe, New York and Virginia.  In other words, everything the Wine Advocate doesn't take seriously.

Of course, dear reader, you have come to Wine Review Online because you take wine very seriously.  So it's time to ask yourself that same question: Do you want bright fruit in your bubbly? Because if you do, look closer to home.