Selling Champagne Today

Sparkling wine sales are traditionally heaviest during the holiday season. Pop, fizz, chin-chin: these are the sounds of merriment. But after January 1, Cava, Prosecco, Cramant, Franciacorta and Champagne lose their ‘€œfizz’€ in the consumer consciousness. So what are producers and retailers doing to spark sales during the more dormant months? Actually, more than one might imagine.

As a champagne consultant and writer, I have always advocated for champagne as a wonderful year-round go-to drink. No matter the season, the time of day, or the cuisine pairing, there’€™s always a place for champagne. Retailers know this, of course, but the issue is convincing and educating customers about champagne’€™s wide variety of drinking occasions. I start by encouraging clients to keep a bottle of champagne in the fridge ready to go ‘€” not for a specific celebration, but just to pop open spontaneously ‘€” to welcome the end of the work day, for example, or to enjoy as a retro apéritif. I encourage my clients to see champagne as a wine of comfort and welcome, for home entertaining and cuisine-pairing.

And, of course, the range of champagne styles opens up a world of possibilities. There’€™s the sweetness level from extra brut to demi-sec, so you’€™ll find something to go with raw oysters all the way to dessert champagne. Then, you have youthful to mature. From NV (non-vintage) wine for cocktails to a vintage wine to go with a meal. Lastly, there is the stylistic difference between the different blends of champagne: classic blend (a third of each of the three champagne grapes), blanc de blancs (100% Chardonnay), rosé, blanc de noirs (predominately black-skinned grapes) and single village wines. By changing a few habits and mindsets, retailers might just be able to get customers to purchase an extra bottle or two of bubbly on their next visit to the store.

Setting a Strategy

To sell champagne, it pays to have a strategy. Mike Martin, who handles the top champagne account sales at Selection Pas Mal — a New York importer carrying eleven brands of champagne, including the darling labels Laherte Frères and José Dhondt — groups his wines by Champagne regions. He emphasizes to his retail accounts that having a wine from each of the three main regions of Champagne provides diversity: the Vallée de la Marne is Pinot Meunier-predominant; Côte des Blancs is Chardonnay land; and the Montagne de Reims is known for its Pinot Noir. Martin focuses on selling styles of champagne rather than brands.

This sales concept, which Martin cleverly calls ‘€œdistribution of style,’€ is more about educating the consumer on champagne styles than about pushing individual, lesser-known champagne houses on the consumer. This education-based and comprehensive sales model encourages a year-round rather than short-term, seasonal attitude toward champagne consumption. ‘€œWhat I give the customer is an understanding of just how different these Champagnes can be, and also ways of selling the correct Champagne to the person looking for a particular style,’€ Martin explains. ‘€œSince all three are different, the merchant now has a few more suggestions to offer his customer.’€

Staff training for retail accounts is another one of Martin’€™s key strategies. He teaches the staff about the three main regions that make up Champagne and also trains retailers how to ask the best questions to gauge their customers’€™ champagne preferences. Once the staff has taste-tested the wines they’€™re selling they feel more confident in their knowledge and, thus, make more sales. And to help break from the holiday-only stigma, Martin suggests emphasizing the culinary-accompaniment potential and cuisine-versatility aspects of champagne.

Champagne comprises a surprisingly considerable portion of sales for many A-list wine retailers. The prestigious Park Avenue retailer Sherry-Lehmann has long been one of New Yorkers’€™ go-to places for bubblies. Known for the breadth and depth of its champagne selection, Sherry-Lehmann currently carries more than 260 champagne selections. COO and partner Shyda Gilmer says that champagne makes up almost 20% of the retailer’€™s total annual sales and has been on the upswing, with double-digit growth last year.

While Sherry-Lehmann has a long history of partnerships with high-profile champagne brands (including Roederer, Perrier-Jouët and Dom Pérignon), it consistently maintains marketing efforts and special offers in its catalog, which goes to a mailing list of 110,000 customers five times a year. In addition, about seven times a year Sherry-Lehmann has the cellar masters or proprietors of champagne houses conduct staff training and host in-store tastings. Gilmer also emphasizes the importance of its sponsorship of high-profile events, such as Fashion Week and Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), for maintaining the seamless association of champagne and Sherry-Lehmann.

Summer Promotion

In the age of online shopping, Sherry-Lehmann still uses its Park Avenue storefront window display as a key showcase for ‘€œspecial’€ wine promotions ‘€” of which its partnership with Veuve Clicquot’€™s Polo Classic last summer is a prime example. In conjunction with this partnership, every Friday last June it hosted free cocktail-hour tastings of the entire line-up of Clicquot champagnes to draw in clients.

Champagne houses have been slow to embrace social media as a free platform for their outreach and marketing. But, last October, notoriously marketing-savvy Nicolas Feuillatte, the fifth-most sold champagne in the U.S., launched an iPhone app called MobileToast, which entertains users while leading them, with a search engine, to the nearest retailers and restaurants carrying Feuillatte bottles.

The app lets the user correctly ‘€œopen’€ a bottle of champagne. With one fingertip, the user unwraps the foil and uncorks the bottle. The cork pops and fizzes with a satisfying sound effect, and the user can even simulate pouring the champagne into the flute of another iPhone user. The app also contains a detailed fact page with food-pairing suggestions for every champagne bottling’€”from the Nicolas Feuillatte Brut to the top-of-the-line Palmes D’€™or.

Pascal Boyé ‘€” Feuillatte’€™s director of sales for North and South America and the face of the brand in the U.S. ‘€” realized ten years ago that giving the trade and media a chance to meet the cellar master was integral to building brand understanding and loyalty, especially given the mystery and competitive branding around champagne. Boyé calls this the ‘€œdirect translation.’€ Every other year in April he hosts a themed event in New York for cellar master, Jean-Pierre Vincent. Last year’€™s theme was ‘€œcomponent wines,’€ which anyone outside of Champagne rarely gets a chance to taste. These are the types of marketing strategies that will distinguish a brand in the retailer’€™s mind.

Year-Round Programs

The market leader and most recognized champagne label, Veuve Clicquot, has worked out a year-round ‘€œseasonal platform’€ program which covers all the in-between holiday months. December to March is ‘€œClicquot in the Snow,’€ May to October is ‘€œVeuve Clicquot Polo Season’€ and Halloween to the end of October is ‘€œYelloween.’€ In this way, Veuve Clicquot ties champagne to lifestyle, reminding consumers that there are reasons to enjoy champagne all year round.

‘€œWith ‘€˜Clicquot in the Snow,’€™ we were planting the seeds for people to think of drinking champagne après ski, like in Europe,’€ explains Vanessa Kay, Vice President of Clicquot USA. This year in New York City, Clicquot adopted the ‘€œaprès skate’€ concept with a pop-up lounge in Bryant Park for post-skating relaxation. In Vail, Clicquot provided champagne at the Snow Tube-a-Thon.

Last summer, Clicquot hosted its third-annual Polo Classic on Governors Island. This is an event studded with stars (among them Prince Harry, Susan Sarandon and Mary J. Blige), but open to the public. The message was very much about making champagne part of your summer.

Clicquot also has been quick and savvy with the use of social media to reach its audience. With close to 14,000 followers, ‘€œ@Veuve_Clicquot’€ is one of the most active and most followed Twitter accounts among champagne brands, giving the brand day-to-day presence in the lives of its loyal clients and helping to draw in new clients. The tweets make the yellow label dynamic and alive, and they keep the drink on the minds of their audience, from Hawaii to Abu Dhabi.

Also, Kay explains that Veuve Clicquot’€™s Facebook fan page holds fans captive by focusing on ‘€œsocial engagement and a personal experience.’€ Now there is a ‘€œClicquot Cam’€ on the page featuring flip cam videos of Clicquot events and experiences ‘€” a more intimate look at the brand.

How about playing with bottle sizes as a marketing strategy? Pol Roger came up with a clever idea for Mother’€™s Day: half-bottles for moms! The message is that all moms deserve a few sips of champagne for a break during their day, and a half-bottle of the entry-level NV White Foil neither breaks the bank nor seems decadent.

Champagne’€™s static and stuffy image seems to be loosening up. From the champagne houses to the importers and retailers, everyone is coming up with creative ways to move champagne from the oh-too-rare-special-occasion wine list into everyday life. And it seems to be working.

Champagne Styles

BLENDS

Classic: This is most champagne houses’€™ entry-level non-vintage wine. The flagship of the house and their most-produced line, it is a blend of all three of the champagne grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier). Though the percentage of the blend will vary from house to house, each house aims to consistently recreate its style year-to-year by blending different grapes, villages and vintages. Pairing: Pizza or any food that is not too mild in flavor.

Blanc de Blancs: This literally translates to ‘€œwhite from white,’€ meaning white wine from white grapes. In short, this is a 100% Chardonnay style ‘€” the most elegant form of champagne. It is perfect for an aperitif, with light fare at the beginning of a meal, or for sipping at a reception. Pairing: Raw or cooked seafood with mild flavors (oysters, scallops, cod fish), vegetarian dishes or white meat.

Rosé: Rosé champagne can be made in two different ways. Saignée is the more traditional but uncommon method, requiring the contact of still wine with the skin of black-skinned grapes (Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier). It’€™s tricky, as timing is key to controlling the desired color of the wine. The second method is to blend still red wine with still white wine. Pairing: Think pink, orange and red’€”smoked and fresh salmon, tomato and watermelon.

Blanc de Noirs: This is wine made from predominately black-skinned grapes (Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier). It’€™s at the opposite end of the style spectrum from Blanc de Blancs ‘€” heavier and more opulent in style. Think notes of red fruits, mushrooms and brioche. Pairing: Pork and veal.

Single-Village: The majority of champagnes are blends of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier from several different villages, but this style of wine is made from grapes from one single village (e.g., Cramant or Chouilly). True terroir wines, they will show the distinctive flavors of the land.

SWEETNESS LEVEL

There is a range of sweetness levels for champagne, and these four are most common in today’€™s market:

Zero Dosage/Brut Zero: This is the driest style of champagne, with a sugar level (dosage) of fewer than three grams of sugar per liter added during the last stage of champagne making. Pairing: Raw oysters or raw meat (carpaccio or steak tartare).

Extra Brut: With up to six grams of sugar per liter, this wine is still very dry in comparison to the standard Brut. Due to its high acidity and low sugar, the wine will shock at first. It’€™s very naked. Pairing: Fried food works well; it cuts through the grease nicely.

Brut: The most common style of champagne. Pairing: Cooked food and nothing too delicate in taste or texture.

Demi-Sec: This style has fallen out of fashion, and I hope it regains popularity. A sweet dessert wine champagne, its dosage can be as high as 50 grams of sugar per liter. Pairing: I suggest having it alone as a dessert wine or serving it with cow’€™s milk cheese that is not too creamy.

AGE

NV: Non-vintage champagne is made from a blend of still wines from different years. It is a youthful style of wine, meant to be drunk and not aged. Pairing: Same as for Classic and Brut.

Vintage: This is wine from a single year, so it’€™s always from vintages in which the grapes showed exceptionally well. This is serious wine and will improve with cellaring – definitely a cuisine wine. Pairing: Older champagne can definitely stand up to meat. I like having vintage wines with steak.

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