Champagne in the time of COVID-19

By April 22, 2020News, Sustainability

It’s the drink of celebration, used to mark life’s most special moments. Yet Madame Bollinger, who married into the Bollinger house and ran it from 1941 to 1971, famously said she drank champagne both “when I’m happy and when I’m sad”.

With so many suffering in the COVID-19 environment, wine expert Danny Brennan, who’s been with Laurent-Perrier for nearly 20 years, is not expecting to see a rush back to celebratory mood too soon. “What will be a real moment to celebrate in this context?” he wonders. “Captain Tom Moore* emerging from lockdown, perhaps?”

Barometer of economy

Champagne turnover reached the €5-billion mark for the first time in 2019. The COVID-19 coronavirus situation has severely affected major markets like Italy, Spain and France itself, with the Comité Champagne indicating a 70% drop in French retail outlet sales.

“It’s seen as a barometer of the economy,” says Brennan. “People won’t be rushing out to buy champagne after COVID-19; they’ll still be looking at each other cautiously as the apprehension around social distancing persists. The restaurant and bar sector where so much of our business resides will itself need to find ways to adapt. It will be a gradual recovery.”

However, he is optimistic that by harvest-time in September, there may be enough return of normality to allow the influx of largely Eastern European workers who carry out the requisite hand-picking of the grapes. There may be fewer people than usual to carry out the subsequent hand-crafting that makes champagne more than just a pricey tipple, and that could impact on future prices.

Is it a luxury item if you can buy it in the supermarket?

“The sector has been a bit complacent, even arrogant, about sparkling competitors like prosecco,” Brennan says. “Champagne needs to adopt a different attitude now and focus on details like the region, the savoir-faire involved, the ageing process, the hand-crafted skills.”

Though the big names do use discounting as a loss-leader in retail, there is acute awareness that discounts and environment can also devalue the perception of a champagne.

“If three or four friends gather at a five-star hotel to share a £200-£300 bottle of Champagne, that is a good environment, that is luxury,” says Brennan.

There’s also the emotional value to be considered, he points out: “My job is to be the custodian of people’s special memories. Our Cuvée Rosé has a sort of cult following: we hear the stories of how people drank it on a first date, or their dad used to have it at Christmas and so on. There is a real connection with people’s hearts. You must not devalue that.”

(Photo by Thomas William on Unsplash)

Afizzionados

Dom Perignon, Krug and Cristal – despite its popularity with rappers and hip-hop artists such as Jay-Z, Kanye West, and 50 Cent – are still the most favoured names among the financial corporate set, says one PR director who works in the City. Prosecco became an acceptable alternative to lower quality champagne for a while, he says, but the tide appears to be turning back again.

A colleague agrees: The world has seen enough rough champagne and prosecco is cheaper and easier to drink. Maybe that is why they turned away.

Champagne still has kudos. Young professionals will drink loads at Cheltenham. Parties thrown by the very rich have plenty of champagne but usually Dom Perignon, Krug or a very posh rosé champagne. The stuff that costs about £120 in a shop. 

“My sense is that no one wants the grotty stuff anymore and there was loads about. Champagne is moving back to where it started as an elite drink.”

Bling no longer a thing

That impression is borne out by a general recent tendency, for younger buyers in particular, to opt for less quantity, more quality, says Brennan: “The idea is to elevate to the best you can, per glass. The 2008 – that year was a fantastic vintage – and 2009 crisis had a negative impact towards the financial sector and the age of ostentation.”

A Manchester-based friend recalls getting a Christmas round robin letter from one Cheshire mother letting everyone know her 21-year-old son was doing well and celebrating regularly with Cristal. “She was very proud and said, ‘that‘s my boy’. I think it’s ridiculous, a student lashing out £100 a bottle.”

There are always some show-offs, agrees Brennan, but on the whole, “the bling culture is less prevalent now, especially in mature markets: Russian oligarchs are turning it down. The money mood is calmer.”

Whether we drink it to mark our joy or, like Madame Bollinger, to sustain us when we are sad, our love affair with champagne looks set to continue.

As Brennan says, “It has magic in the bottle.”

 

Our thanks to Daniel Brennan, PR & Communications Director at Champagne Laurent Perrier, for his time and expertise.

Tree Elven

Author Tree Elven

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