CHART: Australia's love affair with champagne has finally peaked

Yeasts and a hint of leather… Photo: Mark Thompson/ Getty Images.

Australia remains one of the world’s biggest champagne consumers, but our growing appetite for French bubbles appears to have finally peaked, with import volumes falling for the first time in 2016.

With 7.39 million bottles heading Down Under last year, it’s the first fall since the global financial crisis. Consumption peaked at a record 8.11 million bottles in 2015, more than double the previous 2.93 million low in 2009.

The drop is in line with the global trend, with 306.1 million bottles globally in 2016, slightly down on 2015’s post-GFC record of 312.5 million bottles. The biggest growth markets for champagne in 2016 were Mexico (up 31%), New Zealand (29%), Russia (22%), South Africa (22%), South Korea (16%) and Canada (12%).

Australia remains the world’s seventh largest champagne market and fifth largest in terms of bottles drunk per person.

Australia’s annual champagne consumption 1999-2016. Source: Tyson Stelzer/Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne

The fall may be partly explained by the growing popularity of the Italian sparkling style, prosecco, which has been embraced by Australian winemakers and retails for less than half the price of champagne.

But industry expert Tyson Stelzer, author of The Champagne Guide, says 2016’s lower sales shouldn’t be considered a decline. He believes the high volumes in 2015 may have led to some stockpiling and inevitable correction

“An exceptional sales record in 2015 was an anomaly, and 2016 figures perfectly fit Australia’s buoyant growth curve, popping an average of 600,000 more bottles every year since 2009,” he said.

Stelzer doesn’t believe switching to cheaper bubbly options is the case because the per bottle spend in Australia is already one of the lowest in the world.

“The vast majority is non-vintage entry level wines of the big houses,” he says. Think those $40 wines such as Mumm and Piper Heidsieck.

Retailers such as Woolworths (Dan Murphy’s), Coles (Vintage Cellars), Aldi and Costco also play their part with direct imports that sell for as little as $20.

Woolies doesn’t share any of its data with the industry, so its impact is unknown, but Stelzer says “in terms of sheer volume, the numbers would be influenced by those $25 champagnes”.

And surprisingly, consumption of domestic sparkling has dropped.

“We’re spending more, but drinking less and prepared to trade up, so it’s less but better, which is a good trend,” Stelzer says.

While the average value per bottle of champagne sold globally in 2016 rose by 1.5%, Australia bucked the trend, maintaining the same average bottle price as 2015, which is also 7% lower than the average over the past 15 years.

There are other ways in which Australian drinkers are out of step with global trends, with rosé-style champagne shipments up 8.6%, and prestige cuvées growing by 4.6%.

“Of Champagne’s top 10 markets, Australia ranks lowest in proportion of rosé consumed, lowest in grower champagne and second-lowest in prestige champagne,” Stelzer said.

The biggest influence on what we drink is the marketing budgets of the big champagne houses, and it appears the smaller grower champagne are victims of that effort, with sales plummeting by half in just three years. In 2012, Australia imported 180,000 bottles of grower champagne – expect to pay around $80 a bottle, although Veuve Fourny, imported by Australian winemakers De Bortoli, can be found for around $50 – but that figure fell to just 78,000 in 2015.

Stelzer says the market “is a very different ball game” for small houses that struggle for shelf space and importer support.

“One of the challenges for smaller growers is they’re up against the momentum and effort put in the big houses,” he said.

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