Corks are popping all over, filling flutes both on- and off-premise, as sparkling wine sales effervesce.
“We are selling more sparkling wine these days,” says Didier Porteaud, general manager and sommelier at RingSide Steakhouse in Portland, OR. One reason? More educated patrons who aren’t intimidated by sparkling wine.
The restaurant offers 35 different sparklers, ranging in price from $35 to $500. “Guests are always asking about grower Champagne, blanc de blanc, rosé, and crémant during dinner to pair with food,” Porteaud says.
Sparkling wine sales are booming, thanks to a confluence of trends and factors. First off, consumers have wider a range of price points and styles to choose from than ever before (see sidebar “Tasting The Stars” on page 18). That includes several more approachable, sweeter and frizzante alternatives for novice wine drinkers.
The current craze for still rosé is lifting sales of that sparkling style as well. What’s more, the category is finally tapping that desired dichotomy of everyday quaffs and celebratory cuvees as consumers see sparkling wine as a quotidian option as well as a special-occasion splurge.
As somms and retailers are ready to point out, sparklers are super food-friendly, and sparkling-wine-based cocktails are popular at bars and easy to replicate at home. Nonetheless, sparkling sales remain strongest in the fourth quarter, as holiday celebrations and promotions give the category a lift.
Not Just a Bubble
“The sparkling wine category is demonstrating significant growth across multiple price points, in both value and volume,” says Gary Heck, president/owner of Korbel California Champagne. As expanded usage occasions, consumption options and consumer segments all contribute to the popularity of the category, sparkling wines have enjoyed success year over year.
It’s not just an increase in new consumers entering the category, but also existing customers enjoying more sparkling wine that in previous years, Heck adds. Korbel is the number-three domestic brand in terms of volume at 1.5 million cases in 2016, according to The Beverage Information & Insights Group 2017 Wine Handbook. It’s right behind E&J Gallo’s Andre/Wycliff brands and Constellation’s Cook’s.
E&J has three brands in the top-10 American sparklers, with Barefoot Bubbly and the Italian Ballatore Spumante. Also among the leading brands are Constellation’s J. Roget and Arbor Mist Sparkling, the latter up 20% in volume, while Domaine Chandon from Moet Hennessy USA was up 9%.
“It’s clear that over the last five years, the sparkling wine category has experienced significant growth,” says Anna Bell, senior director of marketing for Barefoot Bubbly at E&J Gallo Winery. “We don’t see this as a trend that will spike, but instead as the establishment of an enduring category in the wine industry.”
At Maypop restaurant in New Orleans, “Sparkling wine is an easy sell,” says managing partner and sommelier Jeff Gulotta. “The acidity and lightness of sparkling wine goes well with this crazy Asian-fusion food my chef brother Mike creates.”
Maypop offers two French sparklers by the glass—a Blanquette de Limoux for $7 ($35 a bottle) and a cremant brut rosé ($9/$45). It also sells four more by the bottle, including cava and a sparkling rosé from South America. “Millennial women on a girls’ night out generates more sparkling sales, and many tables will start dinner with a bottle of sparkling as an aperitif.”
Sparkling wines are enjoying double-digit sales in the U.S. markets, according to Nielsen 2017. Prosecco is leading the charge with 17% of the category. The Italian sparkler appeals to Millennials because it can be lighter and sweeter than Champagne, not as intimidating and less expensive to boot.
“Prosecco continues to drive strong growth within the sparkling wine category,” says Evans at Constellation. “Over 30% of prosecco drinkers today purchased prosecco for the first time in 2016, helping to grow the category tremendously.”
Indeed, prosecco is up 24% in volume over the last year, says Bell at E&J Gallo, citing IRI data.
“We’re seeing buzz around sparkling across the category, in both sweet and dry styles and across all price points.”
The fastest-growing sparkling wine brand overall is Gallo’s La Marca prosecco, up 24% to 1.03 million nine-liter cases in 2016. “La Marca prosecco is our number-one item in units sold,” says Elizabeth Gregg, general manager at Applejack Wine & Spirits, a Denver area retailer.
On-premise, some of the restaurant chains offering La Marca include BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse, Fogo de Chao, Houlihan’s, Romano’s Macaroni Grill and Ruth’s Chris Steak House.
“We go through cases and cases of half bottles of prosecco, but we also sell 75 cases annually of frizzante moscato and 65 cases of brut Champagne by the glass,” says Dina Kostis, general manager of Pickwick & Frolic Restaurant and Club in Cleveland. The 27,000-sq.-ft. entertainment and dining complex encompasses a 185-seat restaurant, Kevin’s Martini Bar & Taproom, the Frolic Cabaret, the 400-seat Hilarities 4th Street Theatre and Cleveland’s only Champagne Bar.
Pickwick & Frolic offers more than 65 different Champagnes and sparkling wines, ranging from $28 to $400 a bottle. “That’s inexpensive compared to bigger cities, and visitors get excited that they can drink vintage Krug for $330,” says Kostis. “We keep markups low and prices down because we want to make sparkling easy to purchase, to splurge.”
Inexpensive options include cava, franciacorta, sekt from Germany, and sparklers from Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and Greece, as well as Gruet sparkling wine from New Mexico. It even offers a sparkling sake.
All Year Round
By the numbers, sparkling wines still get a big bump in fourth quarter sales, thanks to holiday celebrations and gift giving. But bars, restaurants and retailers all report that consumers consider bubbly an anytime quaff all year round, especially at affordable price points.
“Consumption patterns are definitely changing,” reports de Saignes at Domaine Chandon. Thanks to key promotions and packaging, summer has been a key selling season for Chandon for the past few year, in addition to the fourth quarter, De Saignes says.
“The most impactful trend has been the shift from drinking sparkling wine only for celebratory occasions to everyday consumption, and even as a meal pairing,” says Danielle Fritz, brand manager for Freixenet USA. This has been driven by prosecco, but also has had a positive impact on cava and domestic sparkling wine.
“As a whole, Champagne consumption is becoming deformalized and de-seasonalized, as consumers are finding ways to celebrate more often and all year long,” says Renaud Butel, vice president of Champagne House Moët and Chandon.
“Sparkling wine is not just for the holidays,” says Gulotta at Maypop: “There’s always a reason to throw a party in New Orleans.”
The huge fashionability of still rosé wine seems to be translating to sparkling rosé. “Sparkling rosé is on the rise. It has benefited from the hot rosé trend, which is making rosé a year-round choice for consumers,” says Evans at Constellation Brands.
“Rosé is trending,” says Kostis. Pickwick & Frolic’s list offers a number of sparkling roses, including a malbec from South American and cava by the glass. “The cava is a beautiful rosé, and we sell an enormous amount.”
At Downstairs at The Esquire Tavern in San Antonio, TX, “we’re all currently really enjoying this great sparkling rosé that we serve by the glass,” says bar manager Myles Worrell. “It’s affordable and, although it does have some sweet characteristics, is dry as a bone. It’s been a huge success in this space.”
He adds that while price certainly has its impact on popularity, “our staff’s favor of any given item seems to have the most sway.”
Red Sparklers Too
Although most sparkling wines are white or rosé, there are a few red-hued variations, such as lambrusco and brachetto d’acqui from Italy and sparkling shiraz from Australia, to name a few. Proponents say these wines are more food-friendly and also have novelty appeal.
Mulino Italian Kitchen & Bar in Raleigh, NC, specializes in lambrusco, carrying more than 50 different bottles. “We decided to focus on lambrusco because it became popular again in Italy. We hope to be famous for our lambrusco collection,” says general manager/sommelier Giuseppe Cagnoni, who grew up on a farm in Umbria, Italy.
The wines, along with prosecco, moscato and franciacorta, are available at the restaurant by the glass for $10 to $14, and by the bottle from $35 to $90. “Customers are curious about red sparkling wine,” says Cagnoni. “Lambrusco is one of Italy’s most prized gastronomic treasures, but unfortunately, it got a bad name during the 1970s.”
Lambrusco pairs well with the restaurant’s al forno food. And because lambrusco is also made in white and rosé styles, the Italian sparkler can be paired with an entire meal, from aperitif through the main course and even dessert.
At Mulino’s Wednesday Happy Hours, two lambruscos are specially priced to encourage trial, and a wine dinner is planned for November, with each course paired with lambrusco. “People love it,” says Cagnoni.
Like most beverage alcohol, sparkling wine is benefiting from the cocktail renaissance. Classics such as the French 75, Bellini and Mimosa as well as variations move a lot of sparklers on-premise.
“Sparkling wine is consumed beyond a traditional flute of bubbly, mixed in a variety of cocktails. Brunch is a key occasion that drives the ‘everyday celebration’ trend, with Millennials and boomers alike reaching for sparkling wines to enjoy in popular brunch cocktails,” notes Heck.
As “the Official Sponsor of Brunch,” Korbel has connected with consumers in this space in both the on- and off-premise through key promotions, partnerships and activations both nationally and locally.
Pickwick & Frolic offers two cocktail sections. Pickwick’s Fizz Line is crafted with fresh purees and sparklers in Chi-Lychee, Mango-Basil and Strawberry flavors ($8.50).
Nose Ticklers ($8) include the Fuzzy Mimosa, made with Smirnoff peach vodka, orange juice and sparkling wine; the Strawberry Banana Mimosa, with fruit nectar and sparkling rosé; Sweet Flower, with St. Germain elderflower liqueur with sparkling wine; and the best-selling Pickwick Classic ($10), made with Smirnoff ruby red vodka, Grand Marnier, peach puree, orange juice and sparkling rosé cava.
At Maypop, The Pom Dot Com ($12) is made with Nolet’s gin, Aperol, green Chartreuse and cava. During its Dim Sum brunch, the restaurant offers a Fresh Fruit Cava Mimosa ($10). The larger-sized “Manmosa” is served in a plastic to-go cup so patrons can take it to New Orleans Saints football games.
RingSide Steakhouse serves a classic French 75 as well as the Big Spender ($14), made with Don Julio anejo tequila, Clement creole shrub and blood orange juice, topped with sparkling rosé and garnished with an orange twist.
“On-premise, more bars are making Champagne cocktails,” says Gregg at Applejack Wine & Spirits, “and that translates to more sparkling wine sales off-premise as people mix them up at home.”
Uncorking Unique Promotions
Targeted promotions, especially around the holidays can boost sparkling sales, both on- and off-premise. And producers are ready to lend a hand with those efforts.
Customers who sign up for Pickwick & Frolic’s Bubble Head Club receive special offers, discounts and invites to events at The Champagne Bar. The venue is busy just about every week with ticketed sparkling wine dinners.
Recent presentations included the winemaker from Veuve Cliquot, the brand ambassador for Dom Perignon and the winemaker at Chandon from California—to name just a few.
Downstairs at The Esquire Tavern is hosting a Fried Chicken & Champagne promotion on a weekly basis. It features eight Champagnes on the list paired with the “best fried chicken you can’t buy.”
Every Tuesday, customers who purchase a glass of Champagne (starting at $22) at Downstairs at The Esquire Tavern enjoy two complimentary pieces of fried chicken. Bottles of Champagne start at $50 and come with four pieces of fried chicken; larger bottles come with additional chicken. The fried chicken is only offered with the purchase of Champagne and not available separately.
“The fried chicken is delicious on its own, but something pretty amazing happens with this pairing,” says Worrell.
Ideas on Ice
Another innovation on the drinks side of sparkling is serving wine on the rocks, a practice that seems to be trending upwards. Freixenet recently launched Freixenet Ice Cuvée, a cava meant to be enjoyed on ice in a large wine glass with mint or fruit slices, says Fritz.
Moët & Chandon pioneered this idea in 2011 with the launch of Moët Ice Imperial. The blend was designed so that ice doesn’t dilute but actually complements the cuvée as it melts.
The idea proved so popular that Moët has launched an Ice Imperial Rosé version. “One of the most talked-about trends is the idea of serving Champagne on ice,” says Butel.
Pickwick & Frolic last summer concocted a cocktail with Moët Ice and Pama pomegranate liqueur served over ice. “It was quite popular,” recalls Kostis.
Thomas Henry Strenk is Brooklyn-based freelance writer specializing in all things drinkable.