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Luxury in short supply?

“standfirst”>Chris Orr considers an endangered species…

There must be panic in the mansion flats and impressive houses that line the streets of Chelsea and Mayfair now that exports of caviar have been suspended thanks to the intervention of the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (CITE). Indeed, certain foreign embassies are probably at this minute, panic buying tins of tiny black edible pearls to ensure the ambassadors’ parties continue to be lavish and extravagant affairs.

CITE have suspended exports because they fear over-fishing is threatening the existence of the traditional sturgeon from which true Russian caviar is harvested in the Caspian. Thus the already rare product has become even rarer and – no doubt – the demand for it even higher. In a way though, it is quite nice to see a luxury product move the right way up the ladder and become even more luxury. So often it seems to be the other way around.
I read with some scepticism, the perfectly placed PR story for Tesco in the run up to New Year. Apparently they had sold so much Champagne the supermarket’s stocks were running dangerously low, forcing them to send a “convoy” of trucks – 25 in all I believe – to France to pick up fresh supplies.

“Britons have developed a taste for the high life and this year we have had record consumption of Champagne, with particularly high demand at Christmas,” Mark Murphy, Tesco’s head of beers, wines and spirits told The Telegraph. Good news surely? Well perhaps not, because he also told them, “No longer is Champagne bought only for very special occasions. Because of plunging prices we are more likely to buy a bottle for run of the mill parties or even a work leaving do.”

Apparently Murphy ordered 1.5m bottles for his emergency delivery from France. That’s 125,000 cases of the stuff, which is not an inconsiderable amount. But I have to wonder, with my somewhat cautious head on, whether this really is a good sign or not for the Champenois? It’s not that it’s a big amount to supply at the drop of a hat. According to ACNielsen figures for last year from July 04 to July 05, the supermarket sold some 3m 9-litre cases of Champagne – so it represents only 4% of its total sales for the year. It’s pretty likely that their supplier will have considerable stock ageing in the cellars so bridging a shortfall shouldn’t have been a problem. But is the fact that the general public are buying Tesco’s Premier Brut at £13.99 and that it is beating many major brands in taste tests actually something that the Champenois should be celebrating?

I don’t think so. I think it’s a pretty clear indication that the vast majority of Champagne sold is simply not seen as a luxury item any more. Which will make it increasingly difficult for the main houses to maintain high prices for their wines. I mean the average Joe won’t take long to work out that if he or she can buy a decent bottle of Champagne at £13.99 what on earth is the point of buying one at £23.99? The answer is, there is no point, unless of course you are stupidly wealthy and obsessed with labels. So what does that mean for Champagne? My view is a big, big, big headache somewhere along the line. Whether that comes this year or next, only time will tell, but if I were a major Champagne house I’d be getting a little edgy when I read reports like the one above – and I’d be thinking very carefully about taking a leaf or two out of caviar’s little unofficial guide book to keeping oneself luxurious.

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