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Champagne, shortages and Christmas pricing – what to expect

The Champenois have done a good job at promoting the idea that there’s going to be a Champagne shortage this Christmas. Cynics might see this as a ploy to put up prices, or at least stimulate early demand – no-one likes the last-minute rush of orders in a normal year when logistics and distribution are working smoothly and that’s clearly not the case this year – while encouraging less discounting among the major retailers.

The shortage, where it exists at all, is temporary and is largely of their own creation. It’s the result of the major brands failing to predict lockdown demand for fizz rebounding after the initial collapse in sales when the Covid pandemic first struck in the spring of 2020 and stopped sales in their tracks.

To be fair, the continuing strong demand was rather more difficult to anticipate but yields for the 2020 harvest were set far too low, especially given the high quality of the crop, and by the end of the year with consumer demand more than just recovering, sales were booming and they’ve never really slowed since.

As early as mid-October, UK agents for the major houses were saying there will be fewer promotions on Champagne this Christmas, or else certain product lines will run out. At that point it was very hard to gauge just how accurate this prediction was going to be but evidence, albeit mainly circumstantial evidence, is mounting. We should however emphasise that, despite what many of the national newspapers will print – for them with champagne there is only glut or famine, nothing in between – there is no shortage of champagne in the cellars around Reims and Epernay. The problem is that in many cases, that’s where the wine is still, in the cellars.

The shortage of certain leading marques is certainly an opportunity for other producers that do have stock for whatever reason—perhaps they were on trade dominant brands without much of a footing in the off trade, or they are just lacking the brand profile of certain major houses – to increase their sales and perhaps establish a better market share they can retain.

Ayala is one of the brands that springs to mind in the former category. It was, pre-March 2020, pretty much entirely sold in the on-trade. But when sales cease, as Andrew Hawes MD of UK agents Mentzendorff pretty much concedes they did. You must be inventive in your response. Theirs was to create a new on-line market for the brand and to start working with Majestic plus Waitrose and that has borne fruit. As they also ship Bollinger, likely we understand to have a shortfall especially if anyone sizeable in the off trade promotes strongly on price, they may be able to offer an alternative fizz themselves.

At Castelnau Agencies in the UK which markets the Castelnau range aimed more at the on-trade, plus the Nicolas Feuillatte brand, which is mostly to be found in major retailers in the off trade, business has been brisk in the past few months.

Keith Isaac MW, general manager, Castelnau Wine Agencies says: “We’ve fielded a considerable number of new enquiries for Castelnau during the last couple of months with Christmas planning in mind, from big and small players looking for good alternative brands to help fill gaps and make up for reduced allocations.

Shortages of dry goods are certainly impacting champagne supply this year and there may be some Houses reassessing the impact that last year’s short harvest and uncertainty over the 2021 crop will have on their long-term stock holding and global allocations in the coming years.”

So, what are the UK grocers offers looking like currently? Sainsbury’s has new deals running for three weeks starting on Thursday (24/11) with £10 off Laurent-Perrier La Cuvée (£40 to £30) Piper Heidsieck (£35 to £25) and Heidsieck Impératrice (£40 to £30); £9 off Clicquot Rosé (£49 to £40); £8 off Lanson Rosé (£39 to £31) and just £6 off Bollinger Special Réserve (£45 to £39). The branded bargain basement fizz comes from Heidsieck Monopole Blue Top (£28 down to £20) and Nicolas Feuillatte (down £1 to £20) at the moment. Similar deals, mostly on other brands or different cuvées of the same houses, follow from 15 December.

ASDA has Heidsieck Monopole Blue Top currently (22/11) at £20 (down £8) and Moët Brut Impériale at £32 (down £6) with Lanson Le Black Label at £26 (down £9) plus Taittinger Brut Reserve at £30 (down £8).

Tesco is already going a little further with a buy six, save 25% clubcard deal that lasts until 29/11. Their biggest deal at the moment and running until 6 December gives a clubcard price of £26 for Lanson Le Black Label (matching ASDA’s) plus a further 25% until 29/11 (if you buy six bottles of wine) that brings the price down to £19.50. The best deal at Tesco is probably their ‘Finest Vintage’ which is a Blanc de Blancs supplied by Union Champagne in Avize from the 2015 vintage, which you can also buy for £19.50 a bottle (if you buy six). If it’s 80% as good as the 2012 you won’t be disappointed.

If you are a gambler, you will wait until Sainsbury’s adds a 25% off (if you buy six) deal to its current offers – likely if previous experience tells us anything — before they run out (on 14/12), something the other grocers are bound to react to.

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