Dethroning a King: Why French Sparkling No Longer Reigns Supreme

bubblyA recent article in reports that Champagne (the “real” bubbly made in the Champagne region of France) has been suffering a steady decline in sales, especially in their export markets. In 2009 alone Champagne producers decreased production a whopping 44% to account for decreased demand.

At the same time, sales of Italian bubbly have jumped a whopping 22%. That’s not too surprising in these economic times, given that a bottle of Champagne goes for anywhere from $40 to $300, while you can pick up a good Prosecco for under $15.

So cheers to the Italians for making the most of bad times and creating good times for their bubbly producers.

The article also explained that Italian sparkling wine producers haveĀ  begun to create fine bubbly that can compete head to head with the French in the premium category. Again, good for them.

In fact, the wine world has always had any number of top-quality producers of fine wine and sparkling wine, even though the French would have us believe that they are in sole possession of the top-quality market niche. The French have always been incredibly good self-promoters, and for centuries had the wine world believing that Quality was defined by their Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne. They had us all believing that if we preferred the taste of something — anything — else over the taste of French wine, it was because: a) we’d had a bad bottle; b) we had a bad palate; or c) we were hopelessly low-class and incapable of appreciating the finer things in life.


This position started to wear thin after the Judgment of Paris in 1976, which was a famous, Shot-Heard-’Round-the-World kind of event where French wine critics (in a blind tasting) judged many California wines to be superior to their own.

It came further unglued in the U.S. after theĀ  invasion of Iraq, when the French government refused to support American troops. Many American wine drinkers protested with their pocketbooks, refusing to buy French wines. I know that in my store, sales of French wines plummeted, and they’ve never recovered. An unexpected consequence of this protest was a change in drinking habits: former Francophones tasted wines from other countries and liked them better. They never went back to drinking French wines because the blinders had been removed from their eyes. Or they saw that the Emperor wore no clothes. Or whatever metaphor you want to use to say that they realized French wine wasn’t the only good wine.

So back to bubbly. I’ve always enjoyed and recommended non-French sparkling. There’s Prosecco, of course, but there’s also good Cava from Spain (Cristalino), and domestic sparkling from California (Schramsberg), Washington State (Domaine Ste. Michelle), Oregon (Argyle) and New Mexico (that would be Gruet, my “go-to” sparkler). I’m sure there are many more from other countries that aren’t yet on my radar.

I’ve also found that many, many American wine drinkers don’t enjoy the taste of Champagne. I can’t tell you how many times a customer has said, “I spent all this money on a bottle of Dom Perignon because I thought it was the best, and I didn’t even like it!” It seems that the “yeast-y, bread dough-y” character that is the essence of Champagne doesn’t always tickle a wine drinker’s taste buds.

So here’s the long and the short of it: There’s lots of great wine and sparkling made all over the world. Try as much as you can, and buy more of what you enjoy. No one is King of the Hill, and if they try to tell you so, just push them off the pile. Cheers!

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