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Bibendum spring tasting: ‘English sparkling is working really well’

Published:  29 February, 2024

Bibendum’s annual spring tasting returned to a packed-out Battersea Arts Centre on Tuesday (27 February), showcasing 300 wines via various tasting trails, curated and researched by the company’s insights team.

One particular area of focus was English wine, a category in growth in the on-trade with the quality to rival Champagne.

“English sparkling is working really well for us in the on-trade. You look at the numbers, and it’s still a small percentage of the total sparkling market, but it’s growing,” Andy Craig, buyer for Bordeaux, Provence, England and Champagne at C&C Group told Harpers.

By contrast, Champagne has been experiencing a dip in demand with a 22% decline in MAT volume in the UK on-trade. Meanwhile, English sparkling volumes are up 6.4% year-on-year in the sector.

“It looks like many of the bigger nationals are starting to understand the value English sparkling can bring. You look at your classic menu, you have entry-level sparkling, i.e. your Prosecco and Cava and then you’ve got Champagne. England is kind of sitting in that gap between the two, especially with the prices of Champagne going up,” Craig added.

According to MODE, Bibendum’s data tool for wine trends, consumers are cutting back on meals out with drink-only visits to pubs growing to account for 36% of visits, up from 26% in 2022. The prominence of drinks-led occasions means consumers are likely to gravitate more towards easy-drinking rosé and white wines, the former being another area of growth in England.

“Rosé is another thing that seems to be getting a lot of momentum in this country,” Craig said.

“We are seeing a lot of hotel groups wanting to do English rosé terraces. Provence used to be the focus for those kinds of activations but now English wine is getting in on the act as well which is great,” he added.

Bibendum also marked the tasting with the arrival of two new Champagne producers, Chassenay d’Arce and the Campari-owned Champagne Lallier.

Champagne Lallier, which was purchased by Campari back in 2020 will be exclusively wholesaled to the on-trade through Bibendum and to independent merchants through Walker & Wodehouse. 

The deal also means Bibendum will work in partnership with Campari UK to focus on driving the sales and distribution of Lallier’s Réflexion series, including its rosé and blanc de blancs iterations.

“The Lallier brand is well known in the UK and has a loyal fanbase but it’s going through a lot of changes,” said Craig.

It’s got the investment behind it, and they also recently brought in Dominique Demarville who is the ex-winemaker at Veuve Clicquot. He was there for about 20 years and was one of the great winemakers in the region. 2020 was his first vintage with Lallier but already his imprint is there.

“It’s great to be working a little closer with Campari as well. We are the wine specialists and they are the spirits specialists, so we can learn a lot from each other,” Craig added.

Bibendum has also added to its Bordeaux portfolio with the introduction of Château Canon Chaigneau, in the Lalande de Pomerol appellation on the Néac plateau, where the likes of Petrus, Lafleur, la Conseillante and Clinet can be found.

“Romik Arconian, who is the owner, is an Englishman who bought the vineyard just before Covid in Lalande de Pomerol, but it’s on the Néac plateau, so it’s got that lovely clay soil,” said Craig.

“They’ve also got the ex-winemaker of Cheval Blanc on board, Thierry Garnaud. He was at Cheval Blanc for 30 years but now he’s working for this beautiful, family-owned vineyard. Obviously, it’s a step down in terms of stress but he’s now making these beautiful expressions of Merlot with a very Pomerol sensibility,” he added.

Moving away from the classic regions, Bibedum was keen to highlight its ‘by the glass’ recommendations, featuring countries such as South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Australia and Uruguay.

“Traditionally, the off-trade was the way you would build a brand and category, but we are seeing the off-trade inform the on-trade, with trends like indigenous varieties and low abv, and it’s helping consumers to be more adventurous, and that should translate into the on-trade as well,” said Rebecca Long, wine buyer for South Africa, Central/Eastern Europe, China, Canada and Portugal at Bibendum.

“If you look at what some of the retailers are doing with their own-labels, these are areas of huge growth in the off-trade, and that’s a really good indicator of what the consumer wants. It shows consumers are looking for value for money and keen to explore something a little bit different,” Long added.

Portuguese still wine, for example, grew by almost 8% on last year in terms of volume in the on-trade. Similarly, South African Chenin Blanc is 4.4% ahead of last year in terms of volume in the on-trade.

Furthermore, according to MODE, one in five individuals under the age of 45 is opting for wine by the glass, rather than by the bottle to reduce spend and one in five also refrain from participating in rounds. 

“The premium end of the market is really important but we are trying to create value in other ways, beyond price. Inflation is real, costs are rising. It’s about how we can bring the stories to life, and create value for our customers and their consumers.

“As a result, we are doing more trips for customers and trying to get them to see the winemakers at work, so they can see firsthand why we are so passionate about a particular producer,” Craig concluded.