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Break out the bubbly

06 April 2006

This year's Office for National Statistics investigation into British shopping habits, used as a barometer of spending trends, says Champagne is now one of our most regular purchases.

According to the Champagne Information Bureau, a bottle of bubbly is opened at the rate of one per second. Furthermore, the UK has been the world's leading export market for a decade and consumption is rocketing every year. We imported nearly 37 million bottles between January and December last year, representing a 5.19% increase on the previous year, and UK consumption is now double that of the USA.

Large-format

This year has also seen record-breaking numbers of large-format bottles consumed - mostly in the City - including 227,000 magnums (two
bottles), 4,200 Jeroboams (four), and even 67 monster Nebuchadnezzars, which hold 20 bottles. But is this retail boom being mirrored in the hospitality industry?

Clifford Hill is the wine buyer for Living Ventures' 33-strong restaurant and bar business. The portfolio includes 13 Living Rooms, 18 Est Est Est restaurants and two Bar & Grills. Has he noticed any significant surge in Champagne sales?

"Oh yes, definitely," he replies. "We've seen a 2.5% increase in the last year without even trying." The company says it's not overly aggressive when it comes to pushing alcohol. It offers a cocktail of the month, and a wine of the month, displayed discreetly at the front of each menu - but that's it, says Hill. "The Champagne sales have increased without any help from us."

So what's he selling, exactly? Predictably, brut non-vintage makes up the majority of sales. Champagne accounts for 17% of overall wine sales, with Duval-Leroy leading the way, sold at £35 a bottle and £6.25 a glass (£6.50 in London). All wine lists offer a further three non-vintage Champagnes, including Moët & Chandon and Laurent-Perrier. Interestingly, Hill chose the Ultra Brut, which he reckons sells well because it has less sugar, pleasing the low-carb diet crowd.

Mark-ups on Champagne are less than on the rest of the wine list, at about 55-60% for non-vintage Champagne and less than 50% for vintage bubbly, of which there are three - Krug, Cristal and Dom Pérignon. Hill reports that sales of vintage are static.

The lists also offer four non-vintage rosé Champagnes, also available by the glass - a move that would have been unheard of even a couple of years back. "Rosé Champagne sales have seen the biggest increase. It's taken off. We're selling almost double the amount we did last year," says Hill.

Although sales are steady across the country, Hill says Liverpool, Manchester and, particularly, Newcastle are selling a few more bottles than most.

"I don't think it's an indication of a general euphoria throughout the nation; I think it's about accessibility," he says. "It's there and I'll have it - that's the attitude. Champagne is easy to drink and it's becoming much more of a going-out drink, not just something for special occasions. The older generation might still treat it that way, but not the younger crowd. It's a status thing."

But what of the single operator, far away from the bright city lights? Well, if you listen to Joe Mallett, then things are even rosier. Mallett owns the oddly named Who'd a Thought It, a brasserie with rooms near Maidstone in Kent.

Like Hill, Mallett reports a surge in rosé Champagne sales. Incredibly, he lists 20, which won him third place in last year's Gosset Champagne List of the Year competition. In fact, so successful are Champagne sales here that they now make up the majority of the 100-bin wine list, with 60 in total.

Diversify
"It just sort of happened," says Mallett. "I've always loved Champagne and I wanted to diversify, so I increased my Champagne offering from five to 10 different bottles, and sales took off. That was eight years ago."

Mallett sells slightly more Champagne in the summer months, but he reports that sales are pretty steady throughout the year. How does he get people moving around the list? "I guide them. I'm always encouraging people to try something different," he says. The best seller is Ruinart brut non-vintage, at £39 a bottle, or £6.50 a glass, though Ruinart's non-vintage rosé is a close second, at £8.50 a glass.

Most customers buy non-vintage, but Mallett reckons 20% of his customers go for the prestige cuvées and older vintages. His secret? "I don't charge too much. People don't want to be ripped off," he declares. Mallett works on a 50% mark-up, with cash mark-ups on the more expensive Champagnes, shopping around the agents to get the best price.

And while he doesn't do tent cards or blackboards, Champagne is prominently displayed in dedicated fridges behind the bar, with Champagne buckets liberally scattered throughout - just to remind people it's there. "If it's visible, they'll go for it," reckons Mallett.

Just don't ask him for a Champagne cocktail. "Why spoil a good glass of bubbly?" he asks.

TagsAlcohol and Trends
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