Champagne’s bubble bursts

Jeremy Hobson Dec 29, 2009

Champagne’s bubble bursts

Jeremy Hobson Dec 29, 2009


Kai Ryssdal: We’re about halfway through the 2009 holiday marathon. Christmas behind us. New Years just a couple of days away. Which prompts one to ask whether you’ve bought your Champagne yet? If you have, you’d be among the minority. The industry’s lost a lot of its fizz the last couple of years, along with the rest of the economy. Marketplace’s Jeremy Hobson reports that’s created a bubble of its own.

JEREMY HOBSON: I’m not going to do a story about Champagne without actually tasting some, so I invited wine writer and blogger Alice Feiring down to a Manhattan restaurant called Balthazar.

We started by talking about the way things used to be. The year was 2007. The stock market was up. Unemployment was down. And there were a lot of corks-a-popping.

ALICE FEIRING: The Champagne industry finally had arrived. They were complaining there wasn’t enough Champagne for the world.

Then, as you can you can probably guess, the bottom fell out of the Champagne market. These days, Feiring says, some Champagne is going back to France, where it came from.

Hobson: They actually had to send some back?

Feiring: Send some back because they were taking up too much room in the warehouses.

Feiring says sales are down between 50 and 90 percent from the peak. And come Thursday night, she says, many Americans won’t be clinking glasses of the good stuff.

FEIRING: If you’re going to be having a small intimate dinner, I would bet money on it that you would hear that pop, and that pop is going to be Champagne. If you’re going to have 15 people or more, it’s going to be some semblance of sparkling wine.

Ahh, sparkling wine. The cheap cousin of Champagne not grown in the region with the same name. In France, it’s called “Cremant.” In Spain, it’s called “Cava.” In California, it’s called sparkling wine. And in Italy, it’s called “Prosecco.”

FEIRING: Champagne is going to stop you. Oh my God this makes me so happy. Prosecco is we need bubbles, and it’s gotta be cheap.

Not far from Balthazar, you can see the Prosecco craze firsthand.

Astor Wines and Spirits is one of the sparkling wine hubs of New York. And Lorena Ascencios is the wine buyer there.

LORENA ASCENCIOS: People still want sparkling wine, but they can’t afford to spend you know $40, $50, $60 for a great bottle of Champagne.

So instead, she says, they’re buying Prosecco.

ASCENCIOS: It is a sparkling wine, not as full sparkling as true a Champagne. It is more accessible, it’s not as rich, but it is very, very drinkable and very affordable. You can get great Prosecco, we have one for $6.99. It’s one of our best sellers.

What’s the difference?

Well, I had a taste test with Alice Feiring back at Balthazar. Wisely, she started me off with the non-Champagne bubbly.

Hobson: It tastes pretty good.

Feiring: It’s bubbly. It’s bubbly, it’s grapey.

As for the actual Champagne…

FEIRING: It’s got way more finesse, it’s got less headache produced. Oh, they’re going to hate me.

While we were tasting, diner Evelyn Skorochode walked over to offer her thoughts.

EVELYN SKOROCHODE: I come from Paris, and I drink a lot of Champagne.

And to put it mildly, she does not approve of the world’s newfound appetite for Prosecco.

SKOROCHODE: I mean Prosecco is a little bit of fashionables, because it’s less expensive and people just buy bubbles without the taste of Champagne and believe me, it’s completely different.

Well, come on it’s not that bad.

And consumers certainly seem to like it. When the sales figures for Champagne’s busiest season come out in February, it’s likely Americans will be telling producers what Ella Fitzgerald and others have been singing for decades.

ELLA FITZGERALD: I get no kick from Champagne…

In New York, I’m Jeremy Hobson for Marketplace.

FITZGERALD: So tell me why should it be true that I get a kick out of you.

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