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Back in the mood for bubbles: Champagne sales are popping again

April 20, 2021, 12:00 AM UTC

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdowns made social gatherings and celebrations impossible, and while many wine producers and distributors have tried to rebrand Champagne as something more than just a celebratory drink, many consumers just weren’t in the mood for bubbles.

“2020 was a challenging year for the Champagne category,” says Adam Rogers, North American research director at IWSR Drinks Market Analysis. “The first quarter of the year is never particularly strong for Champagne consumption, but to be compounded shortly after with bar and restaurant closures and reduced gathering size, it was the most challenging year in recent memory. Celebratory consumption occasions—Champagne’s prime benefactor—were, unfortunately, few and far between last year.”

But recent sales figures suggest a rebound is on the horizon. Champagne sales were up 88.5% in March over previous years, according to data insight firm NielsenIQ.

Moët Hennessy—which counts Moët & Chandon, Dom Pérignon, Ruinart, and Veuve Clicquot within its Champagne portfolio—reported a 22% rise in Champagne sales for the first three months of 2021 compared with the first quarter of 2020. Executives suggest there is hope now that the vaccine rollout is under way in some parts of the world, making it safer for friends to see one another again—and that alone is cause for celebration.

“The climate for Champagne has truthfully been a bit of a roller coaster this past year,” says Anne-Sophie Stock, vice president of core bubbles at Moët Hennessy. “At the onset of COVID, there was a drastic dip in sales as people went into lockdown and the future was uncertain; there was perhaps little to celebrate.”

However, as the pandemic persisted, Stock continues, consumers had more discretionary funds owing to a lack of travel or going out. That fueled some key drivers that helped sales recover, including the explosion of e-commerce sales, a desire to elevate the at-home entertaining experience with premium drinks and brands, and an influx of new consumers. (Stock says that over 40% of French Champagne growth was from those who have never consumed the drink before or not for some time.)

“Throughout the pandemic, we also saw consumers become their own mixologists, chefs, etc.,” Stock says. “They looked to more premium brands, like the Champagne offerings from our portfolio, to create that specialness they would have normally only experienced at the bar or restaurant. This has now become second nature.”

Stock also points toward “pandemic fatigue” by the end of 2020, suggesting that instead of wanting to celebrate New Year’s Eve, people wanted to celebrate the end of a miserable year for all.

“Since the end of last year, we’ve seen a nice uptick in Champagne sales. And as we round out the first quarter of 2021, we are invigorated by the growth and looking forward to having many more bottles popped throughout the year,” Stock says.

Stock says there are a few things that are potentially supporting this rebound. The first being that people are ready to celebrate again—and not just for the bigger milestones, but even just for those everyday moments. “Consumers are looking to treat themselves for more frequent occasions like hanging out or relaxing with friends and have ultimately been more willing to splurge on items that are comforting and have strong quality guarantees,” she says. “Coming out of a collective experience like last year has made even the small moments seem that much more celebratory.”

Secondly, Stock adds, consumers are much more interested in ordering beer, wine, and spirits through delivery apps than they were before the pandemic—a trend that surged in the earliest days of lockdown and never subsided.

“A variety of our Champagnes are now within arm’s reach, and the e-commerce delivery services will only continue to grow,” Stock says. “These fundamental behavioral shifts and new consumption choices that came out of the pandemic—like many things—are fortunately supporting the rebound within the industry, and with this we are, of course, focused and excited to cater to the new needs, expectations, and requests of our consumers this year and beyond.”

But is it too soon to celebrate yet? Even though demand in the United States—where the vaccine rollout has been relatively strong—remains robust and overall the luxury conglomerate had a good start to the year, Moët Hennessy warned in its first-quarter earnings report that “it continues to be an uncertain environment” for the wine and spirits group. Hospitality and tourism are the major sales drivers for wine and spirits, and with borders closed and social gatherings still banned under lockdown rules in many regions for the near future, total recovery just doesn’t seem feasible yet.

“We always remain cautious and pragmatic, especially after the learnings from last year,” Stock says. “Agility in our business is critical. Given the fundamental behavior shifts, the summer ramping up, and the trends we see in trading up to more premium brands and experiences, we are hopeful that the progression continues.”

A chart of Champagne shipments to the United States over the past 12 years.
Courtesy of The Champagne Bureau, USA

In March, the Champagne Bureau, USA—the trade association representing the growers and houses of Champagne, France—said that bottle shipments to the U.S. dipped by 18.8% year over year in 2020.

But the group also noted that, historically, Champagne sales typically rally the year after an economic downturn.

“The Champagne sector has proven its resilience before, and it will do so again,” Jennifer Hall, director of the Champagne Bureau, USA, wrote in the March report. “After the Great Recession, the industry bounced back and saw seven consecutive years of growth in Champagne shipments to the United States. It’s our hope that Champagne will again show its strength as the United States makes progress towards recovery from the global pandemic.”

There is hope for Champagne, especially within the trending rosé segment, which increased its share of the market in 2020, Rogers notes. “The category is resilient—as was seen during the Great Recession when Champagne declined only to experience seven consecutive years of growth afterwards,” he tells Fortune.

Rogers adds that sales are expected to continue to grow throughout 2021 and into 2022, underscoring the special interest being paid to the rosé segment of Champagne.

“The road to recovery itself may be somewhat longer as competition increases from Prosecco labels, which were recently allowed to produce rosé variants. These new pink Prosecco brands will be vying to attract Champagne consumers,” he explains. “Winemakers and distributors should remain cautious from the influx of rosé Prosecco’s entering the market, as well as towards the second half of 2021 when consumption habits are predicted return to their pre-COVID ways.”

“More Champagne will be consumed in 2021 than in 2020, which is in line with loosening restrictions and increased celebratory consumption occasions,” Rogers predicts. “If all goes as planned and the vaccines continue to roll out as COVID-19 cases remain in decline, Champagne is predicted to have one of the strongest holiday seasons on record. Consumers are expected to treat themselves to this affordable luxury in an attempt to finally put 2020 behind them.”

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