In the multiple crisis situation of 2023 – keywords Ukraine, Israel, inflation – Champagne performed quite well. Especially as consumers are increasingly giving other types of wine, such as red wine, the cold shoulder. Here are the ten topics that preoccupied the sector last year.
1 The figures: Back to normality
The year began on a rosy note, as the figures for 2022 are top notch. Global Champagne sales rose by 10.9 per cent to 6.3 billion euros – an all-time high. A total of 325.5 million bottles were sold worldwide. A small increase of 1.2 per cent on the previous year, although still some way off the 2007 record of 338.7 million bottles. While the domestic market was stable, the real growth driver was exports with a 15.1 per cent increase in turnover and a 4.1 per cent rise in sales. 2023 then cooled off significantly. In many cases, the price increases, some of which were considerable, could not be implemented, exports lost momentum and French supermarket sales collapsed. At the beginning of January, Champagne Viticole then reported the sobering finding, based on sales figures from December 2022 to November 2023, that Champagne was “on the way to returning to ten-year normal values”. In fact, the volume fell to 299 million bottles while sales remained constant.
2 The harvest: Tanks are filling up again
Frost, hail, downy mildew and the cherry vinegar fly. Nature has shown Champagne its teeth several times in recent years and has only produced below-average harvests since 2012 (with the exception of 2018). The dramatic low point of 2021 then filled the entire region with horror and raised the spectre of a lack of supply capacity. In 2022, after a record harvest, there were bright faces everywhere. In 2023, the winegrowers’ smiles continued despite partial pest pressure, for example due to boytritis. At minus two per cent compared to the previous year, the harvest was slightly lower. Compared to the 5-year average, however, 2023 was up 24 per cent. The sugar levels were rather “classically” low, as in the 1980s and 1990s, but the flavour was fresh and expressive. The quality of the Chardonnay in particular is generally praised. There were records for grape weights, averaging over 220 grams, with some “giants” even making it into the local press.
3. The change of ownership: One big and one small bang
In March, Terroirs & Vignerons de Champagne (TECV) signed an agreement with the holding company Artémis Domaines to negotiate the sale of Champagne Henriot, which was finalised in October. A move that came as a complete surprise and was reminiscent of the company takeover battles in Champagne in the 1990s. The Artemis Group of the billionaire Pinault family, which includes the luxury goods group Kering, the auction house Christies՚s, but also wine estates such as Château Latour, had only acquired Henriot on 30 September 2022. The purchase of Champagne Jacquesson by Artemis was then announced in January 2023. Apparently, the internal decision was made to favour Jacquesson. TEVC, for its part, is the largest association of cooperative wineries in Champagne. It was formed at the end of 2021 from the merger between the Centre Vinicole Nicolas Feuillate (CV-NF) and the Coopérative Régionale des Vins de Champagne (CRVC). CV-NF Champagne had already acquired Champagne Henri Abelé from Freixenet in 2019.
A month later, it was announced that Antoine and Anne Malassagne, the great-grandchildren of AR Lenoble founder Armand-Raphaël Graser, were selling the majority stake in their company to Belgian investment firm FG Bros. AR Lenoble, based in Damery, celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2020 and has established itself as one of the leading Champagne producers in the region in recent years. FG Bros is controlled by the Frère-Gallienne families. These hold in addition to a stake in the Pernod Ricard drinks group half of the shares in Château Cheval Blanc in Saint-Émilion. Lenoble is not the family’s first investment in Champagne. Multi-billionaire Albert Frère, who died in 2018, acquired Champagne Taittinger around but sold it on to US investment firm Starwood Capital shortly afterwards.
4 The makers: Champagne becomes more feminine
There has been a welcome trend in recent years. Increasingly, a “cheffe de cave” is responsible for the Champagnes of large maisons. After Séverine Frereson at Perrier-Jouët (2020), Julie Cavil at Krug (2021) and Alice Tétienne at Henriot (2022) – to name just the best known – Champagne Charles Heidsieck now also has a female cellar master. Elise Losfelt (pictured left) is an agricultural engineer and most recently held various positions in wine communication and as head of winemaking at Moët & Chandon in Champagne for ten years. She surprisingly took over from Cyril Brun (right), who has twice been honoured as “Best Sparkling Winemaker of the Year”. The latter had piquantly moved to the sparkling wine producer Ferrari in Trento in northern Italy. This is the first time that a cellermaster from Champagne has moved to an Italian winery as full-time oenologist. Champagne Gosset has also had a cheffe de cave in Gabrielle Malagu since 2023, albeit together with Odilon de Varine.
5 Stylistics: Is Champagne becoming more Burgundian?
There were many new cuvées in 2023. But even if some would like to capitulate to this “new complexity” (Jürgen Habermas), a few common threads can be identified. The most important development is probably the end of the classic “Brut sans année” – i.e. the vintage-free entry – and its transformation into a numerically labelled cuvée at some of the major houses. Invented by Jacquesson, adopted by Krug and first practised on a large scale by Roederer, Lanson followed suit in 2023 with its Création. The basic idea: to signal to the consumer that a cuvée is different in every vintage. In other words, to emphasise the winemaker’s philosophy. If you like, this is the Grandes Marques’ answer to the growers’ challenge. In this way, differences that have characterised the region’s self-image and product range for several decades are increasingly being eliminated.
Charles-Armand de Belenet, CEO of Champagne Bollinger, spoke of the “Burgundinasion” of the region in a much-noticed interview with Drinks Business. This means that the region is shifting its focus more and more towards terroir. Which in turn means single-vineyard and still wines. Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, Chef de cave and Executive Vice President at Maison Roederer, is also convinced: “The new Champagne will be defined by terroir.” For him, the return to the methods of the 1940s is more decisive than the Burgundy reference. Less stainless steel, more wood, riper grapes, smaller harvests, more concentration. “We are returning to the DNA of Champagne”. Michel Drappier, old master in the “wild south” of Champagne, on the other hand, fully focusses on the future. In May, he announced the first production of a cuvée with the eight grape varieties now permitted in Champagne. This includes the hybrid grape Voltis (pictured right), which was bred to combat the effects of climate crisis.
6 The cheats: Fraudsters, thieves and exploiters
Scams such as the theft of Champagne worth over 600,000 euros and the subsequent chase between police and crooks on the motorway between Reims and Paris in November are part of the myth of the French luxury bubble. Unfortunately, there are other cheats operating in the shadows of the industry. In August, the Champagne house Didier Chopin was accused of illegally producing almost two million bottles of champagne. The accusation: the eponymous boss and founder allegedly imported wines from the Ardèche and Spain and added CO2 and dosage. The resulting sparkling wines were marketed as champagne – including in the Leclerc supermarket chain. In December, the television channel Arte shed light on a completely different kind of cheat in a report, namely the exploitation of harvest workers. Individual cases, but nevertheless a structural problem. Because the companies cede responsibility to temporary employment agencies that are hardly monitored by the local authorities. The industry has now announced a rapid charter for the regulation of service providers.
7 Promotion: The new role of celebrities
The association between Champagne and celebrities is as old as the drink itself. Recently, however, athletes and pop stars are no longer limited to being advertisers or brand ambassadors. In July, US rapper 50 Cent’s company Sire Champagne signed a long-term supply contract with Terroirs et Vignerons de Champagne. This secured the supply of its leading brand Le Chemin du Roi. This is the official Champagne of at least seven professional sports teams in the USA. Champagne Pommery presented two cuvées in collaboration with Japanese rock star Yoshiki in 2023. These “creative partnerships” with artists are popular with Champagne brands. Not least because the French “Loi Évin” imposes strict conditions on alcohol advertising. Communication about the joint product is then about art – and not about alcohol. A fine line – which is why, for example, the addiction prevention organisation Addictions France sued Lady Gaga and Dom Pérignon in May.
8 The design: Between tradition and modernity
Weight, material, packaging: the design of the Champagne bottle is coming under increasing criticism in light of the climate crisis. To reduce its carbon footprint, Champagne Telmont, part of the Rémy Cointreau Group, teamed up with glass manufacturer Verallia to test the world’s lightest Champagne bottle in 2023. This now weighs 800 grams and is therefore 35 grams lighter than other bottles available on the market. Particularly under discussion: the capsule. On 8 August, the EU issued a regulation that exempts sparkling wine producers from equipping their bottles with foil capsules. However, Comité Champagne has decided that the capsule will continue to be mandatory for Champagne bottles because it is an “identity code” for Champagne. This is now to be enshrined in the appellation’s specifications. In order to improve the environmental footprint of the controversial packaging accessory, Champagne decided a year ago to switch from aluminium to paper capsules.
9 The future: The CIVC’s 10-year plan
“Always available, always desirable and always exemplary”. This is the premise behind the roadmap for the next ten years that the Comité Champagne presented in February. It is also intended to support the region in realising the two ambitious key points of the industry association. On the one hand, the Champagne wine sector is aiming to certify 100 per cent of its cultivated areas as sustainable vineyards by 2030. Secondly, it is pursuing an ambitious decarbonisation target, which was further tightened in 2022, with the region now aiming for carbon-neutral status by 2050. In order to achieve all of this, the Comité Champagne has increased its annual budget by 10 million euros. The largest single budget item is the construction of a new research, development and innovation centre, which is due to open in 2025. The centre will focus on research into vine diseases and the breeding of new hybrid varieties. Other goals include expanding the company’s international presence and promoting the appellation and its legal protection.
10 The obituaries: Four that will not be forgotten
Four prominent players in the champagne industry passed away last year. On 31 March, Laurent Fresnet (above left), the cellar master of the traditional Reims-based company Mumm, passed away after a short but serious illness at the age of just 56. Fresnet, a native of Champagne, had been honoured as “Sparkling Wine Maker of the Year” by the International Wine Challenge in 2015 and 2016 before joining Maison Mumm in January 2020. Champagne winemaker and biodynamic pioneer Jean-Pierre Fleury (above right) passed away on 21 July at the age of 77. He had taken over his parents’ Champagne house in Courteron in the Département of Aube in 1962. In 1992, he was the first Champagne producer ever to have his entire vineyards certified biodynamic.
Agricultural engineer Gilles Descôtes (below right) had been working for Champagne Bollinger in Aÿ since 2003. He was promoted to chef de cave in 2013, where he developed the PN Blanc de Noirs series, among other things. Seriously ill, he retired in 2018, but officially remained in office until 2022. He died in January 2023 at the age of just 57. Friends and family had to say goodbye to winemaker and politician Philippe Martin (below left) in November. Martin was not only responsible for a winery in Cumières. He was also a politician. For many years he was mayor, a member of parliament for the Marne and a member of the European Parliament. It is not only the enchantingly playful metal sculptures on the banks of the Marne in Cumières, which he commissioned as mayor, that will remain with him.
Featured image: Vineyards near Mutigny and Avenay-Val-d’Or: Stefan Pegatzky / Time Tunnel Images. Moët glasses: LVMH / Stephane Cardinale. Chardonnay harvest in Avize: Jean-Charles Gutner / Cueillette. Henriot: Stefan Pegatzky / Time Tunnel Images. Elise Losfelt and Cyril Brun: Champagne Charles Heidsieck / Léo Ginailhac / Erell Digital. Bollinger barrel cellar: Stefan Pegatzky / Time Tunnel Images. Voltis vine in a Piper-Heidsieck vineyard: Stefan Pegatzky / Time Tunnel Images. Champagne Didier Chopin: public domain. Yoshiki Champagne: Champagne Pommery Japan. Champagne capsule by Champagne Roederer: Stefan Pegatzky / Time Tunnel Images. Comité Champagne: public domain. Laurent Fresnet: Maison Mumm. Jean-Pierre Fleury: Champagne Fleury. Gilles Descôtes: Stefan Pegatzky / Time Tunnel Images. Philippe Martin: Champagne Philippe Martin. Metal sculpture on the Marne by Eric Sleziak: Stefan Pegatzky / Time Tunnel Images.