Sparkling wine is the star performer of the UK off-trade, with volume sales up 18% and values rising 15.4% (IRI, year to March 2016).
That has been driven by Prosecco, which is up 34% but commands an average price point of little more than £6, while at the top end of the market Champagne has returned to slight value growth. But producers of cremant de Loire and sparkling Saumur are convinced they can provide a quality middle of the road offering that bridges the gap between Prosecco and cava at one end and Champagne and English sparkling at the other.
Bouvet Ladubay’s brut, for example, sells for £13.50 at Majestic and is made using the traditional method, as are all bubblies from the region. “We have to convey the message that the traditional method produces great quality,” says chief executive Juliette Monmousseau. “In the Loire we are still very price competitive.”
Industry doyenne Jancis Robinson MW is impressed by the dry and racy sparkling wines from the Loire and believes the only factor preventing them reaching a wider audience is the use of Chenin Blanc, which gives “decidedly un-Champagne-like flavours”. But she notes the increasing use of Chardonnay to “internationalise” the wines and names Bouvet Ladubay, Gratien & Meyer and Langlois-Chateau as strong and progressive producers.
Francois-Régis de Fougeroux, director general at Langlois-Chateau, which is distributed in the UK by Mentzendorff, says: “The evolution of Prosecco and cava is booming and we are on this wave. We have a role to play here. We have to find in the UK market a position between Prosecco and English sparkling.
“People now ask for cremant because they want something different from Champagne and something more distinguished than Prosecco.
“We are always compared to Champagne. At the beginning of the 20th century Champagne and Loire were the same price and competitive, but Champagne focused just on one wine and increased the quality and reputation. We produce other wines in the Loire – still white, rosé and red – and because it’s not the only thing we produce it’s not as easy to promote as Champagne. But Loire and Champagne are the two main regions. In Alsace and Burgundy they have only been producing sparkling wine since the 1970s. In Loire it’s been produced since the 18th century. We probably didn’t have the same growth as Champagne because we didn’t just focus on one product, but we have the knowledge and the history.”
Thirty-four per cent of French sparkling wines come from the Loire and bubbly accounts for 13% of the region’s output.
Exports of sparkling Saumur to the UK are flat in terms of volume but up 3% in value (Inter Loire), suggesting the region can buck the trend of volume outstripping value in a heavily promoted sparkling category.
It is a small category over here, and this is illustrated when you ask producers how much of their wine they ship to the UK.
Chateau de Mangueret, part of Les Grands Chais de France, produces 750,000 bottles from an 85ha estate, but just 1% goes to the UK. “We have to improve,” says Château de Montguéret’s Ghislaine Cate. “We are relatively new. Loire does not have the history of Champagne. We have made a lot of efforts on quality and packaging. Loire is now competing in France, and now we have to compete on exports too, but there is still a lot of work to do. The price to quality ratio is fantastic in cremant de Loire and Saumur.”
Marielle Hennion, owner of Chateau de l’Aulee, which is distributed by Bibendum, adds: “In the UK our competitors are cava and Prosecco. But I think people understand it’s different. It’s a little bit more expensive, but costs less than Champagne and the quality is more interesting than cava and Prosecco. British people understand that. We sell more and more every year in the UK and there’s a reason for that. The quality of Loire Valley sparkling wine has really improved over the last 10 years.”
The result of the EU referendum has hit exchange rates and led to uncertainty over trading with Eurozone states, but Loire producers are confident they will overcome Brexit and maintain strong relationships with the UK.
“England has imported Loire wines for 700-800 years and they aren’t going to stop because of Brexit,” says de Fougeroux, a sentiment echoed by the various producers OLN spoke to.
He adds: “I really enjoy wines with freshness and balance and the Loire Valley has made a really strong effort to create the sorts of wines in the last 10-15 years. We have so many young winemakers coming here because they can find fantastic vineyards. With Chenin and Cabernet Franc they can make some really interesting wines. We have the climate of Bordeaux 30 years ago and we make great wines with balance and great value. For the price you pay for good Loire wines you can nothing from Burgundy. We believe we have a strong future.”