One specialty retailer, located in a resort area in southern Wisconsin, says his sparkling wine sales increased 60% in the past year. Another, in lower Manhattan, says more and more of her younger customers aren’t just buying cheap bubbly to make mimosas, but more sophisticated and expensive wines to drink with dinner. And a third, in an upscale neighborhood in Fort Worth, Texas, reports that his customers are branching out, looking for French sparkling that isn’t Champagne — and even domestic bubbly.
There’s a sparkling wine boom on its way — and it’s coming despite supply chain-induced shortages, higher prices, and a slump in U.S. wine sales.
The great sparkling bubble
“We are seeing an increased demand for sparkling across categories and price points,” says Steve Graf, the co-founder and vice president of sales for Valkyrie Selections, which makes and imports wines. “Now, I only have theories as to why — people celebrating the end of the pandemic, wine geeks buying sparkling to drink on Tuesday night — but it is very interesting.”
The surge seems to be a combination of seemingly unrelated factors: the pandemic’s light at the end of the tunnel, certainly, as well as an increased effort by importers and wholesalers to find wines to flesh out store shelves because of the shortages. There also seems to be a newfound understanding by younger wine drinkers that sparkling is not just for holidays and cocktails, and a sense that bubbly, with its lower alcohol, fits into the healthier wine category. And, says one marketer, China’s clampdown on alcohol consumption means producers are shifting sales efforts to the U.S.
“Yes, to bubbly!” says Lisa Ehrlich, a California wine marketer. “I now keep a bottle of Prosecco and Champagne chilled at all times, and I wasn’t doing that before.”
The numbers don’t lie
This seems to be borne out by a variety of statistics. Nielsen reports that sparkling was the fastest-growing wine in the U.S. over the past two years, growing by more than 13% in 2021. Sales last summer were particularly impressive: Americans bought one-third more bubbly than they had during the same period in pre-pandemic 2019, and sales of Champagne — most of which cost more than $30 a bottle — increased an almost unbelievable 80%.
Meanwhile, Drizly, the alcohol delivery service, said that Champagne and sparkling wine accounted for almost one-quarter of all wines sold in 2021. And the agency that regulates alcohol in the U.S received more than 1,000 requests for labels for new sparkling wines since last June, a total that one analyst said was extraordinarily high and showed that producers expect bubbly’s popularity to soar.
The new label requests included almost every kind of sparkling wine possible, including Champagne, other French sparkling, Cava, Prosecco, and domestic bubbles — not just from California, but from other states as well. And there were also label requests for pét-nat, the fizzy hipster wine, and — at the opposite end of the taste spectrum — sweet, flavored sparkling wines.
It contrasts with overall U.S. wine sales, which have remained flat for the past several years — and may even have declined, because when the anticipated summer post-pandemic boom never happened.
“What sparkling wine producers, from Champagne to plonk, have craved for decades has finally come to pass. Any social gathering will do. Negative Covid test? Break out the bubbly!” — Jane Kettlewell
The pandemic changed things
Several things seem to be going on, starting with the end — hopefully — of the pandemic.
“I think the pandemic has helped sparkling wine bust out of its special occasion slot,” says Jane Kettlewell, the co-owner of the Creative Palate marketing consultancy. “What sparkling wine producers, from Champagne to plonk, have craved for decades has finally come to pass. Any social gathering will do. Negative Covid test? Break out the bubbly!”
Second, pandemic-related supply chain shortages. Less wine on store shelves would ordinarily mean fewer sales, but the pandemic was not ordinary, says Adam Sager, whose family owns importer Winesellers, Ltd. Instead, retailers and importers worked harder to make up for shortages, stocking different wines to replace the ones they couldn’t get. The result was more choice — something wine drinkers took advantage of, whether it was $70 Champagne or $15 Cava, says Sager.
That was especially true for his customers, says Nick Vorpagel of Lake Geneva Country Meats, the Wisconsin retailer. His sales of U.S.-made sparkling have skyrocketed, and his Prosecco sales have continued to increase.
Third, younger consumers have apparently taken to sparkling in a way they haven’t taken to other wines. The reasons are many: wine cocktails, whether as simple as Mimosas or more high-end and crafty; the impression that sparkling is somehow healthier, a trend identified by several analysts; and the idea that sparkling is just more fun to drink.
“Bubbles are delicious, and I think younger people are discovering that,” says ABC Wine Company’s Annie Barrow, the Manhattan store owner. “There was always the taboo that you weren’t supposed to drink sparkling wine by yourself, that it was only for celebrations. And younger people don’t buy into that — they do what they want, and they want to drink bubbles during the week.”
Finally, there’s China because, of course, something seemingly unrelated is extremely related during these odd times. Michael Wangbickler, the president of Napa’s Balzac Communications, says the year-long Chinese crackdown on imported wine — as well as alcohol sales in general — has sent Champagne producers searching for other markets. And the U.S. is still the largest wine market in the world. Hence, they seem to be shifting products and resources to the U.S., he says, to make up for losses in China.
“The people that I’ve talked to that I’ve noticed picking up more bubbles are switching from all types of still wine, including sweet, dry red, and dry white,” says Vorpagel. “The theme seems to be that sparkling is lighter and more fun.”
In other words, more people are drinking sparkling wine, more people are supplying sparkling wine, and a sparkling wine boom is on the way. Which is something to celebrate.
5 sparkling wines to try:
Paula Kornell California Brut (~$18)
California sparkling wine has usually been as pricey as Champagne. The Paula Kornell defies this trend, offering a top-notch bubbly for about half the price. The Kornell family has been making sparkling wine in California since the late 1950s, and this effort shows that expertise — fresh and creamy, bright and fruity.
Juvé y Camps Cava Brut Rosé Pinot Noir NV (~$16)
Spanish sparkling wine, called Cava, is made using the same method as Champagne, but mostly with different grapes. The Juvé y Camps features Pinot Noir, hardly a Spanish grape, instead of the traditional Trepat, and the result is outstanding — lots of berry fruit, but also a darker, more earthy undertone.
Côté Mas Crémant de Limoux Brut NV (~$13)
Most French wine regions make sparkling wine, but it’s called Crémant to differentiate it from Champagne. The Mas is from Limoux in the Languedoc in the south of France and blends four grapes, mostly Chardonnay. The wine isn’t subtle — lots of tight bubbles all over the place — but why does it need to be?
Adami Prosecco Garbèl di Treviso Brut NV (~$15)
While Prosecco, Italy’s blockbuster sparkling wine, is supposed to have some sweetness, many are sweet just for the sake of it. The Adami, on the other hand, uses sweetness as part of the wine and not a reason for being. Prosecco that even people who don’t like Prosecco should enjoy.
Bruno Paillard Premiere Cuvée NV (~$57)
Champagne is ridiculously expensive, and finding value is almost impossible. That’s where the Paillard comes in — top-notch Champagne from a second-generation family producer that offers quality that many wines that cost more can’t deliver. Call it delicious and have another sip.