DRINK / Warning: cheap champagne can damage your profits: Anthony Rose reads a letter from Moet & Chandon to the supermarkets alerting them to the perils of selling champagne at pounds 7.99

Champagne tennis, the commentator on Radio 5 declared as John McEnroe smacked another backhand volley past a despairing Pat Cash. 'My candidate for the champagne moment,' Brian Johnston announced, after Ian Salisbury had captured the valuable wicket of Javed Miandad, his first for his country.

Sporting victories are celebrated in the stuff, ships launched with it, wedding bells oiled by it. Bollinger Bolsheviks may be derided for their politics, but they are envied for their conspicuous consumption. The champagne image is all part of the pleasure. It means something special, something you cannot afford every week. As with other expensive labels, the cost is part of the appeal.

So what happens when champagne costs pounds 7.99 instead of pounds 17.99?

Tesco has released just such a pounds 7.99 champagne. So has Gateway. Sainsbury's and Safeway are selling one for under pounds 9; Oddbins and Thresher et al are coming in at under pounds 10. Moet &

Chandon, which makes one in every five bottles sold in the UK, and the other grandes marques, which spend a fortune promoting the image of champagne, are not amused.

Moet has written a stern head boy's letter to the purveyors of these cheap champagnes, pointing out the foolishness of their ways. 'With the reintroduction of champagne at pounds 7.99, we feel it appropriate to write to emphasise a few relevant points relating to the long-term damage to the image and perceived quality of champagne that we believe will result.'

Point number one is profitability. Do the shops not realise that if people buy this cheap stuff, the profit margins will be far lower than if they buy expensive - ie Moet & Chandon - champagne? Moet spells it out. 'For every bottle of Moet non-vintage you sell, you need to sell 8.5 bottles of Brand X to make the same cash profit.' Ergo, why only rip off the customers a little when you can rip them off a lot?

The letter goes on: 'The quality of some of the cheaper labels is definitely questionable. At this price point, they will often represent a first-time purchase of champagne for many consumers. We believe that they may be disappointed with the quality, and discouraged from purchasing champagne again.' Instead of trading up to Moet and the other grandes marques, these poor fools will look to the good-value sparkling wines coming from the New World.

Too right, you may think. But, ironically, there is a point to be made here, albeit a different one. The quality of the cheapies does leave a lot to be desired. None I have tasted matches the value of the similar-priced New World fizz mentioned in this column over the past few weeks. Nor are they as good as the better supermarket own-label champagnes.

Sainsbury's non-vintage, for instance, at pounds 11.29, is streets ahead of its pounds 8.45 cheapie, Beauchatel. You get what you pay for - some rather simple, confected, green-edged fizz - with the added premium of the champagne name. It is this parasitic use of the name that the grandes marques have spent so much time and money cultivating which really gets up their noses.

The cheapies only just scrape in as champagnes. They are unlikely to be aged for much more than the minimum 12 months. Most appear to use a fair proportion of the third, and poorest, pressing of the grapes. To stem the tide of poor-quality champagne, a ban on the third pressing and a longer minimum ageing period has been proposed.

Most of the grandes marques already age their wine for three years, and use a small amount of the third pressing. Resistance is expected from the smaller houses and co-operatives. Abolition of the third pressing would be equivalent to losing one in every 13 (admittedly inferior) bottles; and increasing the minimum ageing period would tie up more capital.

The problem for Moet & Chandon and some other grandes marques, especially those pushing towards pounds 20, is that they are partly to blame for the rising price polarity. Until two years ago, the champenois had never had it so good. Demand was so high that supply could hardly keep pace with it. Remember the warning in the summer of 1989 of champagne rationing? Heady days. Big price increases followed. Growers were accused of extortion, but Moet and others went along with the grape price rises as an incentive to growers to keep growing grapes rather than becoming champagne producers themselves.

Was this also, however, part of a strategy to stifle competition from the smaller champagne houses, which supply the supermarket with own-label and cheap champagnes? There is certainly evidence for it. According to Oliver Moore, who imports Marne et Champagne, suppliers of a number of supermarket own-label champagnes, 'by keeping the prices high, Moet could deal a massive blow to its competitors'.

If so, the move seems to have backfired because, as prices rose, the recession struck and the market plummeted. Despite three successive bumper crops, sales to the UK dropped 34 per cent last year, and the first three months' figures for this year show a 12 per cent fall.

Not all the supermarkets disagree with Moet: ' pounds 7.99 is still a lot, given that the average purchase is under pounds 3 a bottle,' says Philip Clive, wine buyer for Asda, who cut the price of its own-label champagne instead of introducing a cheapie. 'If the quality deteriorates, it becomes increasingly difficult for the consumer to differentiate between champagne and other sparkling wines.'

But others feel that Moet is trying to manipulate the market to protect its own declining sales. According to Angela Mount, who buys wine for Gateway: 'Champagne sales have suffered, not only because of the recession but also because the price of the grandes marques has risen astronomically. This has made it all the more important to keep good value, own-brand champagne on the shelf. We have noticed a definite move towards own-brand, away from the grandes marques.'

In view of the huge stockpiles of champagne, it looks as if pounds 7.99 champagne will continue to be used for a while as a ploy to lure shoppers. And it may get even cheaper, as the premier prix champagnes have done in France, as long as own-label champagnes do not suffer as a result.

The grandes marques are keeping a stiff upper lip, pledging not to cut prices for the sake of 'stability'. So for the foreseeable future it looks as if we will have three tiers of non-vintage champagne: the grandes marques, supermarket own-label and the cheapies. Not quite the good, the bad and the ugly, but the category considered worthy of the name of champagne will be a matter for the eye and palate of the consumer.

WINES OF THE WEEK

Champagne Extra Dry, pounds 11.29 at Sainsbury's: from the house of Duval-Leroy, a fine, refreshing fizz with some of that yeasty, biscuity character which distinguishes good champagne from lesser sparkling wines.

Extra Dry Vintage 1983, pounds 13.75 at Waitrose: one of the best supermarket vintage champagnes; classically good value, toasty, mature; worth snapping up before the next change of vintage (to 1986).

Laurent Perrier Brut, pounds 16,99 at Asda ( pounds 15.16 in seven-for-six offer); Oddbins, pounds 14.60 (17.5 per cent-off-case discount); Bottoms Up, pounds 17.69 (17.5 per cent off case). One of the most consistent and reasonably priced grandes marques, worth the extra for the aromatic power, elegance and Danish-pastry-like richness of flavour.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
News
people
News
Actress Julianne Moore wins the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award for 'Still Alice' during the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California
people
Sport
Ross Barkley
footballPaul Scholes says it's time for the Everton playmaker to step up and seize the England No 10 shirt
News
'We will fix it': mice in the 1970s children’s programme Bagpuss
science
Life and Style
2 Karl Lagerfeld and Choupette
fashion
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - OTE £36,000

    £12500 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This established Wakefield Deal...

    Guru Careers: .NET Developers / Software Developers

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: our .NET Developers / Software Dev...

    Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

    £25,000 - £30,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a fantastic opportunity...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?