A vintage year as British sales of champagne bubble over

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Indy Lifestyle Online

England failed to win the World Cup last year, Tim Henman was knocked out of Wimbledon again and City bonuses plummeted, but the nation still found something, somewhere, to celebrate - and bought a lot of champagne to help.

Official figures released this week show more than 24.4 million litres of champagne were imported from France in 2002, seven million more than in 2001 and nine million more than in 2000. The figure of 24,398,314 litres, or 32 million bottles, beat the previous record, set in 1999, of 24,201,937 litres and is the highest figure for 10 years, a House of Commons written answer said.

For many years Britain has been the biggest overseas customer of the champagne houses, drinking more fizz than the United States or Germany, where 18.2 million bottles and 11.3 million bottles were consumed respectively in 2002.

While it may have helped that the Queen was celebrating her golden jubilee, it is far more likely that the increase was fuelled by aggressive marketing and discounting by British supermarkets. As opposed to a drink for special occasions, champagne was portrayed as an everyday tipple. The introduction by supermarkets of cheaper own-brand champagnes selling at about £12also helped.

At the other end of the scale, the sight of rap stars brandishing bottles of the currently fashionable Louis Roederer Cristal at £100 a throw has introduced a new and younger market to the drink.

Sales for 2003 could well break last year'. This week, most major supermarkets were offering discount deals on champagne for the Christmas period. Imports up to the end of August are up already up by 6 per cent on 2002 and more than 40 per cent of all champagne is bought in the last quarter of the year.

Andrew Bird, champagne buyer for Sainsbury's, said that the store was experiencing a 22 per cent year on year increase in champagne sales. He said: "We are offering very good discounts for customers - three for two at the moment - which makes it a very affordable buy. But we are also selling bottles of Dom Perignon Rose for £180 in our west London stores.''

While the champagne houses have benefited from the boom, there are some suggestions that they are unhappy about the effect on its image. They have worked hard to market champagne as an exclusive drink, rather than the preferred tipple of rap stars and office workers. Mr Bird said: "I think they have quite a traditional approach to sales and marketing, but we work closely with them and I think they accept we are hear to stay."

Quentin Rappoport, director of the Wine and Spirit Association, said that the boom could in part be attributed to the relative slump of the past couple of years which occurred because both the trade and individual customers had purchased high stocks of champagne. He said: "I think the market is re-asserting itself and returning to the previous high level of consumption. Prices have stayed relatively good and we have always drunk a lot of champagne in this country."

Britain's love affair with champagne dates from the 18th century, when domestic glass blowers perfected a type of glass strong enough to withstand the pressures of the champagne bubbles. In 1917, the Russian revolution closed down the market down there, which had favoured sweet champagne. The post-war increase in British consumption helped re-fashion the dominant style of champagne from semi-sweet to dry or brut.

Françoise Peretti, a spokeswoman in London for the champagne producers, said she believed the boom in eating out in Britain in the past few years had also contributed to the increase. "Restaurants are good for champagne, it's part of the experience," she said. She also rejected suggestions that the trade was unhappy at being associated with rap stars. She said: "I think it's fine. It illustrates the diversity of champagne. And I shall certainly be drinking it on Sunday to celebrate our victory over Britain in the rugby.''

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