Cheers! Champagne and cava sales on the up

And you thought it was all lager and Bacardi Breezers. We're buying twice as much champagne as we were in 1997 and three times as much cava. That's £400m a year on sparkling wine alone...
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The Independent Online

Lovely bubbly. Britons are quaffing champagne and cava in record numbers as drinkers increasingly turn from beer or wines to all that fizzes and sparkles.

New figures show that sales of champagne and wines such as cava have reached dizzying heights as drinks which were once seen as a special tipple or a wedding treat have become commonplace in the pub or at home.

Now sales are set to increase with cava prices about to drop even further as producers battle to conquer the British market.

Champagne sales have doubled since 1997, while those for cava have tripled in the same time, with the combined sparkling wine market worth about £400m each year. It is part of an ongoing trend for Brits to spend more on wine at the expense of beers.

Chancellor Gordon Brown even froze the duty on champagne and sparkling wines in last week's Budget in recognition of the drinks' pre-eminent position as a celebratory toast for the common man, as he anticipated English success at the World Cup in Germany this summer.

Champagne dominates the UK market, accounting for about 40 per cent of the volume of sparkling wines, with about 37 million bottles imported last year, more than any other country for the 10th year running.

Cava makes up about 30 per cent, although that figure looks set to rocket owing to a round of vicious price-cutting as exports become more crucial to cava producers.

Sales within Spain dropped in 2005 as a result of a boycott of goods from the region where cava is chiefly produced. Spaniards have begun to shun goods from Catalonia, because of the region's efforts to gain greater autonomy, and rather than having vast stocks of bottles sitting in dusty warehouses, cava makers are pushing the drink to foreign markets.

Freixenet, one of Spain's biggest producers, sells four-fifths of its product beyond home soil, with Germany its largest market, followed by Britain and the US.

Cava can already be picked up for as little as £3 a bottle in many supermarkets - about one-fifth of the price of champagne.

Richard Halstead, managing director of Wine Intelligence, a consultant body to the wine industry, said: "We shouldn't trivialise the impact things like this will have upon the industry in the UK. This problem in Spain is good news for consumers in the UK because we will see a lot more quality sparkling wines over here at good prices in places like supermarkets.

"The fundamental message is more choice, better value. Wine generally has gone from being a middle-class drink that people had on holiday to become very much an everyday drink, a very classless drink. And sparkling wine has made a very similar journey.

"Champagne has gone from being a very exclusive drink to one that is acceptable for ordinary folk to have on a Friday evening in a bar or even at home. The cava market is every-day - it's about the same price as a bottle of wine. It's a little bit of fun and it's a nice drink."

Graham Fortune, the managing director of Freixenet UK, said: "Because cava is promoted quite heavily, particularly at seasonal times, pricing is always going to be very competitive."

But John Corbet-Milward, head of technical affairs at the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, added a note of caution about the impending flood of cava. "There will be winners and losers here. Although the consumer may benefit, many of the suppliers may not. They may well be undercut if the market is destabilised by large quantities of very low-cost products."


Richard Ehrlich, the award-winning 'IoS' wine critic, samples some of the top-rated cavas on offer in Britain

Gran Campo Viejo Cava (£6.99, Sainsbury's and Thresher)

Made, like nearly all cava, from three grape varieties. Good bottle age gives it a bit of richness and the price is reasonable.

Cava Cristalino (£5.99, Majestic)

A fine basic cava, hitting all the right notes: fresh fruit, palate-tingling fizz and acidity. And most important of all: if you buy two, the price drops to £4.49.

Waitrose Cava Brut NV (£4.99)

Supermarkets try hard to give their own-label wines maximum quality at the lowest reasonable price. This one, Waitrose's top-selling sparkling wine, is one of the best.