Sparkling Wine in the Speciality Food and Drink Sector

…why retailers should stock a wide selection of styles

Sparkling Wine image credit Chapel Down

Alcoholic drinks can represent a valuable source of income for many farm shops, delis and independent food/drink retailers. Although economic uncertainty is likely to contribute towards a drop in volume sales over the next four years, rising prices are expected to see value sales increase with wine remaining an important consumer category (Mintel). Indeed, 62% of UK adults polled reported purchases of some type of wine.

While still wine remains the most popular type, the sparkling category has seen significant growth, with non-Champagne styles particularly successful, experiencing a 10% rise in on-trade sales in 2016 (Mintel). Moreover, a 2016 report by the Wine and Spirit Trade Association shows that currently eight out of ten bottles of sparkling wine sold in the UK are not Champagne, an increase of nearly 80% in five years, fuelled mainly by Prosecco, although sales of English sparkling wine, Cava and Crémant are on the rise too. The Institute of Masters of Wine lists market uncertainty due to Brexit and climate change as reasons for buyers exploring alternative high-end sparklers to supply the luxury market. This is a factor that should not be lost on the speciality industry as a greater choice of traditional method sparkling wines becomes available within the UK.

For Mark Billington of Billington's of Lenzie, offering a choice of different styles is key to both customer engagement and sales, thus forming an integral part of his buying strategy. "At least 30% of our off-trade wine sales is sparkling and slightly higher for on-trade. I think with the explosion of Prosecco over recent years, the sparkling wine market has become increasingly affordable. Therefore, customers are more aware and knowledgeable, so look for a bigger choice. We don't just go for the usual - Champagne, Cava and Prosecco.


Sparkling Wine at Billington's of Lenzie

We have a vast, diverse selection from around the world and introduce new lines for short spells to keep shelves interesting and current. Additionally, with Prosecco still most popular, we stock many producers to give customers a wider choice. Cava is also often asked for - we currently stock two - although I fear the explosion of supermarket brands has given this wine a misconception that it's a cheaper alternative to Prosecco. Customers are often surprised to hear it's produced like Champagne, but would still normally choose a Prosecco instead. We have also noticed an uptake on sparkling reds with Shiraz from Australia very popular."

Branding is another aspect with which to draw and retain customers, as Billington explains. "We are always looking for new products and suppliers, but tend to keep core lines the same as customers become loyal to a brand. Although we have a high demand for favourite and recognised brands, our customers are often open to new suggestions, especially when making gift purchases and they are drawn towards the more unique bottling."

At the Ludlow Food Centre, a clear differentiation from high-street offerings throughout the year that reflects ongoing customer demand is a core business strategy, as Jon Edwards describes. "We will not stock products that generally can be found in major multiples and, through working with our wine merchant, we have selected a number of small independent growers. We do four seasonal reviews, although we are also flexible enough that should a customer request a specific product, we can bring this into the range if we think it will work. We hold wine events with our customers and have introduced a number of new wines into our range based on feedback."

Local provenance is a key value within the speciality industry, a factor which has become increasingly relevant to wine offerings as the success of English wine continues to grow. For Edwards, sourcing locally is a major USP and wine is no exception. "We stock a number of quality English sparkling wines from very good vineyards who produce within a relatively short distance from our location. This is a nicely developing area of our business with a loyal customer following and it also fits into our ethos of sourcing products from surrounding counties." Mark Kacary of The Norfolk Deli offers his thoughts. "We took a decision four years ago to buy and sell wines not only made in England, but more specifically made in the counties which form the East Anglian region. We choose the vineyards we work with and stock whatever wines they make, including sparkling. We do have the traditionalists who will only buy something which says it was made in the Champagne region. However, these are the same traditionalists who, having scoffed at the English wines we were selling until Winbirri vineyards won a Decanter 'Platinum Best in Show' medal for their single varietal Bacchus earlier this year, came, bought and raved about this local Norfolk wine! We believe that our range offers people something unique. The fact that we are always selling out of sparkling wines and that the vineyards we use run out too is a good indicator that they sell well. Our wine sales are up by over 100% this year and we’re not even in the Christmas season yet!"

Champagne is still an essential year-round offering and at Darts Farm Shop, Gremillet is an important choice. This multi-award winning, family company from the Aube, a lesser known area of the region that specialises in Pinot Noir, provides a real alternative to standard supermarket fare, the richer Aube fruit giving this good value Champagne broad commercial appeal. "Customers like to buy something special and we feel that Gremillet is just that", comments Wine and Spirit Buyer, Holly Pelly.


Sparkling Wine at Ludlow Food Centre

Seasonal effects should be carefully monitored to ensure demand for particular products can be met. At the Ludlow Food Centre, the sparkling range provides a quarter of total annual wine sales, a percentage which increases over the festive season to around a third. Although Champagne is the fastest seller, the majority of this is concentrated into December, while all year-round Prosecco sells fastest. Similarly, at The Norfolk Deli, there is a slightly larger selection of sparkling wines in the lead up to Christmas and more sparkling rosé during the summer months, reflecting consumer buying habits.

Education and tastings can encourage customers to try different styles, as Jon Edwards illustrates. "We provide background information on the producer and tasting notes and we regularly run wine events aimed at those customers who are looking to develop their knowledge of wine. We find that established products which have been around for a long time and have suffered from a reputation point of view can struggle to gain a foothold back into the market, such as Cava and Asti Spumante. There is a wariness from customers to give these another try based on historic experience and reputation. However, during our sparkling tasting event, our Asti Spumante was the product that generated the most positive feedback yet started the evening with no customers saying they would consider it! Education and in-store tastings are the key to re-establishing these styles back into customers' consideration when purchasing."

Edwards offers some advice for farm shops and delis wanting to stock sparkling wine. "Do it, but with guidance from a good wine merchant or supplier who can add value to your business and help you get a balanced range. Understand the market you trade in, speak with your customers and find out what they want. Getting the right mix will definitely add value to your business. Billington adds the following tips: "Keep a good core selection and promote with tastings and events. Don't be afraid to be diverse and introduce some curveballs to keep your shelves exciting and interesting." Kacary also stresses the need to offer an alternative choice to other retailers and to know your products well. "Stock what you believe will sell, but be different. We know that none of our wines are available in the supermarkets and that very few larger wine merchants will stock any of the wines we stock. It’s a point of difference which works for us. We visit the vineyards and have them visit us to provide tastings. If you do something different, make sure you educate yourselves as well as your customers. If you stock what can be bought in many other places, then you’re going down the route of price matching/comparisons which is never fun."


Sarah Jane Evans MW

Sarah Jane Evans MW offers her expert advice on building a portfolio. "Undoubtedly, UK shoppers are driven by low prices, but a speciality retailer will never be able to go there. Instead focus on originality, build your own list and definitely don’t attempt to do the same thing as the high street. Keep out of mainstream Prosecco, mainstream Cava and cheap Champagne. As a UK based retailer, it’s essential to have English and/or Welsh traditional method sparkling wine on the shelves. The best of these are exceptional, so pick your local producer(s), build a relationship with them and know their stories, so you can recommend that people visit. Choose wines that you actually like and make sure you taste before you stock. Additionally, some retailers may be able to get a special label from their local producer to add an element of exclusivity. Also consider arranging events and promotions with the producer or a winemaker evening. It’s expensive to produce a traditional method sparkling and ever more so in somewhere like the UK, so an event is an excellent way to explain the handmade aspect. In terms of non-UK wines, Tasmania has terrific fresh traditional method sparkling, Franciacorta is the serious stylish Italian and there are many great choices from South America too. Selling these ‘unknown' wines may be difficult, but they are all excellent and offer a point of difference."


All images provided by the companies listed, unless otherwise stated.

This article was originally published in the January 2018 edition of Speciality Food Magazine.