Wine Talk: As Champagne Sales Plummet, Producers Consider Destroying Unused Grapes

Worldwide sales have dropped $2 billion, and as many as 100 million bottles are expected to go unsold
August 10, 2020 Updated: August 27, 2020

News reports from the Champagne region of France paint a grim picture for this year’s harvest. For a change, the growing level of panic has nothing to do with the weather.

The Champagne industry has been slammed by the COVID-19 pandemic. While consumption of table wine has skyrocketed, Champagne sales have plummeted. The widespread lockdowns may keep people sheltering in place and tippling more than usual, but celebrations such as weddings and graduations have been verboten.

It has been reported that by fall, there could be as many as 100 million unsold bottles of Champagne resting in the cellars of the Champagne region. Worldwide Champagne sales have dropped a stunning $2 billion. In France alone, which accounts for 50 percent of all Champagne sales, the drop is 70 percent of normal. France was in total lockdown for more than two months due to COVID-19.

The backup in inventory is so great that an emergency meeting has been called for Aug. 18 to decide whether to proceed with the harvest or destroy the grapes. Other alternatives being considered are using the grapes to produce hand sanitizer, or possibly table wines without the fizz, though table wine from this rather cool region (where grapes struggle to ripen) could be a bit rough around the edges.

The CIVC, the organization that controls regulations in the Champagne region, is likely to impose severe limits on harvested grapes due to the backlog in inventory.

One option not being discussed, at least openly, is a dramatic reduction in price. Champagne is expensive. It’s expensive primarily because it’s time-consuming and costly to produce.

Many non-vintage Champagnes are aged a minimum of three years before release. That’s a long time to sit on inventory without any sales revenue. Vintage Champagne and special cuvée Champagne are typically aged far longer than non-vintage Champagne, sometimes up to nine years.

The old saying “time is money” is especially true in the Champagne business. By contrast, most New World sparkling wines are released after aging for two years or less.

No one knows what the CIVC will decide later this month, but none of the options are very appealing. I’m hoping for a painful but bold decision to move the excess inventory with steep discounts worldwide.

For wine consumers, that would be something to celebrate during these strange times.

Tasting Notes

Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer’s enthusiasm for the recommended wine.

Graham Beck Brut Rosé, Western Cape, South Africa ($18.99): This non-vintage bubbly from South Africa comes in at an attractive price, and you will love what’s in the bottle, too. The cuvée relies heavily on pinot noir, hence the strong note of raspberry and cherry. A jolt (34 percent) of chardonnay brings structure and notes of citrus. On the palate, this sparkling rosé is supple and inviting, shows exceptional fruit purity, and delivers great persistence through the finish. Best value. Rating: 88.

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Graham Beck Brut Rosé, Western Cape, South Africa. (Courtesy of Graham Beck Estate)

Majuscule 2018 Cabernet Franc, Mount Veeder ($80): Forget whatever you know about cabernet franc before you take your first sip of Majuscule. Light? No. Green? No. Boring? Definitely not. This beauty from the Napa Valley’s Mount Veeder sub-appellation is richly layered with impressive depth and remarkable complexity. The 2018 shows notes of blueberry and blackberry, supple tannins, and a generous hit of wood spice. Hefty price tag, hefty wine. Rating: 96.

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Majuscule 2018 Cabernet Franc, Mount Veeder. (Courtesy of Majuscule Wine)

La Crema 2016 Pinot Noir, Saralee’s Vineyard, Russian River Valley ($55): It’s not always easy to find a new-release pinot noir with a little bit of bottle age, but here it is. La Crema’s 2016 vintage from the iconic Saralee’s Vineyard offers a pinot of uncommon depth and complexity, shows beautifully integrated tannins, and is ready to drink now. Complex notes of raspberry, strawberry, and cherry come together in a dazzling display of RRV pinot noir at its very best. Rating: 95.

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La Crema 2016 Pinot Noir, Saralee’s Vineyard, Russian River Valley. (Courtesy of Jackson Family Wines)

MacRostie 2019 Pinot Noir Rosé, Russian River Valley ($28): Bursting with notes of strawberry and cherry, this is a crowd-pleasing dry rosé that just goes on and on. MacRostie is famous for its chardonnay and pinot noir, but now it seems rosé is getting in on that class act. Rating: 94.

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MacRostie 2019 Pinot Noir Rosé, Russian River Valley. (Courtesy of MacRostie Winery and Vineyards)

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