Champagne Supernova

Foodservice & Hospitality, December 2006

Bubbly is not just for New Year's anymore, offer it by the glass.

At the giddy height of 1,150 feet, customers are often in a celebratory mood at 360 The Restaurant at the CN Tower. Master Sommelier Doris Miculan-Bradley gets the party started by offering 12 champagnes and five sparkling wines from the cellar in the sky. (Bottles range from $36 for Codorniu Brut Classico from Spain to $620 for the Louis Roederer 1996 Cristal Brut.) Miculan-Bradley, who has been at 360 for 21 years, notes that the taste for champagne has grown. It's not just for New Year's and anniversaries anymore. "We're noticing a definite trend toward having a glass of champagne or a half-bottle of champagne before dinner."

Champagne is about 90 miles northeast of Paris, and is one of the northernmost wine regions in France. The cool climate means quite acidic grapes, and the chalky soil helps make champagne's flavour unique. Chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier are the varieties, and the wine itself requires a multi-stage production process that takes around three years and includes a second fermentation in the bottle - that's where the bubbles come from. Champagne has become drier over the years, but almost all producers still add a "dosage" of sweetened "reserve wine" which helps take the sharper edges off and boost alcohol levels. Ayala, an independent champagne house that has been in business since the 1850s, recently introduced a "zero brut", with no added sugar at all - it's available in western Canada through Renaissance Wine Merchants of Calgary. Company president Mark Ferrier acknowleges it's a niche product, but says "it's a perfect aperitif. Very clean, tight… definitely more tart." Not only is zero brut the logical next step in the trend towards drier champagnes, the fact that it's sugar-free will no doubt appeal both to supermodels and wannabes.

Costa Elles opened Seven Restaurant in Halifax about 3 years ago. It's the only true wine bar in Halifax and "we just recently received our two goblets [award of excellence] from Wine Spectator," says Elles proudly. Earlier this year, Elles offered a six-course meal with champagnes ranging from the entry level Moet & Chandon Brut to Dom Perignon Vintage 1998. 16 guests paid $250 each. "We've found that the champagne market is just incredible. In the past champagne might have been seen as a 'ladies' drink', but our clientele is getting more educated and it's not unusual to see a gentleman order it now," says Elles, who sells between 8 and 12 bottles a week. Elles also says if you want to sell more champagne, typical mark-ups of 100 percent or more should not apply. "We buy Moet for around $60 and sell for $105 - a 75% mark-up."

Sparkling wine is not usually top-of-mind among Canadian diners, and John Szabo, a Toronto-based Master Sommelier who runs a drinks consulting company, says the most effective trick is to have the sparkling wine on display in a large ice bucket. "The visual cue is powerful - as soon as people see it they start thinking about it." Szabo also suggested a champagne trolley - take a drinks trolley and place an ice bucket with champagnes on it. "That's higher end though," he adds, "you can't really have a champagne trolley in a bistro."

Splendido consistently ranks as one of Toronto's best restaurants, and general manager Yannick Bigourdan was inspired to offer a champagne trolley after a visit to the George V in Paris. They couldn't find their ideal huge silver bowl, so sommelier Carlo Catallo suggested that they use the champagne buckets they already had and offer trolley service at the beginning of the meal because "sales are definitely higher before the meal." With the elegant - branded - champagne buckets glistening with condensation in the soft candle light and the tops of bottles sticking out, the champagne trolley is indeed alluring. Prices range from $25 to $35 per glass for champagne. And how did it help sales of champagne by the glass? "Up ten-fold," says Catello.

Selling by the glass
Selling sparklers by the glass can be more profitable but there is also more wastage. Although the typical calculation is five glasses per bottle, John Szabo suggests calculating on four. He also says that elaborate systems of re-sealing are not necessary if you can be confident of selling leftover wine within a day or so. "A sparkling wine seal and immediate refrigeration will help a lot in preserving the effervescence." But if there's any doubt, throw it out - "it is never acceptable to serve a sub-standard wine."

Mario Evangelista, Vice-President of Select Wine Merchants, one of Canada's leading distributors of champagnes, says Moet's latest promotional campaign aims squarely at Canadians' idea that champagne is only for special occasions. "Our message is why not create a special occasion anytime?" says Evangelista. "The current advertising campaign is all about being 'fabulous'. The beautiful people drink champagne, why not you?" And a glass is more affordable than a bottle. Evangelista says Select Wines wanted to get more restaurants to offer champagne by the glass about six years ago and met with "incredible resistance. People were afraid it wouldn't sell and they'd have to throw out half of each bottle. We encouraged people to start with half bottles. We provided full staff training on selling and serving it, and supplied re-sealers that keep the wine for up to two days. The waiters are happy to sell a glass at $20 - they get a bigger tip. Many of those restaurateurs thanked us afterwards." John Szabo's business partner, Zoltan Szabo (no relation), also advises starting off with half-bottles and reminding people that champagne is a good match for almost any type of food. As with other wines, there are trends within champagne, and Zoltan says the way to go this year is rosé , "the shimmering colour of love."

Other sparklers
With its high price, champagne is not for everyone, but there are plenty of other fun sparkling wines. Prosecco and Cava, from Italy and Spain, respectively, are great lower-priced alternatives. "And don't forget that there are some great Canadian sparkling wines too, from both Niagara and Okanagan," adds John Szabo. "Henry of Pelham's Cuvée Catherine and Stellar's Jay Brut from Sumac Ridge spring to mind."

Pop those corks!
If sparkling wine sales have been a little flat this year, holiday season is definitely time to add some fizz. Mario Evangelista says December is a good time to introduce champagne - or another sparkler - by the glass. "People are more receptive, and then hopefully they keep buying it in the New Year."

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Champagne Cocktails
Splendido in Toronto has created a new cocktail that manager Carlo Catallo says is their top-seller - even though it costs $27 per glass.

Monsieur Doucet's Canadian Royale
3 ½ oz Champagne
1 oz. Icewine
½ oz. Cognac

With prosecco costing less than a third of the price of champagne, it makes a great substitute - and helps keep the cocktails below $10. Here are two favourites from the list at Seven in Halifax

Mango Fizzle
1 oz. mango juice
1 oz. cranberry juice
3 oz. Prosecco

Blue Champagne
¾ oz. Stolicnaya Vodka
¼ oz. Bols Blue
1 oz. lime juice
3 oz. Prosecco

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Champagne Fast Facts

Number of countries in which champagne is sold: 160
Bottles sold in 2005: 307 million
Total value of worldwide sales in 2005: C$5.4 billion
Percentage sold within France: 57%
Bottles sold in Canada in 2005: 1.2 million
Canada's share of total sales: 0.4%
Canada's rank among export markets: 12th
Bottles in reserve as of July 31, 2005: 1.1 billion

Source : Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne. Epernay, France

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Alan McGinty


phone 416.737.7215
fax 416.366.3811