REIMS – Champagne is losing its fizz. For months, lockdown put the cork on weddings, dining out, parties and international travel — all key sales components for the French luxury wine marketed for decades as a sparkling must at any celebration.
Producers in France's eastern Champagne region, headquarters of the global industry, say they've lost an estimated 1.7 billion euros ($2 billion) in sales for this year, as turnover fell by a third — a hammering unmatched in living memory, and worse than the Great Depression.
They expect about 100 million bottles to be languishing unsold in their cellars by the end of the year.
“We are experiencing a crisis that we evaluate to be even worse than the Great Depression” of 1929, said Thibaut Le Mailloux of the Champagne Committee, known by its French acronym CIVC, that represents some 16,000 winemakers.
Recognizing the urgency of the problem, the CIVC is launching unprecedented damage-limitation measures. Like oil-producing countries, the committee regulates the size of the harvest each year to avoid the kind of excess production that would cause bottle prices to plummet. At a meeting scheduled for Aug. 18, it's expected to impose a cap so tight that record quantities of grapes will be destroyed or sold to distilleries at discounted prices.
The prospect alarms smaller producers, who are more vulnerable than the big houses.
Anselme Selosse, of Jacques Selosse Champagnes, called it “an insult to nature" that champagne's famous grapes might even be destined to produce alcohol for hand sanitizer, as is happening in other wine-producing regions such as Alsace after demand spiked during the pandemic.
“We are to destroy (the grapes) and we pay for them to be destroyed,” Selosse said, referring to the industry as a whole. “It’s nothing but a catastrophe.”