While it's been a trying year in the US for most things French, Champagne demand is on the rise. Anne Brockhoff reports on America's growing thirst for bubbles.

Champagne producers are counting their lucky stars these days, or to be more precise they are counting the thousands of bottles they continue to ship to the US. Why? Because even though winemakers elsewhere in France have taken a beating from currency fluctuations and anti-French sentiment, Americans are still buying bottle after bottle of Champagne.

Shipments of Champagne to the US grew by 3% to 4.71m bottles in the 12 months to the end of April, according to The Office of Champagne USA, the Washington DC-based arm of the Comite Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne. Meanwhile, French exports of still wine to the US fell by 18% in the first quarter of 2004, led by a 39% drop in Bordeaux shipments.

The real test of Champagne's resilience will come when holiday orders are placed, but the category so far looks like it will continue its modest growth trend. France shipped 18.96m bottles to the US in 2003, The Office of Champagne USA said. That's 4% more than in 2002, when shipments jumped by a third and reason enough for long-term optimism, producers say.

"The US market for us has the most potential for the coming years," says Jean-Claude Fourmon of Champagne Joseph Perrier, which is looking to expand distribution beyond its current markets in Chicago, the Midwest, Massachusetts and the West Coast.

Indeed, US demand has been so strong that Champagne Bruno Paillard reduced shipments to the UK and Italy to send more here, says Even Bakke of Les Bons Vins in Santa Rosa, Calif., which imports the wine.

Still, it's been difficult for lesser-known houses to break into a market dominated by big brands like Moët & Chandon and Perrier Jouët that are backed by high-profile advertising campaigns. Champagne is often still considered a gift item or a special occasion wine, and consumers tend to stick to familiar brands, Bakke says.

"If you're not in the top 5, then it's a hand-sell," Bakke says. "People are less willing to experiment with Champagne. Our biggest supporters are the restaurateurs, sommeliers and fine wine merchants."

Jacques de la Giraudière, president of Champagnes & Chateaux in Ft. Worth, Texas, and the importer for Alain Theinot Champagnes, agrees. He spends much of his time building relationships with on-premise specialists who can then introduce his wines to consumers. It's worth the effort, he says, because once they've been won over, "Champagne drinkers tend to be very loyal."

But this style of marketing isn't limited to the smaller houses. Alain Rouchaud, CEO of Champagnes P. & C. Heidsieck, a unit of France's Remy-Countreau, says educating the US media, chefs and others "in the know" about its Piper-Heidsieck and Charles Heidsieck Champagnes is an important element of its marketing strategy.

The effort has paid off. US sales of Piper-Heidsieck rose by 27% in 2003, while Charles Heidsieck saw a 52% gain, according to Christian Conley Holthausen, associate brand manager for Remy Amerique. "Things are progressing, but not as quick as we would wish," Rouchaud says. "It's a question of being consistent and patient."

However, even as US demand is increasing, there are supply constraints, first among them being the geographic limitations of the appellation. There is some debate about expanding its boundaries, but the amount of Champagne that can currently be produced is finite, producers say.

That's why winemakers bent on boosting profits are beginning to turn to higher-value wines. Remy is launching new wines such as Piper-Heidsieck Cuvee Supreme and a rosé that will be available in the US this autumn. Currently, Prestige cuvees account for less than 10% of total Champagne sales; Remy wants to grow that to 20% in three years, Rouchaud says.

"We can grab a little market share from our competitors, but the key is value," says Rouchaud. At the same time, sparkling wines are winning over new consumers who see fizz from the US, Australia, Italy, Spain and elsewhere as low-risk, fun and good value.

The California sparkling wine industry has gained momentum since its emergence in the 1970s as quality improved and more wineries began bottling bubbles, says Eileen Crane, president and winemaker of Domaine Carneros in the Napa Valley. Domaine Carneros, which is owned by Champagne Taittinger, saw sales rise by 12% in 2003, in keeping with other top California producers.

"California, especially the higher-end methode Champenoise producers, did quite well last year," Crane says, in part because consumers are finally coming out of a post-9/11 malaise and beginning to travel and visit wineries again.

Clearly the effervescence in the sparkling wine market is not restricted to Champagne but Champagne producers are far from perturbed by this, sitting as they do at the top of sparkling wine pyramid. They hope that new consumers who enjoy a glass of sparkling wine might then progress to the "real" thing, creating more opportunities for Old World producers. "It's bringing new people to Champagne," Jacques de la Giraudière says, and the Champagne industry echoes "the more the merrier."