Once a staple of the tasting calendar, the Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne annual London tasting has been something of a moveable feast in recent years, as the CIVC has experimented with new locations and formats. After last year’s event at the London Wine Fair fell a bit flat, it was time to think again. Stepping into the gap, a communications guru and a new, more commercial, approach for Taste Champagne London 2019. So did it fizz? Chris Wilson went along for The Buyer to deliver his report card.
Top marks for the booklet and the stunning venue, says Wilson, but Taste Champagne’s location raised eyebrows and the cheese table caused a bit of a stink.
Some generic bodies seem to nail it every time when it comes to hosting their annual tastings – Wines of South Africa and Wines of Germany spring immediately to mind – while others struggle to get their act together.
Thanks to the fragmentation of the French and Italian scenes, it appears to be impossible for the regional and national bodies of these great wine nations to get their acts together and host slick, thoughtful, inviting tastings, often leaving it to suppliers and importers to take up the slack (which many do with aplomb).
Which brings us to last week’s Taste Champagne London event… but first a little back story.
The Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne – the CIVC – has hosted an annual trade tasting in London for more than 20 years, favouring the grand and conservative venues of Westminster for most of this time, but in 2017 it decided upon a more “vibrant and happening place” and plumped for Central Saint Martins’ art school in King’s Cross.
This was a seen by many as a great move, a shot in the arm for a tasting that had become overly familiar and a little staid. The new venue was big and bright and slap bang in the middle of the fashionable new King’s Cross redevelopment area. There were a few issues (well documented on Twitter, naturally) with the tasting booklet, but on the whole it was a success.
The following year, 2018, the event changed again, and this time it was billed as Champagne Live, becoming part of the London Wine Fair, housed in two neighbouring rooms at Olympia. It was, by all accounts, a bit of a disaster: journalists refused entry despite having lined up interviews with producers inside the event, producers annoyed at the lack of footfall, and a general feeling that with the wonders of the Wine Fair next door it was always going to be a hard sell.
Roll on 2019, in the wake of the CIVC’s decision to shelve its annual tasting, in sweeps Australian journalist/communicator/marketeer Tyson Stelzer to fill the void with his global Taste Champagne event.
Taste Champagne bills itself ‘The Biggest Champagne Showcase in the New World’ and is a travelling circus of Champagne, which has hosted trade and public tastings across Australia and is casting the net further in 2019 with events in Hong Kong and London.
The London leg is seen by many as the a direct replacement for the CIVC tasting, with many in the trade assuming it to be a CIVC event (with yet another name), but this is a separate entity and one that’s organised by a businessman with a clear agenda to tap into the exciting bubbles market and the growing consumer interest in sparkling wine.
With consumer tickets for the evening tasting priced at £85 each, there’s a lot to gain from hosting an event like this, and pitching it just right.
The consumer element shouldn’t detract from the trade tasting, however, which was well-organised and attracted a number of top name producers from across the spectrum. There were fewer individual producers on show than at the 2017 event – 45 in total – but there was enough to get your teeth into from both Grand Marque and grower-producer perspectives.
So, in the spirit of assessing this newcomer event, let’s take a look at the Taste Champagne London Report Card.
The tasting booklet
More of a brochure really, and jam-packed with information. Stelzer’s communications background becomes clear, as it’s a well-written, beautifully-designed book with 32 pages of upfront editorial, market data and maps. The infographics are the highlight and offer some fascinating market statistics, many of which flag up the UK’s dwindling love affair with Champagne; 2018 saw a 17-year low in imports, with volume down 3.6%, for example.
Christ Church in Spitalfields is the kind of grand old church that you walk past a hundred times without really wondering what might be behind the wrought iron gates. It was a joy to step inside and enjoy the stunning vaulted ceiling, stained glass and chandeliers; it was a good fit for the event even if some chuntered about is being ‘too far east’! More on this below.
High calibre attendees
Many top journalists were spotted and the exhibitors spoken to were generally positive about the ‘quality’ of trade attendee. Champagne ambassador Simon Stockton, who was behind the Piper-Heidsieck table on the day was very positive. “From an exhibitor’s viewpoint, it was a stellar event,” he said, “good numbers for trade and consumer, moreover the quality of trade guests was high.”
Few winemakers attending
There was a noticeable lack of winemakers in the room, pouring wines, telling stories. Many tables were manned by their UK importers or PR teams, who clearly knew the wines inside out, but it’s not the same as speaking to the person who made the wine or owns the house. “There didn’t seem to be that many top people from Champagne (notable exception: C Brun of C Heidsieck) but perhaps I missed them, or perhaps next time…” commented Jancis Robinson following the tasting.
East is east
Loads of people complained that the venue was in the “wrong part of town”, with one producer suggesting that there wouldn’t be so many unused badges sitting on the reception table if the tasting had been more central. It’s a view shared by Stockton: “I’d be surprised if Tyson isn’t already looking at more central venues for the next iteration. Some people can only pop in for 30 minutes so being centrally located is important.”
A minor point really, but one that clearly got up the noses of a few exhibitors. In the alter of the church, where four producers had tables there was a cheese buffet which was apparently there all day. Delicious, you might think, what better way to enjoy a Champagne tasting than with a brief worship at the high alter of cheese between slurps… but sadly for those with a table nearby the whiff of cheese over the course of six hours became quite intoxicating. “Unbrie-lievable,” commented one exhibitor, half joking.