The champagne market is a highly competitive one. There are not only a number of champagne houses in the Champagne region around Reims and Epernay offering a great choice of champagnes, but even outside of France, many sparkling wines like cava or prosecco are fighting for market shares.
“In particular, young people often choose cava or prosecco above champagne because they consider them to be more affordable. For many, champagne is still the ultimate luxury, which prevents many from taking a closer look,” stresses Eva Schubert, who has been working as Export Manager for the champagne cooperative since 2016.
Before that she worked for a family company active in champagne production for 14 years and knows the market inside out. “There may be numerous discount stores selling cheap champagne, but it has nothing in common with our quality champagnes.”
Champagne is still in a class of its own, and sales figures are going strong, in particular for premium champagnes. “We fly the flag for excellent champagne,” says Ms. Schubert. “As a regional cooperative of winemakers, we strive to offer only the best quality champagnes. Today, we have about 700 members with a cultivation area that spreads out over 900 ha, with Reims being the headquarters of our cooperative.”
The cooperative was founded in 1962 when 24 growers decided to combine their knowledge, experience and resources to create Coopérative Régionale des Vins de Champagne. In order to boost quality, the cooperative acquired the well-established champagne brand de Castelnau in 2003.
“Until 2000, we distributed the Jacquart brand, but after we had stopped, we decided to set up a new brand,” says Ms. Schubert. “The acquisition of the traditional Castelnau brand has been an excellent move to position ourselves in the premium champagne segment.”
Champagne de Castelnau was founded in 1916 and got its name in honour of General Castelnau. It belonged to a family from Epernay for many years, and in the 1930s it was a favourite of many royal families and the rich and beautiful as well as the French Army.
“The brand was small but exclusive, and under our direction it has become a real flagship brand for our champagne, even though we only started to market Champagne de Castelnau in 2010,” points out Ms. Schubert.
For some years now, Coopérative Régionale des Vins de Champagne has had a capacity of nine million bottles, selling about three million bottles under its own brand. “Of these three million, we already sell 800,000 bottles of our premium Champagne de Castelnau,” says Ms. Schubert.
The quality of champagne is due in part to how it is made. After a first fermentation and bottling, a second alcoholic fermentation is induced in the bottle, which is achieved by yeast and sugar. “We all love the fine bubbles in champagne, which is a by-product of the second fermentation,” explains Ms. Schubert. “The second fermentation process for our champagne takes six years instead of the required minimum of 15 months, which really makes us stand out in the market. This results in quality that has its price, and you have to explain to customers that the longer production process has its price. If you tell them that the champagne has been stored for eight years in order to give it optimum quality, they will understand that the price has to be higher in comparison to a cheap champagne.”
Despite being a premium producer, Coopérative Régionale des Vins de Champagne still offers champagne that is reasonably priced given its superb quality. “We carefully select our grapes, and in particular for the Castelnau, we only choose the best grapes and try to bring out the individual characteristics of each ferment,” adds Ms. Schubert.
Today, the cooperative ranks among the three leading names in the Champagne region with regard to its production volume. “With Champagne de Castelnau, we are still an up-and- coming brand, falling back on a long history. Consumers like that. It is important that we are not just any brand but that we have our own vineyards and committed staff. There are 90 people working for the cooperative, generating a turnover of 52 million EUR and counting,” says Ms. Schubert.
In the coming years, the cooperative will strengthen its marketing activities. It is already a partner of the Tour de France to boost its brand recognition, and it tries hard to find new marketing staff. “We launched a new and modern brand image for Champagne de Castelnau in April this year,” states Ms. Schubert. “Following last year’s launch of the Cuvée Hors Catégorie, we will present a new vintage Champagne by the end of 2017.”