With   Taittinger,   one   of   the   world’s most celebrated champagne brands presiding   over   his   sparkling   wine portfolio, and with a supporting cast of a prosecco each from Piccini, which is otherwise famous for its Chianti Classico, and the Australian producer, De Bortoli, Sumit Sehgal, Director, Prestige Wines and Spirits, has his work cut out: “to focus on customers for whom quality is the priority”.

The price points are on the higher side: Taittinger Brut (Rs 6,000-7,000), Taittinger Prestige Rose (Rs 8,000-9,000)  and  the    blanc  de  blanc  Taittinger Comtes (Rs  2,000-2,500); and De Bortoli Prosecco (Rs 2,500). That doesn’t unduly worry Sehgal, for champagne continues to have its social cachet, and the other sparkling  wines,  especially  prosecco, are gaining market share because of their price advantage.

The millennials, Sehgal notes, have also    started    opening    champagnes or other sparkling wines at special occasions. What he would like to see, though, is the   time when “sparkling wines will not be associated with celebrations alone”.

“To be honest, we have a long way to  go,”  says  Sehgal,  striking  a  note of caution. “The consumers will start appreciating  good  wines  only  when they  start  consuming  them  regularly and for that a lot more awareness has to be created. The product, moreover, needs to be made more affordable. I am confident, though, that the gap will be bridged gradually but surely.”

On    where    champagne    brands stand  in  the  market,  especially  in  the light of the challenge of other sparkling wines, Sehgal points out that most of Champagne’s big names “have been India for a long time now and are still competing with each other”. The positive side of it is that “if so many brands remain active in the market, the market for champagne will eventually get bigger”. Unlike in the case of champagne, there’s a lot more variety and styles available in  the  other  sparkling  wines,  which are  getting  increasingly  more  popular in the market. There’s definitely more competition within the category and price plays a very important role.

Weighing the growing challenge to champagne from prosecco and cava, Sehgal makes it clear where his loyalty lies: “Champagne is Champagne. It comes from Champagne, it is superior and will always remain superior. Even though there are alternatives available at  lower  prices  and  other  sparkling wines may outlast champagne in terms of volumes, it will be very hard to move the crown of the most premium sparkling wine from champagne to a competing product. But of course, there are dif people and they prefer to buy prod different price points.”

On the factors propelling pur decisions, Sehgal again takes a different line. It depends on the occasion

“The  consumers   will start appreciating g wines only when  t start consuming  th regularly.  For  that, lot   more   awaren has to be created. T product,       moreo needs   to   be   m more affordable.”

and the priorities of the consumer, he says. And even though pricing is a salient factor, brand, quality and region of origin also combine to play an important role in influencing a customer’s call. Robust promotions also make a difference, for “the end consumer is still in the learning phase and makes his choices on the basis of what he sees regularly”.

Champagne,    in    particular,    does best in Sunday brunches, says Sehgal, adding: “More the brunches, better is the appreciation.” Mumbai, he says, is a little ahead of other cities in the department of consuming bubbly because of its liberal ethos and late-night party culture.

Crystal gazing about the future of sparkling wines in the country, Sehgal strikes an optimistic note. “A small percentage of the population is exposed to such products, but the potential is huge, considering  India’s  young  population.” he says. “The only way to increase volumes is to educate consumers and make them able to distinguish between different types of wines.”

To make it happen, all those in the wine  business  must  conduct  tasting and appreciation workshops for patrons of hotels and restaurants. “It is a slow process because of the size of our population,   but   producers   must   not let their faith in the Indian market flag, for there is still a large consumer base waiting to be tapped,” says Sehgal.

On the burden of the taxation system, Sehgal says “stiff government policies” are hampering the growth of imported brands. Imported brands, thanks to such policies, are accessible to a very limited population because of high prices and complicated procurement procedures that discourage  B2B customers.

“The way out is to educate the end consumer and increase the width of distribution as there is still a large population unexposed to these quality products,”  says  Sehgal.  He  admits  it is “an expensive and time-consuming process” that would “require patience” , but he is confident that “the investment would pay off in the future”.

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