December 31, 2009 2:00 am

French drinkers toast cheap champagne

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New Year revellers in France have an extra reason to raise their glasses at midnight: champagne at less than €10 a bottle, as producers cut prices in response to the economic downturn.

Laurent-Perrier, the French company that sells cases of its Grand Siecle champagne for hundreds of euros, is currently promoting its €10 ($14, £9) Jeanmaire brand, while Boizel Chanoine Champagne, which sells the €110 Lanson Noble Curvee 1996, is selling champagne for less than €13. Carrefour, a leading supermarket chain, is selling Hubert de Claminger for €8.90 and Champagne Paul Breteuil at just over €10.

The move is a change in strategy for producers that have generally increased prices in recent years. The value of champagne sold almost doubled in the two decades to 2007.

Faced with increasing competition from sparkling wines over the past 10 years, champagne makers have focused on cultivating the brand.

However, French champagne industry insiders estimate that sales have fallen 30 per cent in the past year.

Laurent-Perrier said the Jeanmaire brand was a response to the downturn. "Lower-cost champagnes did exist, but this year the bottom price is lower than before," the company said. "Over 60 per cent of our portfolio comes under the Laurent-Perrier name. Jeanmaire is a much smaller part of our portfolio, but we now have the opportunity to adapt our strategy."

Those who have refused to discount have seen their sales drop. Rémy Cointreau, the French alcohol manufacturer that has pushed up prices, reported that sales of its Piper-Heidsieck and Charles Heidsieck champagnes were down more than 40 per cent in the year to September 2009.

However, some people warn that cheaper products will have a negative impact on all champagnes.

Carole Duval-Leroy, president of Champagne Duval-Leroy, said this month that selling young vintages cheaply would "damage" the brand. "It may pull down the image of the whole product," added Michel Brismontier, a spokesman for Champagne Duval-Leroy, a family-owned company.

Nevertheless it would appear that some French consumers are prepared to pay more for a premium brand.

"My family travels from Paris to the Champagne region to buy the best champagne every year," one woman shopping in French supermarket Monoprix said yesterday.

"When I do drink it, I want to drink good champagne," added another shopper. "It tastes better - and it's good for you."

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