Sparkling wine embraces a wide spectrum from the ultra-luxury to the everyday, but its traditional role has remained one of social joy – celebrating togetherness and often marking a notable moment in life. It’s therefore hardly surprising that the onset of the Covid pandemic has provoked disruption in the sparkling wine category, with global volumes falling by almost -5% in 2020, according to IWSR data. The category started to see some recovery in the second half of 2020 and into 2021, as consumers recovered some of their joie-de-vivre and found they had unspent cash built up by months of lockdown. This momentous year was particularly shocking for a category which, in large part, has prospered consistently in the 21st century, particularly for regions such as Prosecco.

Amid this turmoil, some fascinating things are happening in sparkling wine consumer behaviour. In particular, new insight from Wine Intelligence sparkling wine reports shows some consistent patterns emerging across the major ‘anglosphere’ consumption markets of the US, Canada, UK and Australia. As with many Covid-era trends, there appears to be an acceleration of patterns that were already present. And as is typical with these trends, they concern two major changes: who’s drinking, and how they are drinking.

Let’s start with the question of who’s drinking, and who isn’t drinking, sparkling wine. According to the latest Wine Intelligence research, the common pattern across all four English-speaking markets in 2021 is a visible and profound change in the consumer types driving volume and value in the category. Since 2016, drinkers over the age of 55 have been exiting the sparkling wine category, or, if they remain, reducing their consumption frequency of sparkling wine. This trend has been accelerated, with certain markets, such as the UK, seeing a net reduction in the total number of sparkling wine drinkers.

The reasons for this would appear to be largely Covid related. With many older consumers reluctant to socialise, and restaurants, holidays and big celebrations off the menu, the opportunity to drink sparkling wine in those traditional settings vanished.

The growth in the sparkling category in the past few years – and which has accelerated in the past 12 months is coming primarily from the urban affluent consumer aged under 45 – principally the Millennials and LDA Gen-Z cohorts. In contrast to the traditional fizz-drinker stereotype, these recruits are more likely to be male than female.

This younger, typically city-dwelling group have re-embraced the on-trade faster than their older peers, and are more likely to have cash built up through lack of travel and social lives, plus working from home. These consumers are more likely to trade up to better quality, and to seek out new sparkling wine experiences; their desire to seek out aspirational local products also persists, which bodes well for the domestic sparkling producers in each of these geographies.

The paradox within this change in the sparkling wine drinker population is that in the adjacent still wine category, the trend is largely going in the opposite direction. In the UK, Australia and the US, the still wine drinking population is becoming more dominated by older consumers, while the younger consumers are thinner on the ground. Older consumers have doubled down on still wine, as they are also more likely to have increased their frequency of consumption of this category during Covid. The only exception to this is Canada, which remains in the grip of a separate, decade-old, trend of younger people becoming more connected with wine, especially via domestic production and concepts such as sustainable and organic.

For these newer, younger, and increasingly male sparkling wine drinkers, the relationship with the category appears to be changing.  Sparkling wine used to be for special occasions – now it can be for the end of a long day. Sparkling wine drinkers used to be their parents – now it’s more likely to be their peers. Sparkling wine used to be an occasional drink in a wide portfolio including spirits, beer and still wine; now it is a more frequent choice in some markets, and the evidence suggests that increased consumption frequency of sparkling reduces frequency and incidence of other beverage types. Finally, the nexus of sparkling wine drinkers has shifted away from the affluent boomers towards the working young LDA – populations of sparkling drinkers are tending to be more urban, more concentrated in major tech hubs. In the UK this means London, and in Canada this means Toronto; in the US, it is growing in the south-eastern US states and the mountain states, home to tech economy hotspots such as Austin, Atlanta and Denver.

As with every younger generation, and, perhaps, fulfilling the Millennial stereotype, they are bucking the ‘conservative’ view of sparkling wine held by their older counterparts. While those over the age of 55 firmly believe that there is a time and place for sparkling wine, namely during special occasions, those in the 25-39 age bracket see no problem having a glass at the end of a weekday or breaking out the bottle during a casual meal at home. This may also be due to the effects of Covid-19 lockdowns that have blurred the lines tying certain beverages to specific occasions.

Aside from the twin effects of Covid and the demographic shift, other broader trends in beverage alcohol appear to be affecting sparkling wine. There is continuing evidence of a trend towards moderation in several alcohol categories, including sparkling wine. The shorter-term trend for sparkling indicates a more complex picture: a continued polarisation between a core group of consumers, younger legal drinking age and with a male bias, who are opting for sparkling products on at least a monthly basis, and an older, more female-biased group who are cutting back to only occasional sparkling usage – or leaving the category altogether.

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