As a wealthy, mercantile nation, England had a marked influence on the development of sparkling Champagne. On both sides of the channel, the roots of the modern Champagne industry were laid during the Industrial Revolution. Most notably, the British method of coal-fired glassmaking contributed to stronger bottles able to withstand higher pressure. By the end of the 19th century, Champagne was making its mark and embedding itself into popular culture. Since 1950, global sales have grown steadily, with 13 million bottles sold in 2019 in the UK alone. To the surprise of many, there are almost 16,000 individual growers and 320 houses in Champagne. However, those 320 houses sell almost 70% of the regions total production. Only around 2000 of these growers continue to grow and produce their own wine. A concentration of powerful conglomerates raising the price paid to growers for their crop has made bottling one’s own wine economically unfeasible and increasingly unattractive. In 2018 alone, 120 growers disappeared. Despite being the second-largest consumer of Champagne, here in the UK, we import only 130 growers with the vast majority of sales achieved by the 5 largest houses. Lack of visibility in such an important market makes the prospect of surviving as a grower all the more daunting. Sip Champagnes is the brainchild of friends Daniel Blatchford and Peter Crawford. Together, photographer and tech-wiz Blatchford, and longstanding Champagne enthusiast and collector, Crawford, aim to platform underexposed artisan producers by providing customers with a unique exploration through a subscription model and standalone bottle shop. I spoke with the pair about this exciting project.
Peter, better known to many by his pseudonym, Alavolee, has been involved in the Champagne industry in one way or another for close to 20 years. His obsession began with a 1988 Pol Roger he tasted in the backroom of Oddbins. Since then he has been travelling to the region 8-10 times per year and hosting unique events around the globe. Despite this, he remains adamant he had never expected to dip his toe into sales. In the late 2000s, after spending much of his time focussing on the larger, dominant houses, Peter begun to develop an interest in seeking out smaller, artisan producers, who for a myriad of reasons, went by the wayside. In the years since, often as a result of door-knocking in Champagnes many villages, Peter has developed working relationships with a vast number of growers, earning their respect and gaining an understanding of the challenges they face.
Although having shared in Peter’s enthusiasm for Champagne over many years of friendship, Daniel was never an enthusiast so to speak. Instead, his background is in digital technology, product development, and now photography. As an enthusiastic wine lover would, Crawford helped arrange the Champagne for Daniel’s wedding. Since doing so, Daniel has been inundated with requests from guests asking where they could find these wines in the UK. Somewhat serendipitously, the two found themselves stumbling across an opportunity to work together in building a platform to showcase underrepresented producers, to help democratise the market, and to offer a model which provided much-needed exposure and customer-friendly experience.
Preconceptions and exploration
The Champagne marketing machine is a behemoth. In a mature, established, market such as the UK, consumers have a very narrow range of choice. Partly as a result of this, many have a preconception of what Champagne is and are very rarely offered the opportunity to explore outside of this idea. Even amongst wine enthusiasts, there are many preconceptions about Champagne, sub-regions like the Vallée de la Marne are pigeonholed by variety (in this case Pinot Meunier) and we expect any variation to underperform. This is where Sip Champagnes subscription model offers a truly effective platform for both producers to reach a new market and consumers to explore undiscovered gems.
Starting at £100 (1-2 bottles per delivery) per month and topping out at £500 (6-9 bottles per delivery), each package is curated by the Sip team, often consisting of bottles unavailable elsewhere. in some cases, these are disgorged (find out more about Champagne Disgorgement)exclusively for Sip subscribers. Aiming to inspire and inform, packages are regularly themed. This month, subscribers were treated to an exploration of Chardonnay, discovering varying expressions and unsuspected profiles. Included with each subscription package (as well as tasting notes) is access to an online tasting session where users join either one of Sip’s experts or a producer whose wine is included in that month’s delivery. The subscription model offers something for everybody, from casual wine lover to enthusiast. The pair also plan to surprise subscribers with exclusive disgorgements, back vintages and special cuvées as well as access to wines launched only through the Sip platform. The relationship Sip has with its producers is key to delivering this service and part of what makes them so unique. Their service is like no other, for the intrepid explorer amongst us, there is no better alternative when it comes to discovering Champagne. Rather candidly, the two recognise that even their lowest-priced subscription model may be inhibitive for some, with this in mind they are eager to develop upon their current offering, increasing the accessibility of the plans.
As well as offering a subscription model, the Sip Champagnes bottle shop is an easy to navigate retail solution (for those less inclined to subscribe) with a range of artisan Champagnes ranging from £35-£175, which the pair intend to continuously increase. What I find most appealing about the bottle shop itself is the categorisation of the wines into easy-to-understand terminology. Ranging from ‘Crisp, Dry & Pure‘ to ‘Toasty & Nutty‘ these are terms which resonate broadly, terms casual wine drinkers frequently use in conversation with me when describing wines they enjoy. The website also works flawlessly on mobile, a refreshing escape from the many poorly thought out user experiences in online retail.
It’s not all been plain sailing and bubbles
Though both sharing a love for the Champenois, Crawford and Blatchford playfully detail the difficulties associated with attempting to organise them. Distribution has been a challenge end-to-end, having originally expected to launch within 3 months, the project took closer to 7 months to come to fruition. Part of the pair’s commitment to both quality and their producers is the recognition that product integrity is fundamental. Sip has partnered with LCB, the UK’s leading wine logistics provider to ensure proper storage, treatment and delivery. Almost all of the producers with whom the pair work fall into either the organic or biodynamic category or are L2/3 HVE approved. Furthermore, all packaging is recyclable and tasting postcards will share the same credentials.
‘Each wine is one which has captured me, one which has made me say wow‘ explains Crawford as he enthusiastically opens a bottle of Maurice Vesselle Les Hauts Chemins 2008. Maurice is a producer who Peter has followed for a number of years, one who has plenty of stock of old vintages from the 60s and 70s (which may just find their way to Sip subscribers). The wine, from a single vineyard in Bouzy, is fruity, forward and full whilst retaining superb acidity. Emblematic of what Sip sets out to do, this bottle shatters any preconceptions one may have of this humble commune in the Montagne de Reims.
First and foremost Sip Champagnes is a project born of deep respect for the growers with whom Crawford has spent over 15 years building relationships. Both the subscription model and bottle shop shine a much-deserved light on their work and help them in penetrating an existing mature market reaching new willing customers. The duo is providing those of varying budgets and inclinations with the very best the region has to offer, helping them discover styles they would have been unlikely to find themselves. The project is clearly a labour of love for those involved. Whether you’re a casual wine drinker who likes the odd bottle of fizz or a seasoned enthusiast, Sip Champagnes is the perfect place to discover fine, artisan Champagne in a format which suits you.