Record year for French champagne fails to cheer grape growers

WEB_PHOTO_Krug_Champagne_260915

Krug champagne is served during the LACMA 50th Anniversary Gala sponsored by Christie's at LACMA on April 18, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.

Krug champagne is served during the LACMA 50th Anniversary Gala sponsored by Christie's at LACMA on April 18, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.

WEB_PHOTO_Krug_Champagne_260915

Krug champagne is served during the LACMA 50th Anniversary Gala sponsored by Christie's at LACMA on April 18, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.

Krug champagne is served during the LACMA 50th Anniversary Gala sponsored by Christie's at LACMA on April 18, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.

REIMS, France - At first glance, 2017 was a stellar year for French champagne, with 307 million bottles sold for a record 4.9 billion euros ($6.0 billion) -- but many of those growing the grapes see little to celebrate.

Sales in France actually fell amid rising competition from Italian prosecco and Spanish cava, meaning vineyard owners hoping to sell their own bubbly are having to rethink their strategies and their prospects.

The big champagne houses -- illustrious names like Krug, Moet & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot -- accounted for some 72 percent of total sales, which rose by 0.4 percent.

Smaller vineyards and cooperatives made up the rest, but their share has been shrinking in recent years, in large part because of a reliance on the domestic market.

"From 2007 to 2016, the vineyards have lost about 25 percent of their shipments by volume," said Aurelie Ringeval-Deluze, a wine industry expert at the University of Reims, in the heart of champagne country.

Sales within France dipped 2.5 percent last year -- but the drop was 4.9 percent for the smaller houses, or 2.5 million fewer bottles, according to the Champagne Committee trade body.

READ: Why we should be drinking more Chenin Blanc

"The problem is that the French market is tough, very competitive... but 80 percent of vineyards sell their champagne in France," said Maxime Toubart, head of the Champagne Winegrowers&39; Union.

Restrictions meant to ensure quality -- like ageing the wine at least 18 months -- mean that champagne is pricier than other domestic and foreign sparkling wines, and French consumers have been feeling the pinch more generally after a decade of dismal economic growth.