LONDON (Reuters) - Champagne is losing its fizz in Britain, by far its most important export market, with the recession, rising unemployment and a weak pound dampening demand for a drink associated with success and excess.
But among the hundreds of champagne houses, buyers and tasters sampling varieties great and good at London's Banqueting House on Tuesday, there was a sense that people's thirst for France's most famous liquid asset would return before long.
"It is tough this year, no question about it, right across the spectrum," said Charles King of Maisons, Marques & Domaines Ltd which imports the renowned Louis Roederer brand to Britain.
"The middle market is suffering, sales are down against last year but not as far as some people might have thought," he told Reuters in the historic hall decorated with nine large ceiling panels painted by Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens.
Daniel Lorson, head of communications at industry association CIVC, believed the long-term outlook was more rosy.
"Champagne is the wine of success and celebration. Of course, today there is less to celebrate, but we are ready to bounce back."
Over the day some 10,000 bottles of "bubbly" will be uncorked and 200 styles sampled. Most tasters swirl, sniff, sample and then spit their drink into a bucket.
What they have to say about the champagne is important to French growers. Britain is by far the world's biggest importer, with 36 million bottles shipped in 2008, more than twice the next largest export market, the United States.
Last year's figure represented a 7.8 percent fall on 2007, and the picture could get worse before improving.
"We are cautious because we are aware of what is happening globally, and consumers, even lovers of champagne, think twice in periods of deep depression," said Francoise Peretti, director if the Champagne Bureau representing the French industry in Britain.
According to the bureau, champagne shipments during the last British recession fell by 34 percent in 1992 alone.
Peretti told Reuters champagne growers were aware that the less dramatic decline in 2008 was partly because the recession hit Britain hard after September.
But she added that after the last two recessions, consumption started to rise again within 12-18 months.
In order to stem the decline in consumption, Louis Roederer, like other champagne makers, froze prices in 2009, and delegates at the tasting also spoke of price cuts, including in the biggest single market, France.
Globally, the champagne industry hopes that expanding demand in countries like India, Russia and China will help compensate for declines in more mature markets.
"What is important for us is that now we have more big markets on which we can rely," CIVC's Lorson said.
"In the past it was only a few countries in Western Europe and America and Japan. Now there are over 20 countries buying more than one million bottles a year."
However bad things get in Britain in 2009 and beyond, many delegates took a long-term view.
"We've been here before -- in the early 1990s there was a crisis in champagne and we recovered very strongly and I'm sure we will again," King said.
Editing by Paul Casciato