Shades of grey in a parallel universe

To buy or not to buy parallel imported champagne?

It’s hard to go past the tantalising discounts offered on familiar champagne brands in recent years. A strong dollar and record Australian consumption coinciding with global decline have smoothed the waters for more champagne than ever to arrive on our shores – and not all via traditional channels.

‘Parallel’ or ‘grey’ imports are brought in by parties other than the usual agent, typically via a third party country. There’s nothing new about this practice, but what has changed recently is the rate at which parallels are flooding in.

Traditional importers are naturally up in arms about such exploitation of brands they’ve spent years or decades building in Australia. But for the champagne lover, increased availability and more competitive pricing of our favourite champagne brands can only be a good thing.

Or can it? Champagne is one of the most fragile of all wine styles, quickly deteriorating under adverse storage or transportation conditions, even losing freshness simply sitting around on shelves. Adding another port to an already long journey from the far side of the planet – not to mention an indeterminate period in a foreign warehouse under uncertain conditions – can only exacerbate this situation.

Or so traditional importers would have us believe. What’s the truth? I recently set out to find out for myself, purchasing each of the seven champagnes that wine retailer Kemenys was parallel importing, and selling at incredible discounts, from Lanson Black Label Brut NV at $33 (instead of $50) and Bollinger La Grande Année for $128 (more than $100 less than usual).

I lined these up alongside the same wines from their longstanding importers and served each of the seven pairs blind to six experienced palates (two MWs, two retailers, a wine writer and myself). For each pair, we voted on our preferred wine and at the end of the tasting the consensus fell four votes to two in favour of the parallel imported bottles (the seventh was a tied vote), though in most cases we were splitting hairs. It was concluded, for these champagnes, that any variation resulting from different importers was effectively indiscernible and that discrepancies resulting from cork variation and differing times since disgorgement were far more significant.

In tracing the history of the seven parallel imported bottles, all had come via the UK or the Netherlands and three were fresher (more recently disgorged) than the traditional imports, two less fresh and two effectively the same.

It’s impossible to make generalisations for imports at large based on just seven bottles from a single source, but this exercise certainly served to demonstrate that nothing is black and white in the world of grey imports. Some parallel importers (including Kemenys) are rigorous in shipping and storing only under climate controlled conditions, and in conducting comparative tastings to ensure their champagnes are as fresh as those from other sources. But not all parallel importers show the same discretion – and neither, for that matter, do all traditional importers.

It’s rarely possible to identify a parallel imported champagne simply by looking at the bottle. The best thing you can do is to develop a good relationship with a trusted retailer prepared to stand by the provenance of every bottle they sell, and guarantee to replace any that’s not up to scratch. Bottle variation is rampant in champagne, from cork, storage, transportation or importer, so be sure to return any bottle that’s not on form.

Tyson Stelzer