Here we delve into the differences between these well-known styles of sparkling wine
Wine with bubbles — champagne, prosecco, cava, crémant— signifies something universal: a pure and effortless enjoyment. Whether being poured for brunch, dinner, or aperitif, shared with great company or in solitude, toasted in celebration or casually sipped at the close of the day, sparkling wine seems to endlessly fit the occasion.
So how then, you might wonder, for something so unanimously appreciated and consumed can there be such differences in availability, quality, flavor, and cost? Let’s explore champagne and prosecco, the two most popular styles of sparkling wine, to get a better understanding of what makes them unique and distinct from one another.
History, Geography & Status
Prosecco, the namesake of a village on the outskirts of Trieste, is made primarily of the grape glera which is believed to be of Slovenia origin and, until recently, was referred to as the prosecco grape. Regulation allows for blending of up to 15% other varieties, either international or local.
The first historical mention of the wine by this name, spelled “prosecho,” was in 1593, but is evidence of references to it in times of antiquity under different names. All of these wines, in fact, were still. It wasn’t until the 19th century that prosecco got its bubbles.
Produced over nine delimited areas, the Prosecco DOC spans eastern Veneto and the entire region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Two areas hold elevated DOCG status: Conegliano-Valdobbiadene and Asolo. Prosecco from these and their sub-zones are denoted “Prosecco Superiore.”
Typical DOC vineyards are low-lying and flat, in alluvial/marine sediment soils, and experience hot and humid growing seasons yielding grapes of high ripeness and lower-acidity. On the contrary, the vineyards of Conegliano-Valdobbiadene and Asolo DOCGs are steeply hilled lending to cooler temperatures and the demand for manual labor in the vineyards. In these higher elevation vineyards glera is able to retain acidity levels that give decided structure to the final wine, something not usually experienced (or intended) in their DOC counterparts.
In contrast to the warm conditions of Veneto and Friuli, the Champagne region of France — Champagne AOC —is situated at the northern latitudinal limit of grape-growing. It is a cool-climate region with five sub-regions: Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne, Côte des Blancs, Côte de Sézanne, and Côte de Bar.
At its emergence in the 16th and 17th centuries, sparkling wines of champagne were accidents — the result of wine being bottled too soon before wintertime, and re-fermenting in the spring (ancestral method). The modern method for making champagne did not become the dominant process until much later, though it was first observed and recorded by Christopher Merret, an English scientist, in 1662 (please, francophiles, spare me of blasphemy here). So while Dom Perignon, widely revered as the forebearer of champagne, did make important advancements in viticulture and the management of the bedeviled sparkling wines of the region, he was not the discoverer or even working with the same process of carbonation.
Champagne terroir can be broadly and resoundingly defined by chalk, chalk, and more chalk! Soils of this composition play a huge role in mediating the ground temperatures during the year so that vines can survive through what are often harsh winters. They also provide the literal backbone for the lengths upon lengths of Roman-carved tunnels that now serve as the infamous cellars of the champenois— the nurseries in which our beloved beverage is raised.
There are three permitted varieties of champagne grapes: pinot noir, chardonnay, and pinot meunier. Depending on the area, the cuvée may be dominated by one or a combination. Generally speaking, it’s safe to associate the Côte des Blanc with chardonnay, Montagne de Reims with pinot noir, and Vallée de la Marne with blends. The Côte de Sézanne and Côte de Bar account for very small production; their champagnes may be of any of the varieties and are still somewhat niche and sometimes have a cult following.
Fizz is fizz is fizz, right? Nope.
Undeniably, factors in grape characteristics and terroir build the case for differences between any two wines, but for prosecco and champagne the production methods and élevage (the “raising”or aging) are really what drives it home.
Champagne is carbonated via an involved process called the Traditional Method; it may also be referred to as the Classic Method or Méthode Champenoise (in Champagne). The technique is time consuming, requires care, and often involves precise hand-work. This in conjunction with additional aging has a lot to do with the cost differential between champagnes and other sparkling wines. Let’s unpack it…
The first step is making a base wine that is low in alcohol and very high in acidity. It should be neutral in flavor so that it will integrate, not compete, in the final product.
Completed, the base wine is then bottled with a small addition of a wine and sugar solution (liqueur di tirage) and sealed. This sugar water slurry catalyzes yeast activity and a secondary fermentation begins. As carbon dioxide is produced, the pressure in the bottle rises and the gas is absorbed into the wine. Alcohol levels will increase 1-2% and the final bottle pressure will be 5-6 atmospheres.
At this point, the lees — dead yeast cells and other precipitates — settle in the bottle and the wine rests. The minimum amount of time champagne must stay in contact with the lees is twelve months, but it’s not uncommon for producers to exceed this. When the winemaker deems it time, the bottles are, little-by-little, turned and inverted to collect the lees in the neck of the bottle (riddling). This is to prepare for disgorgement, a careful and precise ejecting of the lees through a series of steps many producers still complete by hand. Lees removed, the now clear champagne may receive a final dosage (sugar addition) to balance out the acidity before being sealed and released, or further aged in the cellar. The six dosage levels range from nothing added to incredibly sweet. The level will be indicated on the label and the most commonly encountered are the three driest styles: brut nature (no dosage), extra brut (0-6g/l), brut (6-12g/l)
Prosecco, on the other hand, is carbonated through a more efficient process called the tank method (sometimes also: charmat, cuve close, or bulk method). In this case, the base wine is made and re-fermented (also with the addition of sugar) in the same tank. Carbonation is achieved by keeping the tank under pressure during the secondary fermentation. Next the wine is transferred and filtered through to another tank in which it may then, as with Champagne, receive a dosage (the three levels are brut, extra dry, and dry which is the sweetest) and be bottled for relatively quick release. There are two levels of carbonation in the world of prosecco: spumante at 3-4 atms, frizzante, slightly lower at 1-2atms.
How it translate to the glass, and what to buy
In the champagne vs prosecco showdown it may seem that because prosecco takes less time to produce and is made en masse that it is inferior to champagne, but when we understand the intentions behind the process we understand this is simply not the case. Glera is an aromatic grape, meaning it really shines when its youthful, primary fruit notes are retained. The traditional method and lees contact would overtake glera’s perfumey and tropical expression, but the tank method embraces and preserves it. For this reason, prosecco is easy-going, uncomplicated, and utterly quaffable. When to drink it? Literally always, and it won’t break the bank. For fine bottles of prosecco, dive into DOCG zones or look for vintage releases.
For Champagne, let’s back it up for a moment, re: the lees. The longer a bottle rests sur lie before disgorgement, the more it will develop the autolytic character that makes champagne so distinct; this means richness, toastiness, notes or brioche, nuts, or dough, and a depth to the wine that is palpable. If this kind of profile sounds good to you, then look for champagnes with extended lees aging OR recent disgorgement dates, and explore the Côte des Blancs region whose champagnes tend to flaunt these characteristics.
Those wanting a bottle with more lifted fruit character, floral tones, and great minerality should consider pinot noir based champagnes (blancs de noir, meaning “white from red”) from Montagne de Reims. For a walk on the wilder side of champagne, look for blends that include a higher portion of pinot meunier — the region’s black sheep variety that is starting to make a comeback, particularly in the Valle de la Marne. And unsure about dosage level? Start with brut, well balanced and versatile, and work your way up or down the scale according to preferences.