Gastro pubs that have limited wine menus often have one or two sparkling wines that you can order by the glass. If there's only one choice, it's usually prosecco. If there are two choices, the second is usually a brut made in the same method as Champagne, but once in a while you'll see a true Champagne. Although they both have bubbles, there are differences between the two sparklers.
Champagne comes from the Champagne region of France. There are many excellent wines made using the same method, but if those wines don't come from Champagne, they are called something else. Prosecco comes from the Prosecco DOC in northeast Italy. A DOC is a guaranteed, controlled designation of origin. Just like Champagne can only come from Champagne, prosecco can only come from Prosecco. Other sparkling wines may be made using the same method as prosecco, but if they don't come from the Prosecco DOC, they should be called something else.
Unlike Champagne, however, prosecco is not the name of a place. It's the name of only the region that Italy says can produce this type of sparkling wine and use the name prosecco. Prosecco used to be the name of the grape that the popular bubbly in the region was made from, but in 2009. when Italy chose to make a designated region for the style of wine, it renamed the grape to glera. Prosecco became the name of the region. In less than a decade, the sparkling wines from this Italian region have become very popular in the United States.
Is the only difference between these two sparkling wines the countries where they originated? No. There are two basic differences between these two popular sparkling wines, the grapes they are made from and the way the bubbles are created.
Champagne: Methode Champenoise, chardonnay and pinot noir
Tradition says that the method of producing Champagne was discovered when a French Benedictine Monk named Dom Pérignon found that the yeast left in a bottle of wine had turned the wine bubbly. Upon drinking it, he called out, "Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!" That didn't really happen, but it's true that yeast left in a bottle will result in bubbles.
In the Methode Champenoise, as the French call it, sparkling wine is made by doing a second fermentation in the bottle. After the first fermentation in which yeast and sugar are added, the wine is bottled with the yeast still in it. It continues to ferment and as it does, carbon dioxide is released from the sugar as the yeast eats away at it. The carbon dioxide creates the lovely bubbles that tickle our nose when we drink a glass of just-poured Champagne.
The yeast must stay in the bottle for at least one year for Champagnes that are non-vintage and at least three years for Champagnes that are vintage. Often, Champagnes age for longer than the minimum requirement.
Of course, the yeast must be removed from the bottle in order for the wine to be clear when poured, so near the end of the second fermentation, the bottles are tilted with their necks downward (a process known as riddling) so the yeast settles in the neck. When it's time to remove the yeast, the top part of the neck is frozen, trapping the yeast in the frozen wine. When the temporary cap on the bottle is removed, the carbon dioxide that has built up in the bottle pushes the frozen wine and the trapped yeast out of the bottle. Any additional sugar is added at that time, and then the cork and cage are put on top.
The grapes that go into Champagne are primarily chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, but four other grape varieties are also allowed: arbane, petit meslier, pinot blanc and pinot gris.
There are many other sparkling wines throughout the world that are created in this method. Elsewhere the method is known as the Method Traditionelle. However, to be called Champagne or to use the term Methode Champenoise, the sparkling wine must be from the Champagne region.
Prosecco: Charmat Method and glera
Prosecco gets its bubbles while it's going through a second fermentation in stainless steel tanks like these. (Photo: Christ-ophile/Flickr)
About 1,200 km from Champagne, winemakers in the Veneto region of Italy create prosecco using a method that originated there: the charmat method, or tank method. Instead of bottling the wine with the yeast and sugar in it, the second fermentation happens in stainless steel tanks. Right before bottling, the final addition of sugar is added. It's a quicker method and it's less expensive.
Unlike Champagne, prosecco is intended to be drunk when it's young and fresh, usually within a year of its vintage.
The primary grape in prosecco is the glera grape, and many proseccos contain only that grape. Up to 15 percent of the grapes may from the following varieties: verdiso, bianchetta trevigiana, perera, glera lunga, chardonnay, pinot bianco, pinot grigio and pinot nero (the Italian name for pinot noir).
And now that class is over, let's try some
I was sent samples of three bottles of prosecco from Zonin1821's Dress Code Collection. Zonin's traditional prosecco is 100 percent glera, but in this special collection, each bottle has an additional grape added, and each bottle is a different color. The white bottle has some pinot bianco added; pinot grigio is added to the grey bottle; and pinot noir is added to the black bottle.
The bottles are fun and fashionable, but I was more interested in what was inside. As the colors on the bottles get darker, the wines become more complex. The sparkling wine in the white bottle is light, fresh and crisp. The fruitiness of the gray bottle is more pronounced, a little heavier. And, the black bottle had the fullest body with heavy green apple and lemon. It also had the most acidity.
The three bottles side by side provided me with the opportunity to compare and contrast what can be done with prosecco when the winery decides to have a little fun. Perhaps that's another difference between Champagne and prosecco: Champagne already has its reputation. It's a classic, elegant wine that's steeped in tradition. Consumers' expectations are already set when it comes to Champagne. Prosecco is still earning its reputation, and producers can go in unexpected directions with it. Many consumers are fine with the unexpected — as long as it's still good.
Zonin1821 practices ecologically sustainable viticulture and abides by three factors: Every action put into effect must be safe for the environment, socially equitable and feasible from a financial point of view. Since 2008, the company has adopted a rigorous sustainable program that includes innovative irrigation systems, green manure, precision farming and solar energy.