Although they are far from the only two sparkling wines in the world, Champagne and Prosecco are perhaps two of the most famous. They share bubbles and an association with the celebratory and festivities, but these two drinks are vastly different. Made using entirely different techniques, in different countries and from unrelated grape varieties, they are as individual as our fingerprints.
In taste, Prosecco and Champagne have almost nothing in common, apart from the all-important fizz. Even that is seen to be very different. The fizzy bubbles of Prosecco sit at the surface whereas the effervescent mousse of Champagne gives better suggestions of the creamier, "all-round" feel to the sparkle. Key to this critical difference is the winemaking itself and you and you can read more about that in the paragraphs ahead.
Prosecco is made from the Glera grape. Naturally fruity in flavour, the wines tend to have pear, apple and floral notes. In the broadest terms, Prosecco wines are less dry than Champagne and are not so yeasty in flavour. Champagne, by contrast, tends to have citrus aromas, Granny Smith apple, praline and toasty notes.
Price is also a key difference between the two. At the heart of this is the cost of winemaking. Champagne is simply much pricier to make – from the land itself to the yields in the vineyard and the vinification technique, it’s a more costly affair.
What is Champagne?
For a wine to be called Champagne it has to meet several strict criteria. The most obvious is that it is made from grapes that have been grown, harvested and made into wine within the appellation of Champagne.
Some other "musts" for Champagne: Champagne can be made only from one or a blend of the following varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Pinot meunier as well as Pinot blanc, Pinot gris, Petit meslier and Arbane. The authorities control how the vines are pruned, places limits of yields and also the permitted levels of juice extraction. The wines must be aged for a minimum of 15 months before being released onto the market.
Most importantly of all, the wines must be made with the méthode Champenoise.
Where does Champagne come from?
Champagne is made in the appellation of the same name, that lies north-east of Paris (just 90 minutes on the train from the French capital).
AOC Champagne is made up of 319 villages (or Cru) across five departments: Marne, Aube, Aisne, Haute-Marne and Seine-et-Marne. The Marne and Aube are by far the most important with almost 90% of the vineyards planted in these two areas. Champagne has roughly 34,300 hectares of vineyard in total.
What makes the appellation so special is its soils. The subsoil is predominantly limestone which provides excellent drainage as well as imparting a unique mineral quality to the wines made here. The chalk in Champagne is made up of calcite granules from fragile shells of marine micro-organisms. Of course, each site is unique with subtle differences in exposure, altitude, temperature and soil composition all contributing to the characteristics of each Cru.
Where did Prosecco originate?
Prosecco is made – and has been since the 18th century – in the area of north-east Italy called Conegliano Valdobbiadene, between Venice and the Dolomites.
The area is vast and, as you might expect, soil types and climate vary quite dramatically. Importantly the overall climate is mild, thanks to the region’s position between the sea and the mountains. The hills stretch from east to west, the vineyards planted south-facing for the best exposure to the sun. The vines are planted anywhere between 100 and 500 meters above sea level. Soils range from rock and sand to marl and sandstone.
What is the difference between Champagne and Prosecco?
The differences between Champagne and Prosecco come in the method in how they are made. This is the Charmat-Martinotti method, versus the Méthode Champenoise.
Méthode Champenoise and the Charmat Method create very different levels of pressure in the wine. The livelier and finer the bubbles, the higher the pressure. Champagne typically has between 5 or 6 bars of pressure. Prosecco Spumante is generally half that and Frizzante – the lightest prosecco style – has somewhere between 1 and 2.5 bars of atmospheric pressure.
Charmat- Martinotti method
We will begin with Charmat-Martinotti. It’s known by serval names: the Martinotti method, the Italian method, the Charmat method, but they are all the same and reflect the fact that the idea was a team effort! Federico Martinotti developed and patented the methodology in 1895 and fifteen years later, Frenchman Eugène Charmat constructed (and patented!) the autoclaves that are used to this day. [Autoclaves are sealable pressure vessels, typically stainless steel tanks].
How does the Charmat – Martinotti method work?
Once the base (or still wine) has been made it is placed in a large, pressurised container (autoclave) for the second fermentation. Sugar and yeast are added to kick-start the process and to generate the bubbles in the wine. Once this has happened the sparkling wine is bottled and sealed under pressure.
By contrast, Méthode Champenoise means that the second fermentation, where still wine is transformed into sparkling wine, takes place in a bottle. Once the wine is in the bottle, the winemaker adds his liqueur de tirage. This is still Champagne combined with cane or beet sugar. The bottles are turned regularly in a process known as "riddling" to encourage the heavy sediment into the neck of the bottle from where it can be removed before being finally sealed. One of the rules of Champagne is that the final wine must be sold in the bottle in which it underwent its second fermentation.
Image credits: Bastian Riccardi.