Pop the Prosecco! (Just don’t call it Champagne.)

vendemmia_costapiane18.jpg“Oh, it’s like Champagne!” is the inevitable, completely innocent response to almost anyone’s first sip of Prosecco, the lively, loveable libation from the Veneto, now known and enjoyed worldwide.* Unless you’re the sort of person who likes giving other people fits, however, try to avoid making this comment within earshot of someone who actually produces Champagne. Reactions can range from mildly indignant to downright apoplectic.

Pourquoi, you ask? Is it because all Champagne producers are snobs? Because they don’t like Italy? Because they don’t like you?

It’s none of the above, of course. It’s more because first, you’re talking about their life’s work; then, they realize that for whatever reason, you have not (yet) drunk enough sparkling wine to understand that although Prosecco bubbles like Champagne and is perfectly palatable and pleasing…the resemblance, mon cher, ends there.

Don’t feel bad. La Difference between Prosecco and Champagne (or the Italian metodo classico produced the same way) is obvious to no one who hasn’t either grown up with wine or made an effort to get to know it better. However, it’s fun to know, a good thing to understand, will contribute to your own enjoyment of both bubblies, and make it easier to choose which might be appropriate for a particular occasion.

I give up. Why isn’t Prosecco like Champagne?

vendemmia_costapiane11_prosecco.jpgThe obvious reason is because it’s not made in Champagne, France. Then, Prosecco wine is made from the grape Prosecco (now named Glera), and not from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, and/or any of the other varieties used in Champagne — none of which are Prosecco/glera. Most importantly, however: these sparklers are produced using two completely different methods: one short and efficient, the other long, complicated, more labor intensive, producing a more complex wine. The results are two very different sparklers, each to be enjoyed and appreciated for its own merits.

See if the following, somewhat over-simplified explanation helps clarify things a bit.

Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble.

vat1.jpg

For both types, we’ll start with a still wine that’s highly acidic, created especially to be undergo a second, induced fermentation.

In one method, a yeast/sugar concoction is added to the still wine stored in large stainless steel tanks, or vats. These tanks are sealed for the second fermentation, however, trapping the resulting carbonation in the wine. It will remain in the vats for three months or more (depending on a variety of factors), and remian under pressure continually even as it is bottled. The resulting spumante will be ready for consumption from about six to twelve months later.

ferrari_metodo_classico2.jpgIn the second method, the specially formulated mixture is again added to a still wine. It will not remain in vats, however, but will be bottled and capped (not yet corked) for the second fermentation which will take place inside each individual bottle. For the next eighteen to thirty-six months, the bottles are regularly rotated (manually or mechanically) and gradually up-ended, shuttling the spent yeast (the lees) down into the cap in the process. At the end of this refining process, the neck is flash frozen, the cap is removed, and the now-solid lees pop from the pressure. The bottle is immediately topped off, corked, and packaged for retail — although it will still be a minimum of six months before it should be drunk (it’s recovering from the shock, you see). Sparkling wines produced this way also have a much longer “shelf life.”

Which is which, then?

The first method is called Charmat, or Martinotti after the men who created/established the process; the second, champagnoise — or in Italy, metodo classico, the classic method. The choice of method depends on a multitude of factors, not the least of which is the variety itself; in any case there is no shortage of bollicine, or spumanti (the term that refers to any sparkling wine), both established and innovative, being brought to life from regional varieties throughout the country.

dreamstime_10251196_LucaFabbian.jpgThis is very good news, and offers us the opportunity to become quite adventurous in our sparkling explorations. Do your own taste tests. The next time you have a dinner party, have the local wine expert help you select both a Prosecco (Foss Marai, a Cartizze, perhaps?) or other “Charmat” along with an Italian metodo classico: a Lombardia Gatti Franciacorta, a Piedmont Gavi Soldati di Scolca, a Balter from Trentino. As you sip each, see what you find different…and the same…between them, in the visual, the nose, and in the taste. The goal is not to look for which method is “better;” but instead to identify the distinctive qualities of each — with the enjoyment of the wines, the meal, and the company taking priority always, of course!

The truth is, Prosecco will always remind us of Champagne…and it’s fine to say so. But now, the next time you head for your local enoteca to choose a sparkler, you’ll have no problem chatting up the wine expert and selecting just the right sparkler for the occasion. And remember, it’s not just for New Year’s anymore…

Salut!

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* Prosecco has also become popular enough to be ripped off, evidently: there are reports that only one in ten versions of wine sold as “Prosecco” is produced in Italy – e questo non si fa, that will simply not do. To control this menace, as of the 2009 harvest, the Prosecco produced under either of two new DOCG classifications

  • Prosecco Conegliano-Valdobbiadene
  • Prosecco Montello-Colli Asolani

or under the larger Prosecco DOC zone will guarantee you of its rightful Veneto origin. To complicate things further, the Prosecco variety will now be called Glera…but that’s a whole other post…

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photo credit, last image: Luca Fabbian.

5 thoughts on “Pop the Prosecco! (Just don’t call it Champagne.)

  1. Diana Strinati Baur

    To muck up the waters further, the Piemontese producers are producing, under the DOCG “Asti” label as well as DOC “Brut” and a variety of other names, combinations of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and other varietals, many of them using the in-bottle second fermentation method. None of these can be referred to as either Champagne or Prosecco of course, not in france and no prosecco grapes are used. The Champagne method was brought from France by Gancia, one of the largest Piemontese producers of sparkling wine.

    One of our favorite producers in this area is
    http://www.borgomaragliano.com/ At the lowest end, the bubbles are produced through the “easier method”, but it is a great product for the price. But with the other sparkling products, the champagne method is used.

    Reply
  2. nan

    One of the most confusing things about Italian wine is understanding that a wide variety of wines can be produced within a single DOC or DOCG designation.

    The DOC/G restrictions include restrictions on varieties, location, and composition, for example, but within those limits a producer may include still, red, white, sparkling, dessert, and so on…in fact, your Borgo Maragliano is a great example. : )

    Reply
  3. Andrew

    Thanks for the excellent explanation Nan. A glass of Prosecco always reminds me of Venice. We used to be able to buy it very cheaply here (UK) but alas no longer. Coming to Venice next week. Can’t wait! By the way have you checked Cat Bauer’s blog recently? Can’t make out what’s going on. Regards Andrew p.s. best of luck in the regatta next Sunday if you are taking part

    Reply
  4. Gianluca

    Dear Nan

    Complimenti on a excellent introduction to the world of Prosecco and the particulars
    of our product compared to Champagne!

    At Bisol, my family has worked with great passion for 21 generations so that, one day, Conegliano will have the same prestige as Reims, Valdobbiadene the same charm as Epernay and Altamarca Trevigiana the same notoriety as the Champagne region.

    I am impressed by your explanation of the Metodo Charmat and Metodo Classico, both of which we use in the production of our spumanti. I would welcome the opportunity to introduce you to our winery and to chat further over a glass of Cartizze, perhaps at our magnificent Relais
    Duca di Dolle, in the heart of the hills of Prosecco.

    Kind regards…

    Gianluca Bisol
    Managing Director of Bisol Desiderio & Figli,
    Viticoltori in Valdobbiadene since 1542

    Reply

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