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What’s the difference between Champagne and Prosecco anyway?

December 28, 2017

With glittering decorations, twinkling lights, and fireworks displays on full show for New Year’s Eve, this is sparkling wine’s time to shine.

by Erin Henderson

Spectacular names like Dom Perignon, Krug and Cristal line store shelves, their elegant bottles and shiny packaging promising a new year full of better things to come.

But partying like a rock star doesn’t come cheap. Many of these big-ticket bubbles hover – hell, they bloody well soar – well above the $200-per-bottle mark. And I don’t know about you, but that hefty price tag that can burst the bubble of a doe-eyed, NYE reveller looking to welcome 2018 in swanky style.

Wait a second – could you get away with pouring an under $20 Prosecco? Would anyone know? What the heck is the difference anyway?

Well, the short answers are: yes, maybe, a lot.

If that’s good enough for you, stop there. But if you’d like to dive a little deeper int the wonderful world of bubbles, read on my friend.

Champagne:

Few wines fascinate us as much as these famous French bubbles. Winston Churchill fought for it, Marilyn Monroe reportedly bathed in it, and hip hop stars, well, they really like it, too.

Sommeliers will love to tell you how Champagne is simply, “secondary fermentation in the bottle.” A sentence that is both accurate and infuriatingly vague for the average sparkling sippers amongst us.

The quick sip is that Champagne starts its life as a low alcohol still wine, made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier or any mix of the three grapes. That still wine is then bottled in the exact bottle you will buy at the store, a bit of sugar and yeast is added, and the bottle is then sealed with what looks like a beer bottle cap and left to ferment again. As the yeast eats the sugar, the sugar turns into more alcohol, and carbon dioxide (bubbles) are also created in the process. Since the bottle is sealed, the bubbles have no where to go, so they dissolve back into the wine, remaining still until the bottle is opened (hence that ceremonial “pop” when the cork is finally released).

After a bit of aging, it’s time to get the yeast out of the bottle (leaving it in their is a bit like leaving coffee grinds in your coffee – it won’t hurt you, but it’s not all that pleasant). Traditionally, bottles are placed in riddling racks, necks pointed down, and turned a tiny bit every day until the yeast slides to the neck of the bottle. In many cases, this is done mechanically today though some houses do still prefer hand turning on riddling racks.

Traditional riddling racks lining a winery cellar

When ready, the neck of the bottle is flash frozen in a brining solution, solidifying the yeast. The bottles are quickly uncapped, the bubbles burst to life shooting out the frozen yeast plug from the bottle like a bullet. The bottle is quickly topped up with more wine then closed with that fat cork a Champagne lover knows well, and wire cage.

It’s a long and arduous process, labour intensive, and, historically at least, a smidge dangerous (glass wasn’t all that sturdy and had a tendency to explode). But, this onerous effort does result in amazing bubbles. So much so, it’s a technique that’s been adopted the world over.

Care to see it in action? Check out this short video for a play by play.

Sparkling Wine

Here’s a riddle: all Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne.

Of course, Champagne can only be called Champagne if it comes from the northern French region bearing the name. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get a very reasonable facsimile from elsewhere in the world.

Look for “Traditional Method” or “Method Classique” on the label, which indicates the bubbles were produced in the same manner as Champagne, and usually cost a fraction of the real deal.

 

Crémant

This is the term for sparkling wines made in France but not in Champagne. Typically they are fabulous value – often $20 or less. While some note the wines are less sophisticated and age-worthy as Champagne, I say who cares? Crémants come from anywhere in France, but most popularly we see Crémants from Alsace, Loire and Burgundy.

Prosecco

The wildly popular sparkling wine out of Italy — and for good reason.  It’s economical ($20 is considered expensive), food friendly, and delicious.

It’s made in the north-eastern Italian growing region of the Veneto — with the best coming from the superior growing regions of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene. Glara is the grape of choice, though often Trebbiano is added to the blend or even Chardonnay.

Pouring finished, bubbly Prosecco straight from the tank

Prosecco is made with the cost & time efficient Charmat Method, which sees the second fermentation in large, pressurized tanks, as opposed to individual bottles, making it far faster, easier and less labour intensive than champagne.  The wine is filtered in tank and the bottles are filled under pressure with already clear, sparkling wine that’s ready to go.

Cava

The sparkling wine of Spain, made in the same way as Champagne from France.

But that’s where the similarities end.  Cava is made through out the country, but mostly in Catalonia – just south of the border of France. Indigenous varietals Parellada, Xarel-lo, and Macabeo are the traditional grapes used – though the use of Chardonnay is on the rise. Cavas are often easy drinking, citrusy, earthy wines with brilliant acidity.

Cavas can range in style and price, but even the most expensive still come in at a fraction of that of champagne.

Bubblies for all budgets

Whether you’re a pauper or a prince, there’s a sparkling wine to suit your spend.

Under $35

Hinterland Ancestral Sparkling
VQA Ontario NV
$25 LCBO 426023

This is a bit of an outlier in the world of bubblies. Made in the almost long-forgotten technique of bottling while still fermenting, this odd-ball Ontario sparkler has become a bit of a cult favourite amongst sommeliers and wine lovers in the know. Made of the red grape Gamay, this slightly off dry fizz shows wild strawberry, cranberry and pomegranate.

Louis Bouillot “Perle d’Aurore” Brut Rosé, Crémant de Bourgogne
Burgundy, France NV
$21.95 Vintages 48793
Pouring a beautiful, rich pinky-orange colour, this Pinot Noir based bubbly is full of flavours of raspberry cream, strawberry danish, orange zest and a subtle earthy note.

Gloria Ferrer Blancs de Blancs
Sonoma, California, USA NV
$34.95 Vintages 223792

Gloria Ferrer is one of my favourite California sparkling producers. Blancs de Blancs means this is made with only Chardonnay grapes. Fresh and crisp, look for notes of marzipan, lemon and green apple.

Over $40

Ca’ del Bosco “Cuvée Prestige” Brut Franciacorta
Lombardy, Italy NV
$41.95 Vintages 105353

Franciacorta is one of Italy’s best kept fine sparkling wine secrets. Made in the traditional method, the Franciacorta wine growing region was recognized in the mid 90’s and while it’s still not a common fizz here, those in the know are ardent fans. This sparkler is mostly Chardonnay with splashes of Pinot Bianco and Pinot Nero, and shows earthy herbal notes alongside tart apple and lemon balm flavours.

Pol Roger Brut
Champagne, France NV
$67.45 LCBO 217158

A perfect fizz for everyday sipping (if drinking $68 bottles daily is your jam). Lemon curd, shortbread, yellow apple and chalky mineral all play out on this consistently delicious and sophisiticated bubbly.

Laurent-Perrier “Cuvée Rosé” Brut
Champagne, France NV
$99.95 Vintages 396895

This is a personal favourite always offering loads of depth and richness. Made entirely from Pinot Noir, there’s a gorgeous creaminess to the wine, and packed with ripe red fruit flavours like maraschino cherry and raspberry as well as fresh pastry and mineral. A real treat.

*This article has been edited and updated from its original posting on thewinesisters.com