Science

Ask Paul: What Is the Difference Between Champagne and Prosecco?

And which one comes from the Champagne region of France?
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Published Oct. 13, 2021.

Peter asked: What’s the difference between champagne and other sparkling wine?

The prototypical sparkling wine is Champagne, named for the region in northeastern France where it’s made. Although its makers fight the trend and wine pedants will set you straight if you say it, “champagne” is also a generically used colloquial term for sparkling wine from anywhere.

In order to qualify as actual Champagne, the wine has to be made in the right region, using grapes from particular parts of the region, but, most importantly, it has to get its sparkle from a particular process: the so-called “traditional method” or “méthode traditionelle, also called “méthode champenoise.

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After the wine is made (which is called the primary fermentation), it’s sealed in bottles along with yeast and a little sugar for a second fermentation. The yeast ferments the sugar, creating carbon dioxide gas and building up pressure inside the bottle. After at least 15 months (if it’s going to bear the official name Champagne), during which time the wine picks up complex savory flavors from the dead yeast, the puck of settled yeast is frozen solid and quickly removed, and the bottle resealed.

This same tasty but time-consuming method is also used to make cava, a style of sparkling wine from Spain; and crémants, which are French sparkling wines from regions other than Champagne.

Prosecco is made in Italy from a grape variety called prosecco, also known as glera. And it gets its bubbles from a different method, the Charmat process. The second fermentation takes place in big steel tanks, after which the whole tank of now-sparkling wine is clarified and put in bottles. Wines made in this way typically pick up less flavor from the yeast and the aging process, but they’re significantly cheaper to make.

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Champagne Cocktail

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Other sparkling wines, without those regional designations, can be made by the méthode traditionelle (don’t let them hear you calling it the “Champagne method”) or the Charmat process or by other processes. Often the label will indicate méthode traditionelle or “made in this bottle” if that’s the case.

Traditional-method sparkling wines usually contain about 12 grams of carbon dioxide per liter, which is a lot of pressure, and why the cork flies so far! Soda, and prosecco, commonly have half that amount. That’s for spumante, or standard prosecco; some prosecco is less fizzy—called frizzante—and may have just 2 grams of CO2 per liter. In French, those lightly effervescent wines are called pétillant, and in English they’re called “crackling wine,” which is a fun term I’ve never actually seen on a label; have you?

Ask Paul Adams, senior science research editor, about culinary ambiguities, terms of art, and useful distinctions: paul@americastestkitchen.com

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