“Come quickly, I’m drinking the stars!” – It is what supposedly said Dom Perignon, a French Benedictine monk, when tasting the first sparkling champagne. While the monk made important contributions to the production and quality of still wines of Champagne, he didn’t invent sparkling wine, nor was he the first to make champagne. Wine historians believe that the first sparkling wine was invented by Benedictine Monks in the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire, near Carcassonne (South of France) in 1531, almost a hundred years before Dom Perignon was even born.
Over a century later, the English Scientist Christopher Merret intentionally produced first sparkling wine and documented the addition of sugar to a finished wine to create a second fermentation, a signature step in sparkling wine production made by so called champagne method (see below).
Fermentation is a fundamental process of any wine production. Grape is full of natural sugar and its skin is covered with wild yeast. Once the skin of the grape is broken, yeast eats the sugar and transforms it into ethanol (alcohol) and carbon dioxide (bubbles).
When making Champagne, the secondary fermentation takes place in a bottle. In this step a special mixture of additional sugar and yeast is added to the base wine. As the yeast eats the sugar, it releases carbon dioxide. This time extra carbon dioxide is trapped inside the vessel, it pressurizes the bottle and carbonates the wine. After fermentation is over the wine stays in contact with flecks of dead yeast cells (aka ‘lees’) left in the bottle for several more months and sometimes years. Ageing ‘on the lees’ adds more textural complexity to the wine and extracts flavors of toast, cheese, butter-milk like or nutty aromas.
To remove cloudy lees from the bottle, it is gradually tilted from horizontal to vertical and rotated every day until the sediment works its way to the bottle neck. The resulting crud gets frozen in the neck of upturned bottle and expelled under pressure. One last mixture of wine and sugar is added to refill the bottle and add additional sweetness if needed (yes, this is the time when the sparkling becomes brut, extra brut, sec, demi-sec, doux or remains brute nature).
This method is known as champagne method or traditional method (aka metodo classico, methode traditionnelle). It is time-consuming and quite expensive way of making sparkling wine, considering the time a bottle of Champagne spends in a cellar before it is released to the market. So, next time you ask yourself why a bottle of Champagne costs you over $40, come back here and read it over.
The primary grapes used in production of Champagne are Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier (black) and Chardonnay (white). Most of the wine is white, but can be made from grapes of both colors pressed so gently it remains white. The rosé Champagne is made by adding still red wine to the assemblage.
In contrast, Prosecco, is made using more efficient and slightly more affordable method, called tank method (aka Methode Charmat), when secondary fermentation is performed in closed giant steel tanks rather than in bottles. The wine is filtered and bottled under pressure.
Prosecco is Italy’s most widely known sparkling. It comes from 2 regions, Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia, and is made mostly from a varietal of grape called Glera. The best Prosecco comes from the Treviso province of Veneto, from the hills between the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene as well as the commune Asolo. (Look for DOCG Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene or DOCG Prosecco Superiore di Cartizze ).
Is it all Champagne? Sparkling wine produced from grapes grown in the Champagne region of France may call itself Champagne; the rest is sparkling wine. So you see, all Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne. They are from different places, they are made from different grapes and they are made in different ways.
So, what’s better, Champagne or Prosecco? I’d say both are great and offer unique flavors, aromas, and tasting experience. Prosecco is an affordable sparkling wine that is a great every day choice. It’s also great for cocktails like mimosas, Bellini or Kir Royal. Champagne’s higher price point makes it more of a special occasion wine whose complexity and unique aromas are best enjoyed on it’s own or paired with fine foods.
Want to know more about other methods to make sparkling wine? Check out this article from Wine Folly “Where Do Champagne Bubbles come from?”.