Ingredient Intelligence

Prosecco Isn’t “Just Cheap Champagne” — Here’s the Difference

published Nov 8, 2022
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The wide world of sparkling wine spans unassuming bubbles you might impulsively pop open to top off a cocktail at happy hour, as well as investment pieces you store in climate-controlled chambers for years. To understand the differences between Prosecco and Champagne, it’s helpful to remember that neither is a brand — instead, these are styles of wine that share their names with the regions where they’re made. 

It can be confusing, given the ways these wines are talked about and marketed. For instance, a restaurant may offer a “bottomless” Prosecco brunch without specifying which type of Prosecco will be filling those glasses. Or, if a friend says, “Let’s order Champagne, we’re celebrating!” at a festive dinner, they haven’t yet determined which bottle they want to buy. (Pro tip: Hang onto that friend.)

The easiest way to differentiate between Prosecco and Champagne is to consider their grapes, places of origin, and production methods.

What Is Prosecco?

Prosecco is an Italian sparkling wine made from the Glera grape. It’s a geographically designated product in Italy, so it will be labeled DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata). 

Some historians suspect the Glera grape originated in modern-day Slovenia, and point to a village named Prosecco located outside of Trieste, Italy, near the current Slovenian border. The earliest documentation of Prosecco is in a 1754 poem, Il Roccolo Ditirambo, by Italian poet Aureliano Acanti.  

Today, the region in northeastern Italy where Glera is grown and Prosecco is made has expanded in tandem with the wine’s skyrocketing worldwide popularity. “The official Prosecco zone now encompasses a vast expanse of land, extending across nine different provinces from the original Venetian area east to Friuli, all the better to crank out enormous quantities of bubbly on a global scale,” writes Zachary Sussman in Sparkling Wine for Modern Times.

Some 50 miles north of Venice lies Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, an area known as the Prosecco Superiore zone. Some of the most highly regarded bottles hail from this region. 

Most of the Proseccos you’ll find at your local wine shops and grocery stores will be easy-drinking with fruity aromas and flavors like apple, pear, and yellow peach. They are likely made via Charmat method, a production process also called tank method. 

How does the Charmat or tank method work? After the Glera grapes are picked and pressed, winemakers move them to a large, stainless steel tank to ferment. The liquid is still, not sparkling, at this point. Next, the winemakers add sugar and yeast to the tank, which causes the liquid to carbonate, and then filter the sparkling wine into bottles for distribution and sale. 

What Is Champagne?

Considered one of the world’s finest wines, all Champagne hails from France’s northeastern Champagne region. 

“Wine production started here in the 17th century, when a monk named Dom Pierre Pérignon planted vines,” writes Layla Schlack in Wine Enthusiast. Pérignon was reportedly inspired to create sparkling wines after seeing the success of bubbly Blanquette de Limoux wines in southern France’s Languedoc region. The first Champagne house, Ruinart, was founded in 1729, and its cellars are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was joined by Moet & Chandon in 1743 and, in 1772, Veuve Clicquot.

Then, as now, myriad regulations surround the production and packaging of Champagne. Officially, seven grapes can be used, all of which must be grown in a geographically designated region, or AOC (applelation d’origine contrôlée), in France. 

The three most common Champagne grapes, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier, comprise most commercially available bottles and 99% of the plantings in the region. The other four grapes permitted for use in Champagne are Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Petit Meslier, and Arbane. Champagnes made exclusively from Chardonnay grapes are called Blanc de Blancs, while ones made from Pinot Noir are known as Blanc de Noirs. (Although Pinot Noir is a red wine grape, Blanc de Noirs will look like a sparkling white wine in the glass.) 

Many Champagnes have minerally and citrus notes complemented by complex, nutty, and yeasty flavors and aromas often likened to brioche. The complexities of these flavors and aromas have a lot to do with how Champagne is made.

The Champagne production process is generally more time-consuming and laborious than that of Prosecco. Called the Champagne or Traditional Method, the multi-step process starts by putting picked and pressed grapes into barrels for primary fermentation. Once that’s complete, winemakers put the (then-still) wine into individual bottles with a combination of sugar and yeast called liqueur de tirage. 

Secondary fermentation occurs within those wine bottles, and the wine is kept inside alongside the now-dead yeast cells, known as lees, for at least 12 months. During this time, the wine undergoes a chemical production, autolysis, which helps it develop its signature yeasty flavors. All Champagne wines must spend at least 15 months in the bottle before they’re sold, with some Champagnes bottle-aging for up to 10 years before release.  

Whereas most Prosecco is designed to consume young, age is important to Champagne. If you’re curious how old that bottle in a shop or shelf is, check to see if its label lists the year, or vintage, when it was made, or look for the words non-vintage, often abbreviated as NV. A vintage Champagne contains fruit from one harvest, whereas NV bottles are made from a blend of multiple vintages. 

While many collectors seek out and spend top dollar for vintage Champagne, others note the fine art of blending, and say that NV Champagne is a great way to understand a particular house’s style. Taste is subjective and wine budgets vary, but when it comes to Champagne, it’s hard to go wrong. 

How to Choose Champagne or Prosecco

Because so many rules govern how grapes and wines in Champagne are grown and made, all bottles of AOC Champagne have a pretty high baseline of quality. Champagne is more expensive than Prosecco, too, because Champagne production processes are more involved (and, if we’re being honest, because the market for Champagne allows it). If you can afford it, and you want to savor a sparkling wine with complex flavors and long-lasting bubbles, then Champagne sounds like the right wine for you.

That said, Prosecco is not “cheap Champagne,” but rather a different wine entirely. Its production process is less involved, which lowers costs. There’s also considerable variety within the Prosecco category; these wines can be made in a number of ways and with grapes grown and cultivated differently. Some grapes used to make Prosecco will be painstakingly hand-harvested, while others are picked and processed in bulk. 

If you want to drink top-quality Prosecco and can afford a slightly pricier bottle, consider buying one labeled Prosecco Superiore DOCG. That geographic designation means the wine was made with certain techniques and in what many consider the best area for Glera grapes. If you plan to use your sparkling wine to make cocktails like the Aperol Spritz or Watermelon Prosecco Punch, then, by all means, use whatever Prosecco is available and appeals. 

Substitute Prosecco for Champagne in mixed drinks like the Black Velvet or Elderflower Champagne Cocktail, because adding other ingredients will mask the flavors and textures of your wine. Even if budgets are boundless, most of us would rather savor the Champagne we paid top dollar for, and find fun, festive uses for more affordable Proseccos.