Prosecco is considered many things. Cheap and cheerful, poor man’s Champagne, drowner of mid-life sorrows and girls’ night-out staple, to name but a few. But behind this slightly kitschy and often denigrated image is a drink with surprising culture and complexity, the top examples of which can compete with any of their more lauded bubbly peers as some of the finest sparkling wines in the world. Below is something of an attempt to unravel some of the Prosecco myths, untwist it from its somewhat unfortunate association with Champagne, and point you in the direction of some of the quality bottles any spumante fan should be buying.
Where is Prosecco from, and what’s the best?
Champagne is from Champagne, and Prosecco, believe it or not, is from the Veneto. Ha. The name Prosecco refers instead to the grape that the wines are made from, either called Prosecco or Glera, depending largely on inclination. Some Prosecco is also made in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, but the majority of production is concentrated in a great swathe in the hills of the provinces north west of Venice. Standard Prosecco can be made anywhere throughout this region, but the premium wines must come from a smaller, more restricted geographical area (much like the French appellation system) and is called Prosecco Superiore DOCG (DOCG stands for Denominazione di origine controllata). DOCG Prosecco comes from the fields surrounding the towns of either Valdobiaddene or Conegliano, and the vineyards are planted on such steep hillsides that nearly all the growing, maintenance and harvesting must be done by hand. This quality-oriented and selective labour, coupled with high levels of sunlight and premium soils mean that Prosecco Superiore is a step up in class from the bog-standard Prosecco tumbling across the plains below. Prosecco di Superiore di Cartizze comes from the hill of Cartizze – a vineyard of 107 hectares that is said to make the very best Prosecco of them all. A hectare of soil on this hallowed hill is said to be the most expensive of all vineyard land in Italy. Now we’re talking Champagne speak.
How does Prosecco differ from Champagne?
Aside from the grapes and the geography, the main difference between Prosecco and Champagne lies in the actual making of it. Champagne is made using the famous Champagne method (or traditional method, as it’s often called around the world), where the base wine undergoes a secondary fermentation (the one that gives it a sparkle) in an individual bottle. From the moment the wine enters that bottle, it stays in there, through tirage and riddling to disgorgement and dosage, and all kinds of microbiological rigour in-between. Prosecco however, is made using the Charmat method (or tank method) where the secondary fermentation occurs in a pressurised tank. The wine (now sparkling) is filtered and bottled after about 10-14 days, whereas Champagne is left to age on its lees (the dead yeast cells) for a minimum of 15 months, in order to develop more autolytic, toasty flavours. It’s this period of bottle ageing after the secondary fermentation that lends Champagne those classic buttery, slightly nutty, brioche notes, whereas the unaged, tank-to-bottle method used to make Prosecco preserves more of the original, fresher fruit character of the grapes themselves. Hence those green apple, melon and honeysuckle flavours that are so perfect chilled on a summers day. Due to the different techniques used in ‘sparkling’ the two wines, a bottle of Champagne will generally have more pressure upon opening than one of Prosecco (about 6 atmospheres of pressure compared to 2-3), and will generally retain its fizz in the glass for a while longer.
Why the price difference?
First and foremost, Champagne is a marketing behemoth. The prices of Champagne stay as they are largely to its nature as a perceived luxury good. Sure, the production costs of Champagne are certainly more expensive than those of Prosecco – what with the extended ageing and smaller geographical area from which to source grapes – but a big factor in Champagnes premium price tag comes from its glitzy role as master of ceremony for all occasions special. Prosecco, on the other hand, is not held in quite so high esteem, and you can therefore buy a bottle of truly cracking Prosecco for £25, and an entry level Champagne for the same price point. And this high quality to price ratio is reflected in demand – UK sales of Prosecco rose by a staggering 25% in 2016 alone, with a market value now worth £500 million annually. As the market share increases, some of the more premium examples are beginning to wend their way into UK stores, and this, combined with an ever-broadening public wine knowledge, means that it is likely that we’ll soon see a much larger selection of ‘special’ Proseccos that compete more and more obviously with top-tier Champagne.
Is Prosecco good for me?
Research about the health benefits of red wine has been around for a long time, but recently the medical stargaze has fallen onto Prosecco. Bubbles, some research has discovered, might be good for lowering your blood pressure, thanks to the nitric oxide invigorating properties of polyphenols in the wine. Further research conducted by the Journal of Sexual Medicine has suggested that the antioxidants in sparkling wine can help boost your libido – something that, conflictingly it seems, probably also heightens your blood pressure? Hmmm.
Proseccos’ place at the bottom of the sparkling wine market (okay, maybe Lambrusco) seems to have been both a boon and a curse for its fortunes. Its incessant and affordable popularity has seen a meteoric rise in sales figures and a gradual dissemination into the far-flung corners of the UK’s cheap and easy drinking culture. But, as we have seen, Prosecco need not be the bottom shelf Champagne, or the night out drink over the night-of-your-life drink. It has a character and taste profile all to itself, making it the perfect choice for a hot, sunny day, while its light, crisp and cleansing, yet slightly sweet flavours make it a surprisingly good match for the classically hard-to-pair cuisines of Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. So, next time you’re after some special bubbles, look beyond the Champagne, past the bling and stuffy labels and the obnoxious digits on the shelf tag, and peruse the Prosecco.