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Wine Time: Know Your Champagne from your Chamat

Riddling racks for the second fermentation of Franciacorta at the Ca' del Bosco winery in northern Italy, where sparkling wines are made using the "traditional method," also known as the "classic method." The procedure is essentially the same as the Champagne method or méthode champenoise. But EU law allows only winemakers in the region of Champagne to use the designation.
Riddling racks for the second fermentation of Franciacorta at the Ca' del Bosco winery in northern Italy, where sparkling wines are made using the "traditional method," also known as the "classic method." The procedure is essentially the same as the Champagne method or méthode champenoise. But EU law allows only winemakers in the region of Champagne to use the designation.
Photos by Jeremy Parzen.

Antonomasia is the figure of rhetoric whereby a proper name becomes a common name.

In the U.S., we say Xerox for photocopy. Kleenex for tissue paper. FedEx for courier (as in I FedExed a package). And here in Texas, we say Coke for nearly any kind of sparkling soft drink.

But when we call a Prosecco a Champagne, not only are we wrong, we are also breaking the law. Well, we would be breaking the law if we lived in Europe, where winemakers in the geographic region of Champagne are the only ones allowed to call their wine Champagne.

But there is also another fundamental and equally important difference between Prosecco and Champagne.

Champagne is produced using a process whereby still wine undergoes a second fermentation in bottle (the second fermentation, carried out in a closed environment, is what creates the effervescence).

Prosecco is produced using a process whereby still wine undergoes a second fermentation in large pressurized vats, the Charmat method, named after Frenchman Eugéne Charmat, who supposedly invented the technique in the early twentieth century.

Note the sediment that has been collected in the neck of the bottle during the second fermentation. The grey powder is formed by dead yeast cells, otherwise know as the lees.
Note the sediment that has been collected in the neck of the bottle during the second fermentation. The grey powder is formed by dead yeast cells, otherwise know as the lees.

Where the Champagne method tends to produce finer bubbles, the Charmat method will deliver bigger ones.

Does that mean that Champagne is better than Prosecco?

If you've been following along here at Wine Time, you know that I believe there is an appropriate "application" for nearly every wine (including the ones that I pour down the sink).

At our house, we reach for Prosecco when we want something light and fun, easy and approachable, crowd-pleasing and inexpensive.

Champagne is reserved for intimate gatherings and special occasions (in part because of its price).

And while versatile Prosecco can be paired with nearly everything (aside from steak or braised red meat), we match Champagne with foods that won't overwhelm its nuance or mute its elegance (one of my guilty pleasures is blood-rare shell steak and Champagne, ideally rosé).

There was a time when Prosecco was made using the traditional method. And there is a growing movement of small producers and growers who have revived lees-aged Prosecco (which is made from the Glera grape) with secondary fermentation in bottle. Unfortunately, very few make it to the U.S. and none have made it to Texas (save for the ones I've smuggled in myself).

But the two appellations, even when vinified using the same technique, taste worlds apart. Not because one is better than the other but because different grape varieties are used in each and the growing conditions are completely different (climate, soil type, exposure, etc.).

So go ahead and call a photocopy a Xerox and a Sprite a Coke. But know your Champagne from your Charmat and don't ever call Prosecco -- or any other sparkling wine for that matter -- a Champagne!



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