Ideally, no, we don’t confuse Champagne and Prosecco. At least not before we’ve consumed the better part of a bottle of either. And, practically speaking, nobody’s really going to be disappointed in your choice, just as long as you show up with a bottle that contains both alcohol and effervescence (not referring to those hard sodas).
That said, it can’t hurt to get slightly more informed as to the differences between the two, since there are pretty major differences in production method, flavor profile, and price. Here’s a basic, but not exhaustive, primer on the major differences between two of our favorite ways to (possibly?) get drunk faster.
The Grapes. Champagne is made with a select number of grapes, specifically Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (both black-skinned grapes) and Chardonnay. The grapes are planted in about a 30/30/30 split, and that’s actually how the majority of Champagne itself is blended—two-thirds black grapes, one-third Chardonnay. If you’ve ever had a “blanc de blancs” or “blanc de noirs,” you’re having the smaller subsection of grapes made from just Chardonnay or a black skinned grape. Plus, you get to use a cool Champagne term.
Prosecco is characterized by one grape, and you probably haven’t heard of it before (unless, that is, you’re keeping up with our journey to fill in the gaps in our Prosecco knowledge). Not that one grape dominates. Like Champagne, Prosecco can y be made with a variety of grapes, including Perera, Bianchetta, Verdiso, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir. But the main Prosecco grape is called Glera, a highly aromatic variety that dates back to Roman times.
Winemaking. You’ve heard someone refer to the “methode Champenoise,” quite possibly while holding a monocle to his or her face. And that’s the way Champagne is made, specifically involving barrel fermentation and then a secondary fermentation in the bottle, fueled by the addition of sugar (called “dosage”) and characterized by extended contact with the lees (yeast cells).
Prosecco is almost exclusively made in the “charmat” method, wherein the second fermentation is basically done in a giant steel tank. That doesn’t mean no contact with the lees whatsoever; it’s up to the winemaker to introduce yeast back into the Prosecco, which would, of course, affect the flavor. The good news about the charmat method? Well, for one, the steel tanks preserve some of the fresh, peachy aromatics of the Glera grape. And they also make for a more efficient winemaking process, meaning lower cost per bottle.
Blends and Branding. Despite the recent uptick in “grower Champagne,” most of the Champagne we drink isn’t the product of one vineyard or even just a few vineyards; Champagne is the result of careful selection and blending from any of the thousands (about 19,000) vineyards in the region. Champagne “houses” do the selecting, purchasing, and blending—and that’s a pivotal element in determining the final flavor and character associated with any Champagne brand.
Bubbles. Champagne is bubbly through and through. That’s what characterizes the stuff—remember when Dom Perignon supposedly said he was tasting stars? And that was presumably after only a sip, because we’ve probably said the same thing after a full bottle. But if Champagne can always be referred to as “bubbly,” Prosecco actually can’t. Yes, the majority of Prosecco—and basically anything you’ll see on your wine store shelves—is bubbly, “spumante” or “frizzante.” But until the 19th century, all Prosecco was “tranquillo,” or bubble-free.
Sweetness. Prosecco can have varying degrees of sweetness, but the gradient here goes from Brut to Extra Dry and Dry (which is, paradoxically, the sweetest). Champagne also has varying sweetness levels, but the range is Brut, Extra Sec, Sec, Demi-Sec, and Doux (which, thankfully, means “sweet” in French, so at least you know what you’re in for).
Flavor. Ah, the most important question. What does Champagne taste like compared with Prosecco? Or vice versa? Well, this is kind of an impossible question. There are variations in flavor within both categories, so it’s kind of hard to compare them as a whole. A few things we can count on: Champagne will tend to have more yeast-derived character, flavors like toast and nuts and even hay. Since Prosecco is typically limited in lees exposure and steel-fermented, there’s more emphasis on fruit and aromatics.
Cost. OK, the second most important question. If price isn’t an issue, you can probably skip this section. But for the rest of us, good to know that an entry-level Champagne will cost about three times as much as a decent entry-level Prosecco— bearing in mind, a lot of what’s built into that cost is the complexity of the methode Champenoise and, quite possibly, a bit of hype.
Cocktails. There are plenty of cocktails that incorporate bubbly of all kinds, and boy, are we happy about that. But Champagne and Prosecco do have some often-confused signature cocktails. At least two delicious drinks to get down: The Bellini, which is peach juice and Prosecco, and The French 75, which is gin, Champagne, lemon juice, and sugar. Know them, love them, order them greedily.