The Italian sparkling wine Prosecco is becoming more and more popular here in the UK – and so it should! It’s not just the bubbles that make it fun to drink but there’s the flavour, too; clean and fresh with attractive hints of apple and pear, it’s the perfect wine to welcome your guests or to celebrate an occasion. And, perhaps best of all, you can buy a really enjoyable bottle (such as the one pictured above) for as little as £7 (Co-op supermarkets). As you can see, I’m an enthusiastic member of the Prosecco fan club. But where I disagree with many Prosecco lovers is that I don’t look on it as a cheap alternative to Champagne. Yes, they are both wine and both have bubbles in, but there the similarity ends.
They are made using different grape varieties (Glera for Prosecco, one or more of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay for Champagne) in different countries (Italy and France respectively) and with subtly different methods of production, which I won’t go into here. But there’s an even more significant reason why Prosecco will never taste like Champagne nor Champagne like Prosecco: what happens once they are bottled. While Prosecco will be shipped to the retailer almost immediately so that customers can enjoy its typically zesty, fruity flavours, Champagne will be stored in the producers’ cellars to mature for at least 15 months for non-vintage wines or 3 years for vintage. This ageing process introduces yeasty, bready notes and a certain richness of flavour to Champagne – characteristics that you would never expect from Prosecco.
So, which is best? No doubt, many would argue Champagne. But, for me, the two wines are so different, each should be enjoyed for its own special qualities.
No – I’m not referring to the price this time, but to the amount of it in many bottles of wine on the shelves today. The one in the picture has 14.5%, but wines even stronger than that are no longer a rarity (I’ve seen 15.5% and 16% recently); to put that in context, these wines have acquired roughly the same alcohol content naturally as a Fino sherry to which extra alcohol is added.
It wasn’t always like that. When I first started enjoying wine many years ago (OK, I admit it, more than 40 years ago!), 11 and 12% alcohol was normal and the occasional 13% bottle – perhaps a Châteauneuf du Pape – was considered a real monster. If you wanted more alcohol than that, you were into fortified wines, like sherry or port, or spirits. But times have changed and alcohol levels in wine have gradually crept up and up. Why is that?
There are a number of reasons: Global warming and new methods and ideas in the vineyard mean that grapes are now picked riper than previously; riper grapes contain more sugar and more sugar allows the fermentation process to create more alcohol. And in the winery, many producers now use more efficient yeasts that convert more of the sugar to alcohol. As these changes kicked in, producers found that customers liked the higher alcohol wines; they are fuller and richer in your mouth and seem to have a hint of sweetness about them. So they pushed the levels a little further – and then a little further still to the point where, now, 13 and 13.5% is typical and a wine with (only) 12% alcohol can taste quite lean.
Have things gone too far? For me, the answer is probably yes. Although high alcohol wines will sometimes work best with the food I’m eating, I also enjoy more delicate styles – wines with elegance and subtlety. Happily, some producers are taking note, picking their grapes earlier and looking for cooler sites as ways of reining back on the alcohol. But are the days of the 14.5% wine over? I don’t think so! Just look around!