What's the difference between Champagne and Prosecco?

It seems like just a few years ago that you would offer someone a glass of Prosecco and they would invariably light up and say, "oh, great, Champagne!"

Today, the exact opposite is true. Prosecco is so ubiquitous at social events that most people will just assume that the sparkling wine in their glass is Prosecco.

There are so many fine sparkling wines available to us today in the U.S.: Crémant from the Loire Valley, Crémant from Burgundy, Franciacorta and Trento from northern Italy, Cava from Spain, Sekt from German-speaking countries, and many, many others.

But because of their popularity, Champagne and Prosecco seem to be the two categories that appear most often — whether erroneously or correctly.

So what's the difference between Champagne and Prosecco, anyway?

Above: Champagne, like this Bollinger Rosé, can also be made as a rosé wine. Prosecco can only be made as a white wine.

All sparkling wine is made by fermenting a wine twice, with the "second fermentation" occurring in a pressurized environment.

In the case of Champagne, the second fermentation occurs in a bottle. The wine is then aged on its "lees" (the dead yeast cells) until the winemaker determines that the sparkling wine is ready to be bottled. At that point, the winemaker disgorges the sediment from the bottle and re-seals the wine.

In Champagne, this is called the méthode champenoise or Champagne method. Only wines made using fruit grown in the geographic region of Champagne and using this method can be labeled as "Champagne" (sadly, some American producers of sparkling wine, because they are not restricted by European Union regulations, label their wines as Champagne even though they are poor imitations of the real stuff).

Wines made using the same method but from fruit grown outside of Champagne can be called "classic method" or "traditional method" wines. But they cannot be called Champagne or Champagne-method wines (at least, not in Europe).

Prosecco, which is produced exclusively in northeastern Italy (Veneto and Friuli), is made using what is called the Charmat (shahr-MAH) method, named after the Frenchman who invented it.

In this case, the second fermentation is carried out in large pressurized vats (instead of in bottles). The sparkling wine is then separated from its lees and is bottled.

There is a type of Prosecco called "Prosecco Col Fondo," which is double-fermented in bottle. But unlike traditional-method wines, Prosecco Col Fondo is not disgorged. In other words, the wine is bottled and shipped with the sediment (lees) still in it, hence the name, col fondo or with its sediment.