Monday, February 4, 2013

Part I -- Origins: The definitive comparison of Champagne, Franciacorta, Prosecco, and Cava

I know. This is a rather presumptuous title. But over the course of the past two years I have penned quite a few posts on the individual regions and wines and I will, in this series, attempt to bring those previous writings together in a way that allows the attainment of the promise of the post title. I begin this series with today's post on the origins of these sparklers. Enjoy (I hope).

The Champagne founding myth has been built around Dom Pérignon, a monk and cellarmaster at the Abbey of Hautvilliers, near the city of Reims, and his apocryphal statement "Come quickly ... I am tasting the stars."  This origin story has been called into question by the facts on the ground. According to Don and Petie Kladstrup, in their seminal work on the history of Champagne (Champagne, Harper 2005), "... most of the wine that Dom Pérignon made was red, not white, and definitely not sparkling." Rather, the good monk thought of bubbles as faults and worked assiduously to get rid of them. Further, according to the authors, an inventory of the Abbey's wines taken two years prior to the Dom's passing shows mostly red wines and some whites.  Finally, the type of bottles that were being utilized at the Abbey were not strong enough to withstand the pressures associated with secondary fermentation in the bottle.

It is more likely that the secondary fermentation process -- the hallmark of Champagne -- was invented by Christopher Merret (1614 - 1695), an English Scientist who is credited with being the first person to deliberately add sugar to wine in order to create bubbles. Merret's experiment is documented in a report to the British Royal Society titled "Some Observations Concerning the Order of Wine" (Maurizio de Rosa, On Wine: Who invented sparkling wine? The Epoch Times, 8/30/11; James Tozer, Pardon Messieurs, but Champagne was a BRITISH invention, claims new research,, 9/26/08). Further adding credibility to this origin story is the fact that Merret also worked on the strengthening of glass bottles (Tozer).  At the time English bottles were stronger because they were blown over coal fires (higher temperatures) while the French were restricted to blowing glass over lower-temperature, charcoal-fueled fires.

Franciacorta's origin does not stretch as far back as does Champagne's.  Enologist Franco Ziliani had been engaged by the Berlucchi estate to help with the stabilization of its wines. While undertaking that effort, Ziliani also sought to convince Guido Berlucchi that the area was well suited to the production of a sparkling wine using the methode champenoise.  Berlucchi gave him the go ahead and, after a number of tries, Ziliani successfully produced his first batch of sparkling wine in 1961.

Cava's history begins with the experimental work of Luis Justo Villanueva while he was attached to the Institut Agricola Catalé de Sant Isidro, work that was built on by Francesco Gil and Domingo Sobrano de Reus when they made sparkling wine to be displayed at the 186l Exposition in Paris (Cava, the Spanish sparkling wine made by the Champagne method,  It should be noted that all these early tests utilized Champagne varieties as the source material. In 1872, the first bottles of Cava using the second-fermentation-in-bottle method were made in the town of of Sant Sadurni which eventually became the Cava capital of Spain.  Phylloxera-induced replantings in the late1880s led to the supplanting of the Champagne varieties with the varieties utilized today and the distinctive nature of the wine vis a vis Champagne.

Historical records show a knowledge of Prosecco that stretches back to Roman times; there is some speculation that it may have even been the vinum pucinum praised by Pliny the Elder (,;  The Prosecco that was drunk 150 years ago was, based on the production method, slightly fizzy and sweet. Grapes were pressed and fermentation initiated but winter would kill the yeast and halt fermentation prior to completion.  This partially fermented wine was bottled and, in the spring, would evidence trapped carbon dioxide (probably the result of refermentation initiated by dormant yeast cells). The writing was on the wall for this style of Prosecco with the opening of the Carpené Malvoti winery in 1868 and its practice of making Prosecco in large tanks, implementation of a proto-Charmat method of sparkling wine production.

According to, Maumèné was the fiirst person to consider speeding up the process by fermenting sparkling wine in large containers rather than in bottles.  In 1852 he built a machine called the "afroforo" in which he tested this proposition. Once the sediment had settled out, the wine was siphoned off and bottled.  This application, while demonstrating the workability of the process, was not considered commercially feasible.  The former Director of the Enological Experimentation Institute of Asti, Federico Martinotti, was the next person to move the ball down the field.  In 1895 he patented the use of an autoclave -- a pressurized metal container -- for fermentation of the grape juice.  This advancement served to industrialize the process but did not improve its market acceptability.  Instead it was the improvements -- including the use of lined steel autoclaves -- of Eugene Charmat, a Frenchman, which finally made the Charmat method a commercial success.


The classic method, as implemented in the production of Champagne, is clearly the oldest of the sparkling wine production methods and its success has been a catalyst for the efforts of other regions.  Based on the data presented, it was approximately 200 years after the introduction of Champagne before the commercial efforts at modern sparkling wines were undertaken in the Cava and Prosecco initiatives.  Prosecco and Cava development activities were co-incident.  While the consensus is that it is more economical to produce sparkling wines using the Charmat method, three of the four sparkling wines described herein, opt for the traditional method.

My next post will cover the regulatory history of these regions.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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