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03.14.2006

Champagne: Rated V For Violence

How quickly the world corrupts the most pure of ideals. If there ever was a beverage that could claim divine inspiration it might be Champagne, given to us by the ingenious monk Dom Perignon, who was famously said to mutter in a vision, "bubbles, must have more bubbles."

The chosen drink of the worlds elite, from gangsta rappers to the gorgeous of Hollywood, has come a long way from the monastic cells of Northwestern France. On the journey from one pacifist monk's laboratory to the brushed stainless countertops of LA's hippest clubs, it has gotten mixed up in some pretty violent stuff.

Take for example the practice of christening ships. I'm not sure who thought it would be a good idea to explode these poor bottles, which are made with so much care and time, against the hulls of unappreciative ocean liners as a public spectacle, but I guarantee you it wasn't suggested by a Franciscan friar.

Champagne has always been associated with celebration, seafaring and otherwise, but there's always something just slightly dangerous about it. Naturally, this has led to rampant enthusiasm from the one population that knows what to do with something explosive when it lands in their lap: men.

Even though it has long been a favorite drink among women for its delicate sensibility and aromas, champagne has always been a man's favorite beverage, if only because it is both a drink and a projectile. Opening Champagne has always been a sport for men and boys. One need look no farther for proof of this assertion than the ancient art of sabreing champagne bottles.

For those who may not be familiar with the practice, it involves dramatically removing the top of a champagne bottle with a sharp implement without spilling a drop (instructions below, for the overly excited).

The origins of this practice are shrouded in mystery. Perhaps it's easy to imagine the disappointment felt by some extremely macho continental army general who, faced with his first bottle of bubbly immediately bemoaned the lost opportunity to use his favorite corkscrew. Not content to simply appreciate the ability to open a wine without some metal tool, a task which frustrates many to this day, this gallant oaf decided there had got to be a more dramatic way to do it and took a swing with his longsword one day.

Or perhaps the practice has an even funnier beginning, at the hands of a sabre wielding, stumbling drunk whose friends had only unopened Champagne bottles to defend themselves with. A few drunken swipes, a parry or three, and the whole party froze in amazement as the bottles foamed freely.

Irrespective of its origins, the opening of champagne bottles with scimitars is now seeing a resurgence among wine drinkers. Whether this is because, finally, we are all taking wine a little less seriously, or because there are more beer drinking manly men switching to wine, I'm not sure.

What I am sure of is that no matter how macho it is, it's also damn fun. I really have always loved blowing things up and chopping at things with swords. Thank God, and Dom, for bubbly.


HOW TO OPEN A CHAMPAGNE BOTTLE WITH A SABRE (OR A BUTTER KNIFE).
1. Make sure the bottle is extremely cold.
2. Remove the foil wrap encasing the top of the bottle so that the top of the bottle and at least an inch or two of the bottle's neck are free from paper or foil.
3. Remove the wire cage or at least unfasten it from below the lip of the bottle.
4. Turn the bottle in your hands until you locate the vertical seam running from the base to the lip of the bottle.
5. Note where this seam hits the lip of the bottle (the part that juts out from the neck) -- this is your target.
6. Take a sharp metal implement of your choice, as bad-ass as you wanna be, and hold the blade at about a 20 degree angle from the bottle neck (as if you were whittling a stick).
7. Pointing the bottle away from any person (the top will fly for some ways) scrape your sword up the neck with some force, impacting the place where the seam meets the lip of the bottle.

THE RESULTS
When done successfully, the entire top of the bottle will shear straight off, and the force of the gas from the Champagne will carry away any tiny glass fragments, leaving you to pour the wine. Be aware though that the top of the bottle will be VERY sharp.

THE ADVANCED COURSE
After doing this a few times with a sword or a butter knife, more intrepid and suave folks like me prefer to do this with the base of a (sturdy) champagne flute.

THE DISCLAIMER
In case someone loses an eye, just remember that I didn't recommend doing this, I just wanted to tell you how.

Comments (14)

Iris wrote:
03.15.06 at 2:18 AM

Bravo, Alder, I recognize your workshop exercise of last week - hope they won't put screw-caps on champagner bottles in the future...

Tyler T wrote:
03.15.06 at 8:39 AM

Perhaps you can add to your instructions: 1a. do not shake bottle before hand! I 'sabered' a bottle of bubbly a friend had dropped when removing it from the fridge. The top sheared all the way down to the shoulder of the bottle! It was AWESOME!!

sam wrote:
03.15.06 at 9:21 AM

I have been lucky enough to witness disgorgement by sabre in the Epernay region. Jaw dropping stuff. At the time I was told there were only 13 people left who could do it and that was getting on for 10 years ago.

I have been told by the French themselves that champagne was invented by the English [it surprised me at first], and some research online (who knows whether the internet is to be trusted?) seems to back up the idea. But Mr Perignon keeps getting the credit for it anyway.

Alder wrote:
03.15.06 at 9:28 AM

Sam,

Heh. Yes, you're keeping me honest. Dom Perignon is the symbolic discoverer who gets the credit, but there's really no specific person or place that can be credited with the creation of sparkling wine. Perignon actually did more to advance still wine production than sparkling.

According to the Oxford Companion to Wine, sparkling wine's creation was more of a gradual evolution that took place in many places over time, rather than a single discovery.

03.15.06 at 1:18 PM

Yeah, after that demo by Hugh, I'm totally figuring out a way to practice and get the technique down. Melissa doesn't think the apartment is a good place for some reason. And our friend's backyard might be off limits now that they have a kid. We're thinking the courtyard in our apartment building.

Tana wrote:
03.15.06 at 3:11 PM

What a great, entertaining post, Alder.

Thanks!

Wino Bob wrote:
03.17.06 at 2:13 PM

During Napoleon’s early-1800s, the Hussars (French cavalry) celebrated victory with sabrage, the art of beheading a Champagne bottle with a saber. Rumors abound that the tradition began with the grand widow of bubbly, Madame Clicquot, who gave handsome mounted officers bottles of Veuve Clicquot to protect her vineyards. Inspired by thirst and the recent Reign of Terror, horseback soldiers drew sabers and decapitated their bottles like so many antirevolutionary traitors.

Jack wrote:
03.19.06 at 11:20 AM

Sorry to be the Minority report, but I have seen large formats sabred and then poured into 15 glass high coupes and poured from the top. Silly. Call me stogy, but it seems a little dangerous and dumb since all I really want to do with Champagne is drink it. It is idiots at the road races that spray it afterward that I really hate, use Evian or anything else!

Wine Adventurer wrote:
03.19.06 at 11:29 AM

Thanks, Alder, for bringing up the topic of the origin of sparkling wines (which were originally inadvertant, due to the resumption of fermentation, after the weather got warm again, in wines that not been fully fermented before winter). Here is a great blurb on Dom Perignon's role in the story, from http://www.intowine.com/champagne.html#history :

"For Dom Pérignon and his contemporaries, sparkling wine was not the desired end product. It was a sign of poor wine making. He spent a great deal of time trying to prevent the bubbles, the unstableness of this "mad wine," and the creation of a decidedly white wine the court would prefer to red burgundy. He was not able to prevent the bubbles, but he did develop the art of blending. He not only blended different grapes, but the juice from the same grape grown in different vineyards. Not only did he develop a method to press the black grapes to yield a white juice, he improved clarification techniques to produce a brighter wine than any that had been produced before. To help prevent the exploding bottle problem, he began to use the stronger bottles developed by the English and closing them with Spanish cork instead of the wood and oil-soaked hemp stoppers then in use. Dom Pérignon died in 1715, but in his 47 years as the cellar master at the Abby of Hautvillers, he laid down the basic principles still used in making Champagne today."

Joy Sterling wrote:
03.19.06 at 5:17 PM

Dear Alder, I believe "champagne" was actually "invented" by Cleopatra. I am all alone on this theory, so you may not want to go around quoting me, but I base my hypothosis on the following points:
#1 Bubbly is the ultimate drink of seduction, which is the main reason why I think it highly unlikely that the world had to wait until the 17th century for a blind, celebate monk to "discover" it.
#2 The ancient Egyptians were masters of fermentation.
#3They were sophisticated wine drinkers; archeologists have found vineyard designated wine amphorae in the royal tombs.
#4 Creating bubbles in wine is one of the littlest tricks of nature.All that's required is figuring out how to trap the CO2, a natural by-product of fermentation, forcing it to dissolve into the wine. And, of course, Cleopatra has every ploy at her disposal ... especially when it came to seduction.

The lynchpin of my theory rests on the legend, which I assume is part fact, that Cleopatra made a wager with Marc Anthony that she could entertain him on a level that would be worth the wealth of a nation. She staged a magnificent banquet, which Marc Anthony admitted was fantastic, but certainly not worth the wealth of a nation. So, Cleopatra dropped one of her fabled peals into a chalice of wine, which they both drank as it bubbled over in the cup. He was duly impressed, totally seduced ... which certainly sounds like champagne to me!

Alder wrote:
03.20.06 at 3:35 PM

Wow. I have never heard that theory before. Very interesting.

Philip wrote:
01.08.07 at 12:47 PM

I was told there are societies across the US that gather just to saber champagne.. anyone heard of any? I want in! Just sabered a magnum of 89 Krug for New Years that was out of this world. I don't think Cleopatra had Krug.. but I'm sure she still made it hot!

Alder wrote:
01.08.07 at 1:03 PM

Philip,

I've never heard of any such societies. It is fun though, isn't it?

Dr. Michael Lim wrote:
11.29.07 at 5:24 PM

Yes, 'Sabre a champagne' is very fun to do and spectacular too! I have done this many times. Those who have never done this always ridicule it as a stunt and mock it as very easy to do. This shows their ignorance as it is actually very difficult to perform correctly, and if the angle is incorrect, or the blade is blunt, it simply will not work. Also some bottles seem to be thicker and harder to cut off than others, especially Italian Prosecco bottles. Some wastage of the precious bubbly is inevitable but what the hell, it has become my trademark, so to speak, whenever I give wine dinners, lectures, masterclasses and so forth.
I really enjoy doing it! Zum Wohl!!! {:-)

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