The Ceremony Of Champagne Sabering

Roberto Viernes
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Wednesday - October 29, 2008
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Rich, clean and bright

Imagine yourself a young soldier in Napoleon’s army. You have just won a hard-fought battle in the vineyards of Champagne and are now filing back to your camp. You are eager for some refreshment. A bottle of Champagne would be wonderful right now. Your cavalry mate hands you one to celebrate your victory. The edge of battle still courses through your veins and pent-up aggression steals your emotions. Forget about unraveling the cage on the darn thing. Holding the bottle with outstretched hand before you to honor your fallen brethren, and as a signal to get the attention of your cohorts, you unsheathe your saber and smoothly decapitate the bottle with a loud “Huzzah!”

That is how I imagine that Sabrage, the practice of using a sword or saber to open a Champagne bottle with great ceremony, happened the first time. Other stories tell of how When Madame Clicquot of Veuve Clicquot, widowed at 27, entertained Napoleon’s officers in her vineyard, and as they rode off with their complimentary bottle of Champagne, they would open it with their saber to impress the rich young widow. Napoleon himself is quoted as saying “Champagne! In victory one deserves it; in defeat one needs it.” However the practice began, it has never disappeared.

In fact, there are associations and confreres that celebrate the show with great ceremony. But the practice is based not only in tradition but physics. The Champagne bottle is not completely uniform and has seams of irregularity in the glass going vertically along the side of the bottle as well as below the lip of the opening. This is where the glass is weakest. And with enough force from a proper instrument on this weak point, the glass will crack, almost like unzipping the seam and the pressure from within the bottle will throw the neck with the cork within soaring. It leaves an amazingly clean and sharp separation with no shards inside the bottle because of all the pressure inside. Here is where I must tell you that one should never perform this practice without training or proper supervision. It can be very dangerous. There have been instances when people have been seriously injured. You don’t want to be called “one eye,” do you?

But I digress.

Lightly sparkling, fruity

I must admit that I never thought I would learn much about it, let alone do it myself, because we do not include the practice in the Court of Master Sommeliers programs. We do not include it in our practices for fine dining service as you do lose a little wine in the process, some pressure in the wine and not to mention the danger of flailing a saber in a restaurant and the projectile. But I recently took a class given by Frank Gonzalez at Kapiolani Community College to familiarize myself with the practice. There is a host of different instruments that can be used to saber a bottle. From the traditional saber to the Japanese Katana, some say that even a butter knife will do. I opted for a Champagne-sabering specific knife made by the famous French cutlery maker Laguiole. It has a fine balance with a smaller handle for easy handling.

I learned it can be safe and definitely a fun and engaging way to open Champagne. Safety is of utmost importance, but fun and camaraderie won the day. I worked up a thirst myself after hacking off the tops of almost half a dozen bottles. We remedied that by sabering a bottle of 1999 Moet et Chandon Dom Perignon to celebrate our victory over the bottles at the end of the day. It’s a long way from being in Napoleon’s army, but we still drank great Champagne.

Outstanding Wines: 2005 Raventos I Blanc l’Hereu Brut ($19) This is an awesome alternative to Champagne, rich and yeasty, clean and bright. If you like sparkling wine, this is something you must try! Hou Hou Shu Sparkling Sake ($13/300ml) This is the Japanese answer to Moscato d’Asti, it is lightly sparkling, fruity with a nice but not overpowering sweetness. It reminds me of peaches and cream - yummy!

Roberto Viernes is a master sommelier. E-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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