It’s a familiar cold-weather dilemma: with the weather too iffy for Napoleonic heavy cavalry exercises, what is one supposed to do with that beautiful single-edged saber received as a stocking stuffer over the holidays? A cheese knife, perhaps? But then how would it rest on the cheese plate? And what’s the etiquette regarding its scabbard—should one remove it beforehand or leave that particular task to one’s cocktail-party guests?
Like I said…quite the dilemma. Then again, there’s always that bottle of champagne chilling in the fridge, waiting to be opened.
It’s called “sabrage” and it’s a centuries-old technique utilizing blunt force to remove a champagne cork, a party trick first popularized by Napoleon’s Hussars (translation: light cavalry) to celebrate their many battlefield victories. As demonstrated in this entertaining video by Alton Brown, sabrage involves sliding the edge of a saber along the body of the bottle until it collides with the annulus (that protruding rim) just below the lip, which, much to the delight of party guests the world over, causes the neck to cleanly separate from the rest of the bottle. Voila!
But enough about opening a champagne bottle, let’s take a closer look at the effervescent liquid that resides within.
As all good restaurateurs know, champagne refers to the sparkling wines produced from grapes grown in the Champagne region of France, wines that also utilize the rigorous Méthode Champenoise, a process involving not one, but two, alcoholic fermentations in the bottle, the second coming after the primary fermentation and bottling. Although each brand of champagne has a proprietary recipe to induce the second fermentation, it’s generally accomplished by adding several grams of yeast and rock sugar. The bottles then must age a minimum of a year and a half, this dictated by France’s Institut national de l'origine et de la qualité (an organization charged with regulating the quality and provenance of French agricultural products), so that the champagne’s unique flavors have enough time to fully develop. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “during this time the champagne bottle is sealed with a crown cap similar to that used on beer bottles” and then, once the aging is complete, “the bottle is manipulated…in a process called remuage, so that the lees [residual yeasts] settle in the neck of the bottle. After chilling the bottles, the neck is frozen, and the cap removed. The pressure in the bottle forces out the ice containing the lees, and the bottle is quickly corked to maintain the carbon dioxide.” Finally, “some syrup (le dosage) is added to maintain the level within the bottle and, importantly, adjust the sweetness of the finished wine.”
As evidenced above, the French take the creation of their champagne very seriously. So too its name—under an 1891 treaty they had the word “champagne” legally protected to encompass only those sparkling wines made with Champagne-region grapes and via the Méthode Champenoise, a protection later reaffirmed in the Treat of Versailles following World War One. Therefore, any champagne made with grapes grown outside the Champagne region is called a “sparkling wine.” Or “Prosecco.” Or “Cava.” Or some such clever alternative. To ignore France’s nomenclature rules is to take one’s life into one’s own hands. We are, after all, talking about a population that has inherited more than a few sabers from their Hussarian forefathers.
Contrary to popular belief, champagne was not invented by Dom Perignon, although the famous Benedictine monk did make made important contributions to its production and quality, among them that champagne should be made from the red Pinot noir grape. According to Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopaedia, the oldest recorded sparkling wine was the Blanquette de Limoux, created in the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire, near Carcassonne, in 1531, this a hundred years before Perignon came on the scene. Yet another blow to the Perignon myth comes from a paper presented at the Royal Society by the English scientist and physician Christopher Merret, his research outlining how the addition of sugar to a finished wine created a second fermentation (and, thus, bubbles), this a good six years before Perignon began his tinkering.
Surprisingly, champagne’s early days found its unique bubbles, so crucial to our modern-day enjoyment, considered a bit of a nuisance. In their book Champagne, Don and Petie Kladstrup note that Dom Perignon originally was charged by his superiors at the Abbey of Hautvillers to get rid of the bubbles since the pressure in the bottles caused many of them to burst in the cellar. As sparkling wine production increased in the early 18th century, cellar workers had to wear a heavy iron mask to prevent injury from spontaneously bursting bottles. The disturbance caused by one bottle exploding could cause a chain reaction, with it being routine for cellars to lose 20–90% of their bottles this way. The mysterious circumstance surrounding the then unknown process of fermentation and carbonic gas caused some critics to call the sparkling creations “The Devil's Wine.”
Of course, champagne is far from sinful, especially when enjoyed in moderation. So saber off a cork and enjoy. Santé!