How to sabrage champagne (and 14 other questions our wine experts are always asked)
Wine specialist Charles Foley answers your most pressing queries, from what to look for on a wine label to how to open your best bubbly with a sword
A theatrical party trick, sabrage, or opening a bottle of champagne with a sword, was a technique that supposedly originated with Napoleon’s light cavalry — the Hussars — during the Napoleonic wars. Legend has it that when visiting the vineyards of Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin — whose husband François Clicquot had died in 1805, making her Veuve (widow) Clicquot — young soldiers would strive to impress ‘The Grande Dame of Champagne’. When presented with bottles of champagne as they left for battle, the horsemen opted to open the bottles with their swords, rather than attempt to remove the corks while mounted.
Today, sabrage should only be attempted at ambassadorial receptions next to towers of Ferrero Rocher. In lieu of a sword, the blunt side of a large knife can be used. Once the seam of the bottle is found, remove the foil and tilt the bottle at a 20-degree angle. Run the blade up the seam against the capsule a few times, and then with more force run the blade against the capsule. This should cleanly separate the glass at the neck. A small spray of champagne should be allowed to clear the shards of glass, and then the first glass can be imbibed.
It is sometimes nice to make an effort to set your table for friends and family as the butlers of stately homes of old would have done.
Traditionally, the glasses are placed above the right-hand side cutlery; the water glass directly above the dinner knife and the red-wine glass diagonally above it, in line with the fish or starter knife. The white-wine glass is placed above the soup spoon, diagonally below the red-wine glass. If champagne is served with dessert, the flute is tucked between the water goblet and red-wine glass. If a sherry glass is needed, it should sit below the white-wine glass, to the side of the cutlery.
When the camembert is running and the stilton is beginning to smell, that is the time to reach for a bottle of port. Only vintage port should be decanted, because tawny and late-bottled vintage are oak-matured and the sediment will have settled.
Stand the port upright for 24 hours before decanting. Once decanted, the wine is traditionally passed to the left (it has been suggested that this was because the port side of a boat is on the left, facing the bows). For added drama, port tongs can be used. These should be heated until red-hot and then clamped around the neck of the bottle for two minutes. Remove and put a wet towel on the heated glass. The change in temperature will cause the neck to break clean away.
With a roll-call of biblical names — including Melchior, Balthazar and Nebuchadnezzar — large-format bottles are perfect for big gatherings. The corks are usually the same length as those of regular bottles, but the diameter is much wider. If not properly stored on their sides, the corks in these large bottles dry out fast. Hefting them into a specially designed decanting cradle is the best way to draw the corks on these titans of the wine world.
However, without such a technical contraption it is best to use an 'ah-so' corkscrew. Starting with the longer prong, wiggle the steel between the cork and the bottle and rock it back and forth until the head of the corkscrew is flat to the cork. Twist and gently pull the cork, now firmly grasped between the two prongs. The cork should come out cleanly. You can then gather your friends to help lift and tip the bottle neck towards the nearest decanter.
Take note of the appearance and smell. If the wine is not a bright, fresh colour there is probably a problem, since a tawny-coloured wine will have undergone some oxidative stress. Cloudy wine may indicate some microbial activity and should be avoided. Tiny bubbles indicate an unplanned second fermentation which will turn the wine sour. An off wine will have three types of smell: acetic (vinegar), oxidised (burnt or stale) or reductive (cabbage and rubber). If one of these indicators is present, you should not taste the wine.
When tasting old vintages, some tertiary complexity is expected. The wine is not likely to be as bright and fresh as a recent vintage, but you are looking for evolved, pleasant aromas of mushroom, cigar boxes, smoke, leather or forest floor.
On the rare occasion when there is wine left in a bottle at the end of the night, insert the original cork the opposite way up and store in a cool, dry place. The refrigerator will slow oxidation in the wine for up to three days. Champagnes should be consumed upon opening, because the carbonation will dissipate and leave the champagne flat.
White wine should be consumed within a day or so to prevent crystals forming. Red wine will last two to three days, but should be brought back to room temperature before drinking. Fortified wine will last longer, perhaps a week or so. If the wine is a particularly fine bottle it should be drunk on the day of opening. In extreme circumstances it can be decanted to a smaller bottle, which will slow the pace of oxidation.
Laying wines down for future drinking is a rewarding experience, but requires keeping tabs on your bottles.
Grand cru white burgundy from top domaines can be worth long ageing. German and Alsatian rieslings also have ageing potential, as do wines from top estates in Bordeaux, Napa and the Loire. Classed growth Bordeaux is usually bought en primeur and laid down for future drinking. When young it can be astringent and tannic, but with age it mellows and gains complexity.
Noted wine critics will advise on ageing windows after they have routinely tasted bottles, and their advice can be trusted. Grand cru burgundies have great ageing potential. But since pinot noir, the primary grape grown in Burgundy, is a lighter grape than cabernet sauvignon, the windows are usually smaller than with claret.
Barolo and Barbaresco can have great longevity due to the tannin structure of Nebbiolo. Powerful Napa cabernets, Australian shiraz and Spanish rioja can also be laid down for between three and 20 years. A good rule of thumb is the length of time the wine has matured in oak. Consequently, a Gran Reserva rioja, aged for two years in oak barrels and three years in the bottle, will be best opened long after a crianza, which has been aged for one year in oak barrels.
Lightweight, well-balanced glassware is best used for fine wines. Riedel, Schott-Zwiesel and Zalto are good manufacturers. Light white wines should be served in a glass with a narrower bowl because it preserves the chill and the bouquet. A wider bowl allows the aromas of a red wine to develop in the glass.
Champagne is usually served in flutes to allow the bubbles to show at their best and to last longer, but in order to appreciate the aroma of a champagne a wider-bowled tulip glass is best. When filling the glass, no more than three fingers from the base should be poured, as this best allows you to swirl the wine.
Some old corks do dry out and crumble when pulled, even if the wine has been stored lying down. Try to centre the corkscrew and slowly remove the cork directly from the neck. If the cork breaks and the other half remains in the neck, use a sharpened skewer to try to edge out the remains. If the cork falls in, decant the wine through muslin and serve from a decanter.
Older wines are decanted to separate the sediment from the wine and to allow the wine to gain more vibrancy before serving. Delicate old vintages should be opened only 30 minutes before serving; more robust younger vintages can be opened an hour or so beforehand.
Line a funnel with muslin and insert into a cleaned decanter. Slowly pour the wine into the funnel, being careful not to overpour, and let the sediment or cork escape the bottle.
Champagne and light whites should be served in chilled glasses at between seven and 10 degrees. Heavier, oaked whites can be served at 10 to 13 degrees. Light reds are best served at 14 to 16 degrees, and heavier reds at 16 to 19.
Serve great wine with great food, and humble food with humble wine. The best clarets and burgundies should be saved for special occasions, while simple suppers offer a chance to explore more esoteric wines. Heavy meats need tannic, robust wines such as syrah or cabernet, while lighter game is well supported by a pinot noir or rioja. Fish is best served with white wines, and vegetarian dishes centred on dairy are best matched to complex whites.
Producers in the northern hemisphere harvest in September and October. Winter is a time of pruning and taking stock, so the ideal time is the spring, when the vines are in flower. Visits are best arranged through the estates, which will usually arrange a short tour and tasting.
The vintage determines the quality of the wine, as the climate and terroir are the key indicators of quality. The producer's name is the second most important thing, as a skilled craftsman can deftly turn a good harvest into a wine which transcends many of its neighbours.
From your cellar you should be bringing up 1995 and 1997 bordeaux, 1993 burgundies and 1977 vintage ports. For everyday drinking, look for solid producers from the Rhone, Napa, Australia and Italy, all of which offer a mine of delicious wines for drinking young.