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Champagne - Title image

by Peter F May

Peter May looks at Champagne and how to use a sabre to open bottles in this article orginally published in Wine and Cuisine magazine.

This month we’re looking at Champagne: what it is, where it comes from, how it’s made, how to open it, when to drink it and with what.


Some people think any sparkling wine is called champagne, but morally - and legally in many countries – that name belongs to traditionally made sparkling wines from one specific area of France. Champage illustration couresy Wine and Cuisine


Champagne is a region of low chalk hills in Northern France, ninety minutes drive north-east of Paris, shaped like a mushroom with the ancient cathedral city of Reims at its northern edge.  Burrowed over centuries into solid chalk under the city are hundred of miles of cellars stacked with millions of Champagne bottles. 


It was wine-making monk Dom Pierre Pérignon, cellar-master at the Abbey of Hautvilliers at the end of the 17th Century, who is credited with inventing Champagne. But that’s a simplification; Champagne wasn’t the result of an overnight flash of inspiration by one person. It was well known that wine in spring often began fermenting again, leaving bubbles in the bottles that didn’t burst. But dead yeast cells made wine cloudy. True Champagne had to wait till the beginning of the 19th Century when stronger bottles and a better understanding of fermentation were available. The major innovation was discovering how to remove dead yeast while keeping the bubbles.


Champagne making has three main stages. Wine is first made in the ordinary way by crushing grapes and fermenting their juice. The second stage adds some sugar and yeast to the bottle before closing it with a crown cap. Yeast converts the sugar to alcohol creating carbon dioxide gas which cannot escape. The third stage is to remove the dead yeast. The bottle is gradually tilted with its base upwards and the bottle is regularly twisted, causing yeast to slide to the neck which is then frozen and the bottle opened. Pressure pushes out an ice-plug containing dead yeast from the bottle which is quickly re-sealed by a Champagne cork secured with a metal cage. Some sweetened wine is added before resealing. The amount of sweetness added determines the type of Champagne, with Brut wines being the driest, followed by Sec, Demi-Sec, and Doux being the sweetest.


Bottles after sabrage, showing how the neck containg the cork shears off after being struck at the rim Champagne is usually made from a blend of three grape varieties: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. Pinot Noir and Meunier are black grapes with clear juice. They are carefully pressed and the dark skins discarded. Each variety contributes something to the finished wine, Pinot Noir giving structure, Meunier richness and Chardonnay elegance. Some Champagnes, labelled Blanc de Noir meaning white from black, are made from just black grapes, and Blanc de Blanc are made just from Chardonnay. Some pink Champagne is made, often created by blending in a little still red wine to give colour.


Most Champagne is non-vintage, which means wines are blended from several years production in order to keep a consistency of flavour. In very good years some wines are released unblended as vintage Champagnes.





Champagne makers have to age their wine before release and they’ll tell you it’s ready to drink immediately. However you’ll find it tastes even better if you can keep it for six months after purchase. Champagne will keep for many years if stored in cool dark surroundings.


Peter May demonstrates sabrageOPENING


The trick to opening a bottle of Champagne is to twist the bottle, not the cork. Champagne should be chilled – put it in a fridge for an hour before opening. There is considerable pressure inside so it is important not to point the bottle at people or items you don’t want broken. Remove the foil over the cork, loosen or remove the wire cage and gripping the cork in one hand slowly twist the bottom of the bottle. The cork should gently ease out with a soft sigh.


A more dramatic method is ‘sabrage’, invented by impatient cavalry officers who used their sabres to slice open bottles. In fact a table knife will do; remove the cage and metal foil. Find the seam along the neck, and holding the bottle with one hand at a slight upward angle slide the knife smoothly up the seam. As it strikes the rim the bottle top enclosing the cork will fly off. 




Use clear tall narrow glasses, known as flutes. Old-fashioned flat coupe glasses have too big a surface area which quickly wastes bubbles, and they’re too shallow for you to fully enjoy seeing millions of tiny stars shooting upwards.




A classic food match is oysters, but Champagne is versatile and there are few foods it won’t match. My guilty pleasure is to open a bottle with fish’n’chips. And Champagne makes an excellent aperitif. Don’t just drink it on special occasions – it’s a great food wine. 

This article was originally published by Wine and Cuisine magazine. Graphic images courtesy of Wine and Cuisine, used with permission. Photographs copyright Peter F May.

Thanks to Moreson Winery in Franschhoek, winemaker Anton Buekes and Marinda Blake for a great day celebrating the tenth anniversary of Moresons first bottling and supplying the sabre and numerous bottles to practise on.

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12 August 2005