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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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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