Being a Sommelier requires us to know the characteristics of specific wines, to decide which wine goes well with which dish, or how to gauge a guest’s needs and wants. However, the job also requires us to know some practical knowledge too. We must be handy with a corkscrew, know how to decant wine properly, know to how carry Magnums or double Magnums, and in some cases knowing several languages helps as well. A more specific and special skill we must also learn is the art of ‘sabrage’, opening a bottle of Champagne or sparkling wine with a saber!
To sabrage or to ‘behead’ a bottle of Champagne does require some special training first, however. After all, Sommelier’s will be taking direct responsibility for the well being of the guest’s bottle. If the champagne explodes, which it can, the Sommelier has to pay for this, and to think that in Kayuputi Restaurant, in St.Regis Bali, our most expensive bottle of Champagne costs more than Rp. 25,000,000.
Where and when did this unique skill first come about? There is no precise answer, but many believe it was around the 1800’s, during which Napolean Bonaparte was the Emperor of France and made his way around Europe conquering the lands. At this time, there was woman by the name of Madame VeuveClicquote who was a maker of Champagne. Napolean’s successes in Europe called for many Champagne-worthy occasions of course, for which they would ask for Madame Veuve’s supplies. Napolean is well-known for declaring, “Champagne, in victory you deserve it, in defeat you need it!”
It is believed that in one victorious occasion, to celebrate a recent success and thank the Madame for her patronage, one of Napolean’s officers took a bottle in one hand and unsheathed his saber in the other, and sliced clear the top of the Champagne bottle.
The sabrage tradition was then ‘revived’ by Madame Astor in the 1950s. Since then, all St. Regis properties around the world conduct a special Celebration of sabrage when the sun goes down, in order to greet the evening with a glass of Champagne.
When one performs a sabrage, many don’t realise that in fact the cork remains ‘unpopped’ and it is the collar of the bottle we are removing – done by sliding the sword up the bottle’s body, up the neck until it hits the collar which comes off. What are some important things to remember when conducting a sabrage? The Champagne bottle should be cold, about 6 degrees or colder, the neck must be clear of its decorative paper and freed from the wire cage and it should not been shaken beforehand. Each Champagne bottle is different however, as each has a different thickness of glass. So, the Sommelier’s stroke must also vary depending on this.
Another factor is the length of the bottleneck, for example many rosés have short necks and can be dangerous to sabrage. The pressure in a Champagne bottle is immense, and if the sabrage is not done properly, it is likely the bottle will explode at its neck, whereby the flying glass may slice a few necks along with it! So, to avoid any unwanted injury, only skilled people should saber the Champagne in front of guests, and even they must be wary of surroundings and distance from others – we never know what can happen. See the picture of myself below, with an exploding bottle in my hand. This sabrage was done just a thousandth of a second too late, whereby the cork had popped out, releasing the bottle’s pressure too early and thus hitting the collar only meant smashing the glass.
A small disaster, but also a little bit of entertainment at the same time; luckily nobody stood too near. The following pictures shows me successfully performing a sabrage. As I always say afterwards, “the most important thing is that the bottle felt no pain”. A clean cut, the perfect ‘beheading’.
I have also done a sabrage with Mangum bottles, which requires a little more practice– my very first one exploded, but the second from a different winery did not. Now, performing a sabrage on sparkling wines can be a little riskier, as often the glass of the bottle is not as high quality as a Champagne bottles’. It is best to perform a sabrage having seen it done in person as well; the Hollywood movies make it look easier than it is…
My last word of advice would be: if you have VIPs with bodyguards in the room, it is perhaps best to inform them before you perform your sabrage. My experience in front of the President of Mexico left her security personnel a little bit on edge!
HaraldWiesmann, Restaurant Manager of the Asian inspired Haute Cuisine Kayuputi and Chief Sommelier at The St. Regis Bali Resort, has a very interesting career history spanning a number of years with different roles in various countries. His 42 years of international experience has led Kayuputi to receive prestigious awards from the Wine Spectator Magazine (USA) for six consecutive years since its opening six and a half years ago.